Reformist Priest Refused Permission to Speak to Toronto-area Educators on Catholic Property. He’s Now Speaking at Sheridan College.

By Leslie Scrivener
Toronto Star
April 8, 2013

Father Michael Crosby.

As Catholics around the world wait to see if Pope Francis ushers in a new era of openness, the local archdiocese has been accused of stifling free speech.

Rev. Michael Crosby, a reformist American priest who supports women’s equality and critiques church governance, was set to address a conference for Catholic educators in April.

Crosby was approved to speak at the Canadian Forum on Theology and Education, but the Archdiocese of Toronto’s chancellor for spiritual affairs pulled the plug in February. The event has now been moved to Sheridan College in the Archdiocese of Hamilton.

Forum organizer John Quinn, a retired religion teacher, says the Toronto archdiocese is “suppressing healthy dialogue.”

In turning down Crosby, the archdiocese has “blackballed” both the speaker and the forum, he says.

“There’s no discussion, there’s no thinking, and you’re talking about the best theologically educated, scripturally sophisticated Catholic laity ever.”

Despite these criticisms, Quinn remains hopeful that things will change as Francis’ papacy unfolds.

During the papal conclave at which he was elected, Pope Francis called on the church to be less self-absorbed and to look outward, it was recently revealed. Some have interpreted his early comments as a critique, the beginning of a campaign to change the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican.

“He’s been a pastor,” says Quinn. “He’s had to relate with regular people and, from everything I have read, he listens. Once you listen, you’re open to change.”

It’s not uncommon for Catholic clergy, laypeople and theologians to be denied platforms in Catholic institutions if their ideas do not conform to prescribed teaching — a practice some see as being at odds with societal values of free speech and open dialogue.

The annual Toronto forum, which has brought mainstream speakers and those critical of church structure to the city for 30 years, usually draws about 100 educators. It was to be held at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.

However, many Catholic institutions, including school boards, do not want to be seen to be complicit with speakers who stray from church teaching or practice; nor do they want to cross swords with local bishops, says Mark McGowan, history professor and co-ordinator of the University of Toronto’s Book & Media Studies program.

At the same time, the Toronto archdiocese is perfectly within its right to restrict what is said or who meets on church property, he says. But in Canada, where freedom of speech is a given, prohibiting dissent “is not effective,” McGowan says. “And perhaps even gives greater attention to the dissenter.”

While “censorship, historically, has never really worked for the church,” McGowan says, there are several examples.

In 2011, the Archdiocese of Ottawa cancelled talks by priests from a Mexican human-rights centre, saying the centre supported abortion rights. Last year, Anna Maria College in Massachusetts, under pressure from a local bishop, cancelled a commencement address by Victoria Kennedy, the widow of U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, who supports gay and abortion rights. (She spoke at a later event.)

There have also been cases of openly gay graduates of Catholic schools being “disinvited” from speaking at end-of-year events.

Sydney bishop emeritus Geoffrey Robinson was also not allowed to speak on Catholic property in Toronto. Robinson chaired an Australian bishops’ committee investigating clergy sex abuse, was transformed by the testimony from victims, wrote a book about it and in 2008 went on a lecture tour. “It was an experience that changed me in so many ways that, even if I wanted to, I could not now go back to being the person I was before,” he wrote.

Invited by the New Catholic Times online magazine (which has since folded) Robinson ended up giving his lecture at Emmanuel College, a theological college of the United Church of Canada.

A series of letters and emails between the archdiocese, Crosby and Quinn do not clearly explain why Crosby was not allowed to speak in the archdiocese.

In a Feb. 26 letter, Rev. Ivan Camilleri, chancellor of spiritual affairs, wrote to Crosby saying only that he “found it necessary to require that the . . . conference not take place in the Archdiocese of Toronto.”

In another email dated Feb. 26, Camilleri’s executive assistant, Matthew Sanders, said the problem was Crosby’s topic.

Sanders cited an online description of the conference, “signs of crisis” in the Catholic Church, including the sex abuse scandal, women’s ordination, celibacy, married clergy and questions about authority. The themes were “too similar in nature and spirit” to those addressed by a Detroit priests’ forum known as “Elephants in the Living Room,” which called for open discussion of controversial issues in the church.

(Quinn had earlier tried to organize a similar group in Toronto, without success.)

When the Star asked the archdiocese about the cancellation, communications manager Bill Steinburg said, “While we have guidelines in place, each request is examined as it is presented. For someone to officially represent the church (as a priest does), the presenter’s message must be consistent with the norms of the church, which are clearly spelled out.”

Crosby, 73, is a theologian, educated at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, and a Capuchin Franciscan, an order founded by St. Francis of Assisi, the namesake of the new Pope.

He lives in Milwaukee at a friary that ministers to the poor and imprisoned, and gets about 50 invitations a year to speak, often giving four or more talks at each venue. Invitations have been rescinded a half dozen times a year. “As a result, no dialogue.”

Many of his 17 books are about reform and renewal, use of power in the church and the need for church theology to address contemporary realities, among them, restrictions on women’s full participation in the church. “To say that it is ‘God’s will that women not be ordained’ belies the nature of the God that has created women and men equally,” he says.

“If you can’t have a discussion about the basic issues, you don’t have a viable organization. It’s locked in to perspectives that can never adapt to change or be further nuanced.”








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