Speaking Notes of Archbishop V. James Weisgerber - 32nd Meeting of the Bishops of the Church in Amer

Wednesday, 15 February 2006
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With reference to no. 46 of Ecclesia in America, what is the pastoral response of each of the three regions of America to the challenges faced by the family?


The personality of tomorrow’s women and men is formed in their family of origin. This is where they learn the fundamental values that will guide their choices later in life, and influence their involvement in society. This is also where they discover that their faith must penetrate all aspects of their daily lives.

For these reasons, and Archbishop O’Brien mentioned it this morning, it seems urgent to devote renewed efforts to the evangelization of the family, life’s first school; to multiply pastoral initiatives capable of helping the family discover the greatness and dignity that God himself gave to it.

Allow me to dream for a moment about a true Domestic Church. Let’s imagine a Christian family whose parents pass down to their children the certainty that God loves them madly and wants them to be His collaborators; that He needs them in order to build a world that is fairer, more loving and more human; that He is calling them to be saints and apostles.

Let us imagine that these young people understand that God is calling them to be co-creators with Him – through their openness to life and in their daily work – and co-redeemers with Him – thanks to their life which is offered up day by day, in joy as in sorrow.

Take a moment to imagine the moral strength and the joy of these parents and their children, conscious of God’s constant presence at their sides, a God so human that they can talk to Him at any time, under any circumstances. What power with which to confront life’s difficulties! This is the outcome that the Catholic Church in Canada desires from the development of a true family culture inspired by God’s plan.

As you may now understand, our pastoral work is carried out in a society in which there is an ongoing distancing from our Judeo-Christian roots – a rupture that has thrown us into moral relativism. In certain areas of the country, we can run into the same challenges that the first Christians faced. We need to bring about a radical transformation of the current mentality; to open up a philosophical and anthropological reflection on human beings, marriage and family.

A positive approach

This morning, Archbishop O’Brien demonstrated how the family, the basic unit of all society, is feeling repercussions from the events and phenomena that are shaping the life of our country. In Canada, as we have seen, there is no shortage of attacks against the family and marriage. 

Despite everything, it seems vital that we, as pastors of the Catholic Church in Canada, take an optimistic approach to all questions concerning the family. The Christian message about the family is definitely “good news” for society! It remains for us to convince a population that is generally overstressed and without time to stop and reflect upon what is essential.

We believe that a positive and constructive attitude will have more success in attracting public and government attention to the beauty of the Christian message about families than a negative or judgmental attitude. Our experience confirms this intuition.

Choosing optimism has nothing to do with naivety or unawareness about the demanding realities that today’s families face. On the contrary, we are fully aware of current events and on the lookout for all potentially favourable or unfavourable events concerning families.

Unfortunately, for many families, either because of their busy schedules or preoccupations with their own concerns, there appears to be little or no interest in the evolution of the socio-political milieu in which they are living.

This lack of awareness and indifference of many of the baptized faithful is very worrisome and we must hope for the necessary awakening of these life forces in Canadian society. Passiveness and silence should not be options. 

The essential role of the laity 

We are therefore directing pastoral action on two fronts: that of the pastoral leaders of the Church, and that of the laity. Faced with social challenges, it seems important to not only make gestures and speeches as bishops, but also to encourage members of the Church who are present in all sections of society to accept their responsibility in this whole picture by their concrete actions and timely words, as inspired by their Gospel values.

We are touching upon an urgent pastoral situation, clearly identified by Vatican II nearly four decades ago: the integral formation of the laity. This call is being heard even more loudly in Canada in light of the new evangelization. It is time for us to recall the powerful teachings of Vatican II concerning the role of lay people in the world.

While devoting themselves to the raising of their children, it is urgent that parents develop a greater awareness of their social responsibility and become salt of the earth and light of the world. It is critical that they become far more aware of the impact that laws adopted by governments and ideologies promoted by lobby groups will have on their own family and on their children’s families. 

We hope that such awareness — linked to the discovery of their baptismal call to transform the world from their own milieu — will awaken a new desire among married lay people: the desire to act by becoming directly involved in social debates about questions touching on life, marriage and family; the will to reclaim social policies and promote initiatives that benefit families, and oppose ones that threaten their fundamental rights.

This is not an easy task. Members of the Church who choose to resist the secularizing forces that are at work in our very secular society are sooner or later confronted with the hostility of those who have decided that religion should be confined to the private lives of believers. There is even discrimination towards the faithful who try to promote projects and policies inspired by their Gospel values, or who simply want to live their professional lives in coherence with the Christian message. 

Promoting parenthood

Reaffirming marriage and parenthood – I would even say the “profession” of being a parent – is an urgent necessity in Canada. It seems necessary to us to link these two realities in our pastoral message, in order to remind future generations that, “according to the plan of God, marriage is the foundation of the wider community of the family, since the very institution of marriage and conjugal love are ordained to the procreation and education of children, in whom they find their crowning”1

In our society with its individualistic values, we must help young people to discover the joy of giving life and watching it grow; the joy of forgetting oneself in order to serve the other with love. A very real joy, despite the unavoidable challenges of daily life. We must introduce them to a wholesome version of sexuality, and we must help them understand how important it is for a parent to be present with growing children.

Women and men are both fully equal and very different. Their natural complementarity and mutuality bring specific, yet different gifts to their relationship. We must be clear that the father and the mother are co-responsible for the children’s upbringing. In Canada, what we call the “paternity crisis” affects a great number of families. A book by a psychologist entitled Absent Fathers, Lost Sons goes into great detail on this subject.

In fact, studies have shown that the ideal family environment for a child to mature emotionally is one in which both the mother and father are present. One cannot replace the other, and it is by the example of both parents and through witnessing the dynamics of their relationship that children learn, bit by bit, about their sexual identity and who they are as individuals. 

It doesn’t matter whether or not both parents choose to work outside the home, or if one parent decides to devote him or herself to raising the children. What does matter is that we must reassert the value of being present in a child’s daily life and upbringing. It is a child’s right.

The unpaid work of parenting is of great value. It is fundamental to forming responsible, autonomous, hard-working citizens who are respectful of the sacred nature of life and the dignity of others, compassionate and generous with themselves and their time.

Reasserting the value of parenting is not only the Church’s job, but the job of the family, the schools and the State. Everyone has a role to play. For its part, the Catholic Church in Canada certainly intends to continue to play a pastoral role in inviting each of the faithful to become more and more aware of their individual responsibilities.

The awareness campaign must spread into different levels of government. Parents are the first ones responsible for raising their children, on a human as well as a religious level, and it is essential that their rights be respected by government officials who define school programs. The school must play a subsidiary role by supporting parents who wish to transmit their Christian values. However, this is not always the case, and certain schools promote values that are contrary to those in the gospel.

Promoting Marriage

As we reaffirm the value of parenting, we must at the same time reaffirm the value of marriage. Marriage must now be urgently promoted on a human level as well as a religious one. 

It also seems essential that the Church continue to offer, with some improvements, marriage preparation that will allow the future spouses to deepen their conjugal, social and religious understanding of marriage. If they choose to ask for the sacrament of marriage, we owe it to them to help them discover its greatness and also its requirements.

Couples shouldn’t come to church simply to celebrate their union in a beautiful setting or for tradition’s sake. They should come because they want to build their marriage in Christ’s presence, certain that, thanks to Him, they can always count on an abundance of love, especially in the more difficult moments of their life together.

There is no doubt that it is also necessary to create more opportunities for married couples to get support; places where solid friendships will be born and where couples can find a listening ear and a material or spiritual boost if they feel the need.

A Preferential Option for the Family

Canadian families must therefore be evangelized in order for them to evangelize in turn. In order to make Christ available to as many of our contemporaries as possible we must find a new language, one that includes witnessing and the use of multimedia.

Because the well-being of a society depends on the well-being of its most basic unit, it is vital that we foster a “preferential option for the family”, particularly in light of the numerous threats to Canadian families.

Already, across the country, individuals, Christian communities, dioceses and Episcopal conferences are devoting important amounts of energy to promoting and defending families. Let me give you the following examples:

The Ontario Bishops have just organized “Marriage on the Rock”, a whole week of ecumenical activities and celebrations aimed at helping the faithful understand the greatness of marriage. 

Numerous bishops have invited the baptized to contact their Member of Parliament in order to share their opinion about the possible redefinition of marriage to include same-sex partners. 

In the National Capital Region, another example shows how much Catholics care about families. In early February, a parish offered an entire day of reflection and sharing about the art of parenting teens.

Finally, I will mention a pastoral project developed by a Montreal mother and directed at families with children under the age of five. La P’tite Pasto aims to provide a clear context to awaken the little ones’ faith, and it is having astonishing results on the evangelization of whole families – families that are often far from the Church.

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF)

The main pastoral initiative of the Canadian bishops to help deal with the challenges facing the family was the creation, in 1996, of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF). This joint project of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and of the Knights of Columbus has as its goal to build the civilization of love in Canada. 

There are three objectives:

  • first, to promote the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning respect for life, and the inherent value and dignity of the human person;
  • second, to support and reinforce the fundamental role of the family in society;
  • and third, to spread the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning the natural regulation of fertility.

Unlike an Episcopal Commission, whose members must be bishops by definition, COLF has a unique character in the sense that its Board of Directors is primarily made up of laypeople, most of whom have experience with marriage and family life; baptized individuals who are rich in practical experience that allows them to understand from within the various situations experienced by married couples and families. They are also specialists in many fields including ethics, education, theology, business, and health care. The staff have formation in the law and media. 

Therefore, COLF participates in the development of pastoral initiatives for our Conference concerning respect for life and the promotion of the role of families. The organization also tries to develop links between dioceses and organizations that are involved in similar issues.

COLF: Involvement in the Public Square

A quick overview of the activities of the organization over the last few years gives a clearer idea of COLF’s role. Clearly, COLF pays close attention to current events, because most of them affect family life in one way or another. Sooner or later, judicial and governmental decisions will have a concrete effect on the daily lives of millions of men, women and children.

This is why COLF speaks publicly and intervenes time and time again with public authorities about the multitude of bills and government or judicial decisions related to life and the family. This is why letters, commentaries and memoranda are sent on a regular basis to the Prime Minister, the Ministers of Health and Justice, Cabinet members, and members of Senate Committees.

Sometimes the messages are congratulatory and meant to encourage, and sometimes they sound the alarm or oppose the impact of one bill or another. Many different issues have attracted COLF’s attention since it was founded. These are only a few of them: clinical trials of the abortion pill RU486 and the appearance of the morning-after pill in Canadian pharmacies; child pornography; organ and tissue donation; embryonic stem cell research; the financing of private abortion clinics; and palliative care.

Two important files have attracted a lot of attention over the last few years: a bill on assisted human reproduction and a bill trying to redefine marriage to include same-sex partners. Both directly affect the family. 

COLF developed and presented to Parliamentary Committees two position papers on the proposed legislation on assisted human reproduction. They also collaborated in the writing and presentation of two briefs on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. These are precious opportunities for dialogue with our elected officials. 

In defense of marriage

The other major file that is currently occupying the CCCB and much of COLF’s time and energy is marriage. As Archbishop O’Brien explained to you this morning, the efforts of homosexual lobby groups have borne fruit in Canadian society. The federal government seems decided to legislate a redefinition of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples, in response to court decisions that consider the traditional definition of marriage unconstitutional. 

In response to the 2001 Report of the Law Commission of Canada on the recognition and support of adult personal relationships, COLF published a booklet that became very popular. Called In Love for Life, this document is a reflection on the social, religious and conjugal meaning of marriage. It includes questions for discussion and reflection and is a good resource and reflection tool. 

This booklet was sent to all of the members of the House of Commons and the Senate with a letter from the president of COLF explaining our point of view about marriage and our profound disagreement with the report recommending the elimination of any distinction between marriage and other types of personal relationships among adults. In this letter, we underlined how important it is for the State to protect and support marriage. We received interesting responses from certain Members of Parliament. 

However, this did not stop the government from moving forward and announcing its intention to redefine marriage. In close collaboration with COLF, the CCCB prepared a memorandum that it presented to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on February 13, 2003. In this case as well, the bishop who presented the memorandum was accompanied by a married laywoman who is a member of COLF’s Board of Directors. It was important to us to use this occasion to demonstrate the close collaboration that exists in the Canadian Church between the bishops and the married faithful.

At the same time, four background documents developed by COLF were posted on its web site and that of the CCCB in order to help Catholics become involved in the public debate on marriage. They dealt with the Catholic Church’s teachings and public statements about marriage, Canadian marriage law, recent statistics concerning marriage and other unions and certain frequently asked questions about same-sex marriage. Suggestions for elements to be included in a letter to the Minister of Justice or a Member of Parliament were also prepared.

On September 10, 2003, in the wake of the Court of Appeal decisions in British Columbia and Ontario, the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and widespread non-stop media coverage, the CCCB issued a pastoral letter. It is divide into two parts, the first part dealing with marriage as a human institution and the second part dealing with marriage in the light of faith and the Catholic tradition. 

The first part of the pastoral letter attempts to answer some of the principle challenges to our position that same-sex partners should be excluded from marriage. 

1. In response to the accusation that the Church is supporting discrimination, we said that it is not discriminatory to treat different realities differently. Other documents have also made it clear that distinguishing between marriage and other relationships is not based on a belief that individuals in one type of relationship are more worthy of respect than others. 

2. In response to the expectation that there be some response to adults in relationships other than marriage, we said “Since the very beginnings of this debate, we have acknowledged there is a desire to give formal protection to other forms of adult personal relationships which also involve commitment, mutual care, and emotional and financial interdependence. We remain convinced solutions can be found without proceeding to a radical redefinition of marriage.”

3. In response to the assertion that the proposed legislation deals only with civil marriage and that religious officials will still be entitled to perform marriages, we said that we are not just participating in this debate because we are concerned about our freedom to celebrate the sacrament. We are also in it because marriage benefits the common good which we are all called to promote.

4. In response to questions about the interplay between faith and politics and the role of Catholic politicians we said that the Catholic Church does not draw a rigid line between faith and life but expects its members to incarnate their faith in everyday life. “Whatever the issue, be it politics, the economy, military intervention or marriage, one should assume that most politicians will bring their fundamental values to the discussion and form their consciences accordingly. What the Church asks of Catholic politicians, and indeed of every Catholic, is to develop their conscience through prayer, meditation, careful reading of Scripture and respectful listening to the teaching of the Church, in order to heed that ‘objective moral law, which as the natural law written on the human heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself’.

Far from taking away the freedom of the Catholic politician, the Church recognizes it, putting the personal responsibility on the individual politician to discern on the basis of a well-formed conscience the best possible way to achieve the common good. All politicians are first and foremost accountable to their conscience, and then to their constituents.”

As Archbishop O’Brien mentioned this morning, the CCCB will be appearing in the reference in the Supreme Court of Canada to defend the traditional definition of marriage. Since 1997, we have intervened in the Supreme Court of Canada eight times on issues concerning the unborn child, euthanasia, vicarious liability, freedom of religion and the patentability of higher life forms. It is still a new and infrequent experience for us but it is part of the new evangelization which calls for “new ardour, methods and expression”. This is particularly true in Canada where the decisions of the Supreme Court on major social questions are setting the ethical tone of our society. It is important for the Church to be there when possible. 

Three weeks ago, a new 12 page brochure called Marriage Matters was published by COLF. It responds to the 12 most frequently asked questions about the possibility of redefining marriage to include same-sex partners. 

Here are some examples:

  • What is marriage?
  • What is the purpose of marriage?
  • If people of the same sex love each other, why can’t they get married?
  • What difference does it make to traditionally married couples if same-sex couples are allowed to marry?
  • If marriage is beneficial to children, how can it be denied to same-sex partners who already have or plan to have children?
  • How can the Church, which claims to love and welcome all, support what the courts have described as discrimination?
  • Why does the civil definition of marriage matter to the Church as long as it can celebrate the sacrament according to its teaching?

Presented as an essential document for anyone who wants to have an informed opinion on the subject and as a starting point for discussions among family and friends, this brochure has created an unexpected interest in parishes and dioceses that have ordered hundreds and thousands of copies at a time.

Following the publication of a short article by the news agency Zenit, the news spread around the world and the reaction was immediate. The fax machine and e-mail are still humming! Orders are coming in from the five continents. This confirms the interest in this subject from around the world, and clearly demonstrates that marriage between a man and a woman is a universal norm recognized in all countries, cultures and religions.

We are already into a second printing of this brochure. One of the goals of the brochure is to take up the challenge that the Government’s projects offer to the Catholic Church in Canada. 

Other initiatives for life and family

COLF has published 11 brochures on various themes since April 1997, some of which address the challenges identified yesterday by Archbishop O’Brien: a natural approach to fertility, organ and tissue donation and transplants, the gift of life, the miracle of each child’s birth, family prayer, solidarity among families – especially with single-parent families, a summary of the encyclical Evangelium Vitae and a summary of the apostolic exhortationEcclesia in America.

Each spring, for the International Day of the Family, COLF publishes a message of one sort or another on aspects of family life. There have also been messages on the occasion of the International Year of the Elderly, World Youth Day 2002 and the 35th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, as well as a booklet of workshops on the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. All of these documents are available on COLF’s web site (http://colf.cccb.ca). 

More than a million copies of COLF’s brochures have been distributed to Canadian and several American dioceses. We have realized that the format and design of these documents written for the general public are as important as their content because the appearance of the document attracts people’s initial attention.

As in the United States, a March for Life is held each year in Ottawa – though on a much smaller scale – and COLF uses this occasion to communicate other messages to the Canadian public. Last May, it was a reflection on the fact that life is the only real choice when faced with pregnancy.

Thanks to its national network of diocesan contact people, COLF can ensure the distribution of documents relevant to the questions of life and family. The organization also has ties to the Catholic Women’s League of Canada, the State Deputies of the Knights of Columbus, members of the Table provinciale de pastorale familiale in Quebec, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Catholic Health Association of Canada and other groups. COLF also evangelizes by sending Members of Parliament an ever-increasing number of documents relevant to life and families. 

Since the spring of 1999, COLF has been organizing an annual seminar on biotechnology. Its goal is to promote a network of specialists in ethics, science, philosophy, theology, sociology and law, and encourage them to meet and discuss related current events. Their contribution allows us to better understand the implications and issues behind these complex and delicate questions, so that we can take a more informed stand and therefore contribute more effectively to the public debate.

From the very beginning, these specialists expressed both fear and hope about scientific advancements in biotechnology. They all are convinced of the need for more education in these areas. Once again, the family is directly concerned.

Seminars have been held on the following subjects:

  • reproductive technologies and genetics
  • the human genome project and the status of human embryos
  • therapeutic cloning, stem cell research and what is to be done with embryos that remain after infertility treatments
  • designer babies and pre-implantation screening
  • stem cell therapy
  • patenting higher life forms and Xenotransplantation

The next seminar will be held on March 19 and 20, 2004. The subject is the issue of decisions to artificially hydrate and feed the dying, and the exact determination of the moment of death; an important debate at a time when different levels of government in Canada are facing an aging population and the rapid rise of health care costs. In Canada, as elsewhere, euthanasia is regularly debated in the media and will soon concern a growing number of families.

Family: keystone of the new evangelization 

Thirty-nine years after the final meeting of the Second Vatican Council, we feel that the family is the keystone of the new evangelization that is needed in our society, a society which is too often allergic to religious discussion. It is in Christian families that will be born the collaborators Christ is looking for in order to entrust them with the continuation of His mission. It is in families that they will discover the personal vocation to which the Lord is calling them. 

If the Catholic family in Canada becomes the school of prayer that it is supposed to be, young people will learn to talk to God and be open to His daily calls. They will become aware of their own role in the Church and in society. They will also discover coherence; that their faith informs their life and that there is no separation between their faith and their life. Did Vatican II not say that the “split between the faith… and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age”? 

Confronted with a growing lack of priests, the Church in Canada is calling on the very necessary collaboration of numerous lay people to ensure catechism and pastoral services in Christian communities – a role that lay people must play even when there are enough priests available. In this context, however, it seems essential to remind the faithful – and particularly parents raising young children – of the specific role of lay people in the Church.

The Council Fathers clearly affirmed the apostolic mission of laypeople, “in the social milieu, that is, the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others. In this area the laity can exercise the apostolate of like toward like. It is here that they complement the testimony of life with the testimony of the word. It is here where they work or practice their profession or study or reside or spend their leisure time or have their companionship that they are more capable of helping their brethren.”2 

It goes without saying that if the young baptized members of the Church grow up aware of their responsibility in the world, they will each act in their chosen field, like yeast in the bread, and we will see a progressive re-christianization of Canadian society – a society that is thirsty for meaning and hope.

1John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation «Familiaris consortio», no. 14. 
2Second Vatican Council, Decree «Apostolicam actuositatem», no. 13.