"It is...Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." -- Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24 (1914)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Contrasting Two Bishops: Remi de Roo and Adam Exner

Contrasting two B.C. Catholic dioceses – De Roo and Exner

March 3, 2011.

{This backgrounder on retired Vancouver Island Bishop Remi de Roo links to a March 3, 2011 posting on a new book about him, titled The ‘Vindication of Remi de Roo.}

A tale of two dioceses
The Vancouver Sun ARCHIVES
Saturday, August 2, 1997
Page: E1 / FRONT
Byline: Douglas Todd

              Bishop Remi de Roo                                  Archbishop Adam Exner, OMI

Vancouver Archbishop Adam Exner is “a very intelligent, well-read, personal friend,” says Victoria Bishop Remi De Roo. But the longest-serving bishop in English-speaking Canada cannot resist adding, with a puckish smile on his lean, lined face, that Exner is “also inclined a little bit to be black and white.”

Like all bishops, De Roo and Exner, both Prairie-born farmboys, choose their words carefully. But De Roo, who has made an international name for himself as an advocate of social justice, is not meek. Speaking of Exner, a dedicated crusader against abortion, De Roo says: “You need not always agree with someone to respect someone.”

The Roman Catholic diocese of Victoria is known as the most radical and avant garde in Canada — an adventurous offspring of the emerging freedoms of the Vatican II Council; for putting much energy into advancing the role of women, denouncing oppression and encouraging what some Catholics think is too much diversity of ideas.

Bishop Remi de Roo and musician David Haas

On the other side of Georgia Strait, meanwhile, Vancouver has long been ranked among the most traditional of the dioceses overseeing Canada’s 13 million Catholics. Vancouver is seen as a dutiful servant of doctrinally strict Pope John Paul II, known for its lack of dissension and for rigorously enforcing Catholic bans on such things as abortion and homosexual activity.

Archbishop Adam Exner and Sister Mary Barbara Collins

This is a tale of the two dioceses.

Comparing Catholic dioceses is not applauded within the church. To do it in public is judged rude at best, disobedient at worst. More than 10 usually talkative Catholics, both liberals and conservatives, declined to go on the record, or say anything on the topic.

Exner, who is usually comfortable with the media, refused to cooperate for this article. His chancellor, Greg Smith, said Exner believes comparing the two dioceses “would serve no useful purpose.” As archbishop, Exner functions as the top Catholic in B.C., but does not have direct authority over De Roo or other bishops, who answer to Rome.

Even De Roo, who has taken part in hundreds of interviews, grew wary when asked to make explicit comparisons. “I think I’ll leave that up to you,” he said, although he was ready to explain his approach to leadership and issues.

In the 35 years De Roo has been the bishop for Vancouver Island, the relationship between the neighboring dioceses has been more testy than De Roo suggests it is now. From 1931 to 1964, Vancouver was run by archbishop William Duke, whom De Roo says “was known as the Iron Duke.” Duke practised the heavy-handed brand of leadership common to his era.

After a brief stint with Martin Johnson as Vancouver’s head Catholic, James Carney ruled as archbishop for 21 years until his death in 1990. De Roo believes Carney “was born and bred in the same environment” as Duke. When it’s suggested that Carney seemed to distrust the media, De Roo says, “I’m not sure he trusted anybody.”

Paul Burns, who retired from the active Catholic priesthood to teach religious studies at the University of B.C., says Carney, who was congenial in private, once confessed to him that he regretted that too many Catholics seemed to be drawn to his “dark side; his authoritarian side.”

Since Exner arrived in Vancouver in 1991, he has cautiously tried to put a slightly more human face on a diocese that has long felt a chill on free expression. Burns joins many observers in saying Exner, who describes himself as middle-of-the-road, has probably inherited many reactionary priests he would not have chosen himself.

Off the record, some Catholics say there has been a long practice in Vancouver of ultra-orthodox Catholics turning in church officials who appear to question the status quo. North Vancouver Catholic layman Pat Bell says any priest with threatening views is soon shoved out of the diocese. Yet Bell says Exner is more liberal than Carney; it would be impossible not to be.

Unlike Carney, Exner is as highly educated as De Roo. Exner has a PhD in moral philosophy; De Roo has a PhD in theology. Exner can speak six languages; De Roo can speak eight, has five honorary university degrees and four books to his name.

Both Exner and De Roo have worked among B.C.’s native Indians and sympathize with some of their causes. Both are outgoing. Exner, for example, plays accordion, and De Roo practises the psycho-spiritual techniques of the Enneagram. Exner is 68; De Roo is 73 (two years from mandatory retirement).

The gap between the two remains wide, however. It may explain why some Catholics in Vancouver have been unwilling to tolerate De Roo. In 1992, The B.C. Catholic newspaper refused to run ads for De Roo’s book, In The Eye of the Catholic Storm.

“[De Roo's] book gives a constant impression of undermining the church,” said Father Vincent Hawkswell, long-time editor of the official Catholic newspaper, which Exner oversees (there is no independent Catholic newspaper in Vancouver). Although Hawkswell said he had not consulted with Exner on the ad ban, Hawkswell insisted: “I have no qualms in saying the book is not worth reading.”

The differences between the dioceses are not usually revealed in such publicly blatant acts of confrontation, however.

Although observers believe Exner is more likely, in private, to toe the Vatican line on doctrine, De Roo also says he “refuses to play the dissident” for over-eager journalists or malcontents.

Any bishop knows that expressing bald disagreement with central Catholic teaching would require his resignation. As well, De Roo believes everything he does and says fits, in some way, with Catholic tradition, which, unlike many, he considers “flexible.”

The points of divergence between 35 years of De Roo in Victoria and 35 years of Duke, Johnson, Carney and now Exner in Vancouver can be found in their leadership styles — and in particular issues which each diocese has chosen to emphasize.


De Roo’s career can be characterized by his life-long devotion to social and economic justice.

De Roo made arguably his biggest impact in Canada when he chaired the social affairs commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued a 1983 report that infuriated then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

It declared chronic unemployment “a moral crisis” and said it, not inflation, was the economic catastrophe of the day. When Canada’s unemployment rate was just two points higher than today’s nine percent, De Roo criticized political and business leaders for spreading “propaganda” that high numbers of unemployed were unavoidable.

“That’s what we said then, and it’s all come true,” De Roo says. “Only it’s gotten worse.”

De Roo, who follows the Bible’s prophetic tradition of criticizing those in power, will tell anyone who will listen that society is headed for destruction because of unemployment, free-trade ideology, corporate greed and a widening chasm between rich and poor.

De Roo also emphasizes the Vatican’s often-overlooked endorsement of labor unions. That stood him in stark contrast to Carney, whose most contentious act, arguably, was closing down Marian Catholic high school in 1988 when its teachers tried to organize a union.

Carney also refrained during the 1980s from signing statements by De Roo and other top B.C. church leaders protesting the Social Credit government’s approach to the poor and unemployed.

While Burns says De Roo’s eventual dismissal as head of the bishops’ social affairs commission was a sign that he was too left-wing for Canada’s English-speaking bishops (though not the more progressive French-Canadians bishops), De Roo disagrees.

De Roo points to a statement issued by the current social affairs commission before this June’s federal election. He says it’s perfectly in line with what he’s been saying for years. The statement asked Catholics to vote for politicians who are dedicated to the common good, including protecting the poor, the environment and ensuring fair wages.

While Exner has occasionally made comments on behalf of the poor and unemployed, Burns says Exner has not taken stands on international economic justice. Instead, Exner has put much of his passion into personal moral issues.

Even before he came to Vancouver from bishoprics at Winnipeg and Kamloops, Exner had made a national name launching several anti-abortion marches. Exner continues to champion anti-abortion prayers and protests in Vancouver, which Burns says has appeared to give support to the Catholic right-wing.

On the other hand, De Roo, who makes a point of expanding his “pro-life” philosophy to include opposition to not only abortion, but capital punishment and war, has subtly criticized militant anti-abortionists as insensitive to women struggling with unwanted pregnancies.


The striking contrast between the leadership styles of De Roo and his Vancouver counterparts may be just as revealing as their divergent approaches to specific topics of contention.

The reaction of De Roo and Exner to Catholics of Vision offers insights to the two dioceses’ characters. The headline-grabbing reform group is rattling the church this year by sending around a petition calling for married Catholic priests, female priests, elected bishops and greater freedom of thought.

“I advise you and exhort you not to cooperate with `Catholics of Vision,’ ” Exner told Catholics in a statement. “As Catholics we cannot support it. I see their petition as an expression of dissent and protest.” He went on to decry any attempt to “democratize” the Catholic church.

While Exner was one of many Canadian bishops trying to ostracize Catholics of Vision, De Roo has let it roll. He has allowed the Catholics of Vision statement to be discussed in full. The Vancouver Island Catholic News, which De Roo never censors, became the only Catholic newspaper in the country to run the full text of the Catholics of Vision statement, says staff member Pat Jamieson.

“Over the years Remi has spoken in favor of all the points made by Catholics of Vision,” Jamieson says. Like many island Catholics, Jamieson raves about how De Roo has instituted a long-term discussion forum, called a synod.

The synod is a startling notion to many in the Catholic church because it invites the entire community to offer ideas on how the church should be run. At the recent five-year anniversary of the first synod, De Roo proudly says he received more than 1,000 suggestions for improvements from parishioners.

While De Roo agrees with Exner that the church is not a political democracy, neither should it be a monarchy, he says. He refers to the church as a “sacramental people.” That means, he says, the church is called to follow the form of community of the early Christians – who met in a circle, considered each other equals and engaged in self-criticism.

“Every member of the church is equal in dignity and class,” De Roo says. “The only class is the class of Jesus.”

De Roo says he respects those who disagree with him. If a priest breaches Catholic discipline, De Roo says he will be told about it and expected to rectify it himself.

“I like to deal with people as adults, and respect their freedom within the limits of tradition, which I think is flexible,” De Roo says. “The church is a mysterious body moving through history; it will be here in 2,000 years. But that doesn’t mean we don’t criticize. The Pope has powerful influence, but the church is not a monolith. Popes can declare doctrines all they want. But the critical test of a doctrine is that the people receive it. ”


The physical design of the central offices of the two dioceses seems to suggest their divergent ways of being.

The Victoria headquarters is in a new, airy building overlooking a Swan Lake, an urban forest and distant mountains. Wearing Birkenstock sandals, cardigan and grey woolen pants, De Roo showed how he had the staff room located in the best part of the building, where workers get a stunning view. This reflects De Roo’s belief that workers deserve dignity.

Meanwhile, the head office of the Vancouver archdiocese is in an old brick building downtown . The diocese isn’t wasting money on renovations at 150 Robson, but the building has a slightly gloomy atmosphere. The lobby to Exner’s office is formal and plain, with dark brown walls and the subtle smell of his cigarette smoke.

Diverging styles are also reflected in the prominence De Roo gives women in the church. While the Vancouver archdiocese struggled until recently, for example, over whether to allow altar girls (the Vatican has just clarified they are permissible), altar girls have been commonplace on Vancouver Island for more than 20 years.

Exner has posted women to some key committees, Burns says. But women do not serve mass at Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral, he says.

De Roo, on the other hand, has busily advanced the role of women since he began in 1962. He allows females (and male lay members) to perform almost every duty and sacrament usually reserved for priests.

University of Victoria Catholic chaplain Kate Fagan, 27, says she performs weddings and baptisms, preaches, presides at mass and counsels people (which comes close to hearing confession). The only thing Fagan leaves up to priests is consecration of the bread and wine.

Fagan, who was raised in the Vancouver diocese, says some Vancouver Catholics are frightened by the power De Roo allows women. “Remi teaches you have to decide whether you’re going to act from love or from fear. Victoria is refreshing because there’s no fear here. To some Catholics in Vancouver, he’s a terrible rebel bishop. But there are other Catholics who just drool when they hear about what he does.”

De Roo, for example, was the driving force behind the creation of the ecumenical, no-theological-holds barred Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria. Director Harold Coward, a prominent Canadian religious scholar, said De Roo “is a visionary and a catalyst to make things happen. And he doesn’t get in the way of his vision by trying to control it.”

De Roo’s life has been transformed by another thing that many conservative Christians worry can get out of control: the Enneagram. The B.C. Catholic refuses to runs ads promoting Enneagram workshops, which some conservative Christians consider occult, or at least New Age.

The Enneagram, in which De Roo has become a certified trainer, is based on a personality-type system said to be rooted in mystical Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was largely introduced to North America by Jesuits. Through the Enneagram, De Roo has discovered he’s a “perfectionist.” He often feels guilty when he takes it easy — “and deep down there’s a little anger.” He’s trying to loosen up. “I’m allowing myself to be humanly imperfect, rather than perfectly inhuman,” he says.

Asked about Christian resistance to the Enneagram, De Roo acts as if he can no longer waste his time fretting over such things. “Most people,” he says, “don’t really want to know who they are.”

De Roo’s openness to fresh ways of exploring spirituality can partly be linked to how he is the only active bishop in English-speaking Canada who took part in Vatican Council II.

Many Catholics consider Vatican Council II, which met over three ye
ars in the early 1960s, the most significant religious event since the 16th-century Reformation. It was a dramatic effort to try to make the church’s hierarchical structure more flexible and open to differing views.

“I was appointed in the euphoria of that ecumenical movement,” De Roo says. He insists he is not disappointed that Vatican II has not yet been fully realized under Pope John Paul. “I’m just realistic. There was bound to be a counter-reaction. It’s sometimes said it takes 100 years for a council to be lived.”

One wonders if he’s thinking of Exner when he again says: “Some people are obsessed by yesterday’s certainty. Some people want it all black and white.”


Yet, despite discordance, De Roo and Exner have struggled together, on similar wavelengths, through some complex moral and social issues.

The native decor throughout De Roo’s office and home hints at his long history of action on native Indian causes. He has stood with native chiefs on Parliament Hill. De Roo, along with Exner, signed a statement two years ago supporting the creation of land treaties with natives.

And despite, or perhaps because of, his radical reputation, De Roo has publicly expressed more reservations than Exner about how native are trying to achieve their political goals. To De Roo, justice for natives definitely needs to be seen in shades of grey.

Exner — who became highly sensitized to abuse issues because he led a national Catholic panel to combat priestly sex transgressions — publicly apologized, with all the sincerity he could muster, for the abuse of teenage female residential-school students by former Prince George bishop Hubert O’Connor.

But De Roo, who has been offering O’Connor pastoral support in Duncan, has taken a tougher line. He says he’s disturbed many natives have capitalized on sexual abuse at church-run residential schools to blame all their problems on Christianity and the federal government. De Roo criticizes native leaders who playing up cases of sex abuse in the defunct residential school system “to the hilt.” Some native leaders, De Roo charges, are promoting a “victim” identity for natives to further their land claims.

Similarly, despite his progressive tag, De Roo sees moral ambiguities in legislation passed in July by the B.C. government that gives same-sex partners full legal rights as “spouses.” With Exner organizing an all-out push to stop the legislation, De Roo signed a joint statement by B.C.’s Catholic bishops, which said that calling same-sex partners “spouses” undermines “the sacredness and indispensible social role of marriage and the family.”

But both De Roo and Exner insist they continue to believe in full rights for homosexuals. And De Roo softened the blow of the joint statement further by issuing his own conciliatory letter to the homosexual community, suggesting its goals could be furthered by conversation with Catholics and by being sensitive to the church’s traditional heterosexual understanding of “spouse.”

The differences between the two dioceses grows similarly murky on other awkward points of sexual ethics.

While Carney’s office often reiterated the Catholic church’s stand against artificial birth control, sex outside marriage, homosexual activity and masturbation, Exner has not made a display of publicly re-emphasizing Vatican opposition to these hot-button issues, which polls show most Canadian Catholics don’t accept.

A Catholic does not become or remain a bishop through recklessness. Like corporate managers and politicians, like anyone running a powerful, multi-faceted organization, bishops know how to balance interests by providing indirect answers to blunt questions. Their true beliefs often lie as much in what they don’t say, as in what they say.

When De Roo is asked his views on such things as sex outside marriage and artificial contraception, he tends to say, “Catholic teaching is very clear” on them. Asked if he personally accepts such Catholic restrictions on sex, De Roo responds that many people are caught in the culture of individualism and instant gratification, which leads them to become addicted to easy sex, as well as drugs, alcohol, food, sports, TV or movies.

But De Roo opens the window for some value other than the rule of law to decide such sensitive matters when he adds: “My pastoral concern is for the spiritual well-being of the total human person. There are three key things in the gospel tradition: We have to pursue truth as we know it, we have to love one another, we have to practice compassion. Those are the gospel fundamentals. They don’t change.”

Exner is more prudent than his audacious Victoria counterpart. But Exner — who likes to remind people that he is often criticized for being both too liberal and too conservative — also appears more human-centred than his predecessors, and committed to forgiveness. If Exner had allowed himself to be interviewed for this article, it’s easy to believe he would not have disagreed with his colleague across the water that love, in the end, is ultimate.

What is a bishop?

Role and responsibilities of the office:

– The chief authority in his diocese for explaining the faith, shepherding the flock, performing blessings and ordaining priests.

– Is selected by the Pope and answers to the Pope (usually through the Pope’s national representative), but is ultimately considered a vicar of Jesus Christ himself.

– A member of the college of bishops, which exercises supreme authority in the church when it acts under the direction of the pope. The college includes:

– six active bishops in B.C.

– more than 70 active bishops in Canada — several thousand bishops around the world.

The House of Bishops is responsible for almost one billion Roman Catholics.

– HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism


Archdiocese of Vancouver

– Has about 340,000 self-described Roman Catholics, according to census figures. Geographically, it includes Greater Vancouver as it stretches from Hope to Powell River.

Diocese of Victoria

Has about 90,000 self-described Catholics. Geographically, the diocese includes all of Vancouver Island.

In Canada, polls suggest about one-third of Catholics are active, one-third are marginally involved and one-third have cut ties.)

Bishop Remi de Roo and ex-priest Gregory Baum

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