Remi De Roo: Vatican II’s last great champion

Remi de RooThe last time most Canadians heard from Remi De Roo, it was in a carefully worded letter of apology vetted by his lawyer. In June 2000, the year after his retirement as bishop of Victoria, De Roo was publicly lambasted for having approved the purchase of Arabian show horses and then a parcel of land in Washington State—investments that were bleeding the diocese dry. In his public mea culpa, he said he had approved certain transactions having “mistakenly believed that there was no significant risk to Diocese assets and that there was substantial equity” in the ill-fated “Lacey land deal,” as it was known. With this admission, De Roo took the fall, “like any responsible captain of a ship,” as he later put it, regardless of his actual culpability.

Subsequent revelations, a court judgment, and a Globe and Mailinvestigation in 2005 would ultimately exonerate De Roo and redistribute the blame. But the damage was done. To the delight of reactionary right-wingers in the diocese, who had always resented the outspoken bishop’s advocacy of Vatican II causes, one of the most celebrated progressive voices of Roman Catholicism in this country was unceremoniously booted off his pedestal. De Roo spent the first five years of his retirement being trashed in the media as a bumbling leftist incompetent; a fiscal know-nothing who, in keeping with popular neo-con mythology, could no better balance a chequebook than an NDP government could balance a budget.

When De Roo retreated from the headlines after the official apology and said nothing more of the scandal, many assumed that his silence was self-imposed. Those enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at his expense imagined he was hiding in shame, licking his wounds in solitude, perhaps even praying that God would forgive his fiscal sins and allow him a merciful exit from this life. In fact, De Roo was only buttoning his lip on his lawyer’s advice—which he had taken with some ambivalence. Far from withering away, he was rebuilding his life in Nanaimo. Today, the eighty-nine-year-old is recovering from a broken hip after a bad fall. But until this recent accident, he continued to lead local prayer groups when he wasn’t traveling the world to promote Vatican II. In Chronicles of a Vatican II Bishop, he looks back on his life and urges a fresh re-reading of the Council. He also breaks his silence on “Laceygate.”

For an atheist, it is no easy task to argue for the continuing relevance of the Roman Catholic Church. But as a lapsed Catholic, I also know that a case can be made in the work of someone like Remi De Roo—a religious figure whose mission was to relate the gospels to the world we live in and build community by reaching out, rather than dividing people. Best known as a leading spokesperson for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the author of books like Cries of Victims, Voice of God, and first chair of British Columbia’s Human Rights Commission, De Roo devoted his episcopate to the now heretical idea that the Church belongs to all of its members—not just the hierarchy—and that lay people deserve a prominent voice in it.

His capacity for connecting with other faiths, as well as the non-believing secular world, was unique in the Catholic hierarchy. For all his abhorrence of conflict, he was a frequent source of controversy because of his support for female ordination, married priests, and a more empowered laity. All of this was a by-product of his experience at Vatican II, a career-defining event that crystallized his theology at a young age, formed the basis of his ecumenical outlook and provided a moral compass for what turned out to be a thirty-six-year episcopate. During this period, his record in the public sphere was that of a net contributor; someone whose engagement with civic discourse and antennae for the zeitgeist sees few, if any, parallels in today’s Catholic bishopric in this country.


Full disclosure: De Roo happens to be the same bishop who presided over my own confirmation ceremony thirty-six years ago. Not surprisingly, my most enduring memory of him is from that Sunday morning in the late spring of 1976, when he confirmed my two sisters and me as Roman Catholics in our hometown parish of St. Peter’s. For a twelve-year-old boy in the cultural backwater that was Nanaimo in the mid-1970s, De Roo was a “celebrity” in a way that prominent politicians and entertainment figures were celebrities. Our parents spoke of him with an admiration bordering on reverence, and his influence touched all of our lives. So there were butterflies in my stomach that day, as my sisters and I made our way up the centre aisle at St. Peter’s, to be met at the altar by Bishop Remi in his brilliant white chasuble with a mitre towering above his head, his vestments gleaming as he stood before a packed congregation. He seemed almost God-like in his eminence.

As I grew older, De Roo would become more human, less God-like. Thanks to lived experience and gradual disillusionment with the Church under Pope John Paul II, my bishop’s return to earth coincided with the withering away of my own belief in God. And yet, while faith and the Church lost all of their sparkling gravitas, De Roo never lost his. Over the years, when I encountered him as an adult, the qualities I had observed growing up—the quiet grace and humility, the formidable intellect, the earnest commitment to human rights, the reluctance to judge others—were still there. These qualities shine through in Chronicles, which retains a sense of wonder about the human condition while being generous to a fault with its author’s many critics and theological opponents.

De Roo’s account of Vatican II begins with a recollection of his first exposure to the Council in Rome. As a freshly minted bishop (then the youngest in the world, at thirty-eight), he was awestruck on entering St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time and joining the rest of the planet’s bishops for what was to become one of the most important gatherings in Roman Catholic history:

With my youthful impressions that a bishop was the equivalent of a prince, I was literally overwhelmed by the Catholic Episcopate in its entirety…. In their Episcopal regalia, with the brilliant lighting flooding the immense Basilica, they looked like a gathering of the saints in the antechamber to heaven.

Of all the consular documents, he says, Gaudium et Spes (“Joys and Hopes”), the track on the Church in the modern world, had the biggest impact. “Vatican II concerned itself with the full spectrum of Catholic life and simultaneously reached out to the entire world. Hence I see doctrine as embracing the totality of the human,” he writes. Gaudium et Spes“presents Jesus Christ as the model or prototype of the New Human. This is broader and more substantial than doctrinal precision. Our hearts and bodies are included, as well as our minds. Vatican II offered us invaluable guidance to prepare us for the new millennium we have just entered.”

As a participant at Vatican II, De Roo worked hard to live up to his billing as the “Benjamin of Canadian bishops” (Pope John XXIII’s affectionate reference to the young Manitoban, likening him to the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons in the Old Testament, from the Hebrew translation of “Benjamin” as “Favourite Son”). At the Council, De Roo made four major oral interventions (on the laity, conjugal love, clergy, and the Church in the modern world) and 15 written intercessions before the Council adjourned. For the conjugal love submission (included in Chronicles as an appendix), he didn’t just rely on scriptural or theological texts for source material; he also spent several months consulting with married couples. By including their comments in the submission, the young bishop showed he was serious about treating lay Catholics as “partners in mission.”


In devoting nearly a third of this brief memoir to a moment in Church history that lasted only three years during the 1960s, De Roo might be dismissed by some as a Vatican II nostalgist. But that would be a mistake. Sixties nostalgia tends to be steeped in pop cultural ephemera, a longing for simpler times, or devotion to particular ideas long since abandoned by the baby boomers who inspired them. The problem with painting Vatican II in this light is that there’s nothing concrete to be “nostalgic” about: what the high-minded ideals of the consular documents really amount to is a set of principles that have yet to see the light of day. Apart from dispensing with the Latin mass (even that was back on the table under Pope Benedict), introducing the folk music liturgy, and bringing in several other housekeeping changes, the Church did very little to bring Vatican II into effect.

For example, it left unanswered the essential question the Council raised: how should Roman Catholicism adapt to the modern world? This question was ultimately abandoned by Popes Paul VI (who lacked the courage to confront women’s reproductive health), John Paul II (a traditionalist worshipper of the Virgin Mary), and Benedict XVI (for whom the modern world itself was the problem).

It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis has the vision to address the issue. Had the bishops defied Rome and applied Vatican II to their respective dioceses over the decades, there may have been a different Roman Catholic evolution on issues like birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and married or female priests—and different results regarding clerical child sex abuse and the Church’s response to it.

De Roo makes no reference to the abuse scandals in Chronicles. Given the odds of seeing another memoir from him, it is a disappointing omission. Regardless of his own record on the issue (there have been no substantial complaints brought forward about his handling of tainted priests on the Island), the book might have benefited from his thoughts on mandatory celibacy, or the extent to which married priests, female ordination, and a more engaged laity from the mid-1960s onward might have prevented some of the worst excesses. But this memoir is clearly focused on the best impulses of the faithful, not on the dark side. Its author was unlikely to go there.

As for those “best impulses,” De Roo can be rightfully proud of his work in the Victoria diocese over the years. His impressive track record of Vatican II-like progress had social impact outside the Church, going well beyond the internal, “faith-building” mandate of his ecclesial assignment as a Catholic prelate. Diocesan initiatives whose influence spread beyond the Island included:

  • Initiation of the Social Justice Office and Commission, and Development and Peace, a Global South aid organization begun by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in response to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio;
  • Refugee sponsorship enabled by a master agreement with the Federal government and the CCCB;
  • Establishment of the Laren House Society, a non-profit organization working with the criminal justice system to help convicted criminals make a successful transition to a responsible life in the community;
  • Project North, a national ecumenical aboriginal support program inspired by the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Moratorium hearings in the 70s;
  • Support of the L’Arche Movement, inspired by the work of Jean Vanier, which involves living with and for the severely mentally handicapped (as well as sister organizations Faith and Sharing, a retreat movement for the disabled and their caregivers, and Faith and Light, a support network for families of the disabled);
  • A revised mandate for St. Vincent de Paul Society, which shifted some of its focus to support for the increasing numbers of street kids;
  • The Provincial Council for the Family and Capital Family Services, both promoted by the diocese, resulting from ecumenical efforts by De Roo and other local church leaders in consultation with NDP Premier Dave Barrett;
  • Diocesan support for the local Persons With AIDS Society and its clients.


During the early 1980s, De Roo and his episcopal colleagues at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops began calling for an end to the neo-liberal economic agenda that was fast taking hold in the Western developed nations. In January 1983, the CCCB released “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis.” This paper, which rejected the popular assumption that inflation was to blame for the recession of the day, called for economic policies that recognize “that the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich; that the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits; that the participation of marginalized groups takes precedence over the preservation of a system that excludes them.” The bishops accused the Canadian establishment of turning their backs on social justice, allowing “survival of the fittest” to become the economy’s governing principle.

“Ethical Reflections” landed like a rotten tomato in the faces of Canada’s political and business elites. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau objected to the juxtaposition of morality and the economy, while the country’s CEOs lined up to eviscerate the CCCB. Few were more bilious in their attacks than media baron Conrad Black, who famously dismissed De Roo as a “publicity crazed mountebank.” What the future convicted kleptocrat and master of the adjective objected to most was that De Roo and his colleagues had had the temerity to weigh in on a debate that, in his mind, had already been won. Black ridiculed the bishops for meddling in economics—of which, in his view, they knew nothing—and urged them to stick to ecclesiastical issues, which apparently did not include the distribution of wealth.

For many Canadians—not just Roman Catholics—“Ethical Reflections” breathed fresh life into Vatican II. Economics was exactly what De Roo and his colleagues should have been talking about, and the bishops’ intervention in Canadian economic discourse for reasons of social justice gave renewed relevance to the Church. It made Roman Catholicism seem like a religion whose contemporary social justice agenda might begin to compensate for its many historic injustices. Sadly, “Ethical Reflections” would turn out to be more of a last gasp than a sign of things to come. In the years that followed, conventional Roman Catholic wisdom would evolve into something far more to Conrad Black’s liking, while voices like De Roo’s would become increasingly marginalized.

By 1986, a right-wing backlash to Vatican II was picking up steam. Pope John Paul II had sat on St. Peter’s throne for eight years; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had been the Vatican’s enforcer of orthodoxy for five. Between them, these two men had halted the momentum of Vatican II by placing ultimate authority in Church hierarchy and declaring the final word on birth control, abortion, sexuality, and the priesthood. As De Roo himself implies in Chronicles, with revealing passages about John Paul II’s intransigence on women priests and the future Pope Benedict calling De Roo on the carpet like an “errant schoolboy,” there would be no progress as long as the dinosaurs were in charge.

And yet, despite all this, De Roo in Chronicles describes the five-year diocesan synod (1986-91) as one of the most significant achievements of his career, representing “the culmination” of his episcopacy and his “happiest moments as a bishop.” This synod, which canvassed Vancouver Island Catholics for their views on a range of issues related to their faith, unfolded at the local level just as the Vatican was beginning to bully its global flock into mass obedience. An open-ended discussion that invited all manner of progressive ideas, the synod was held as if Vatican II had never adjourned. After five years, it produced 400 decisions on a wide range of issues, from the need for federal legislation allowing citizens to direct the military portion of their taxes to peaceful purposes (in solidarity with Seattle archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who in 1982 had withheld half of his income tax to protest the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the Trident missile program), to the need for compassionate dialogue on sexual orientation.

De Roo speaks glowingly of this period in Chronicles. He says little, however, about the simmering counteroffensive from Rome that was bound to derail such progress, engulfing even his own progressive diocese. On February 24, 1999, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five, De Roo learned just how eagerly Rome had anticipated this milestone. Most retiring bishops stay on for a year or two after their seventy-fifth birthdays, while a successor is found. Ultimately, it is the pope’s decision when to accept a bishop’s resignation. John Paul II not only accepted De Roo’s immediately but also had appointed a successor six months earlier. The shocking decline in De Roo’s public esteem within months of his departure suggests that the knives had been out for some time before his retirement, and that opponents had been lying in wait for any opportunity to discredit him.

Those seeking a full account of “Laceygate” will find it in Patrick Jamieson’s The ‘Vindication’ of Remi De Roo: Political Sea-change in the Catholic Church (2010). In this book-length investigation, the editor ofIsland Catholic News reveals a twisted tale of theological rivalry and political one-upmanship in which the old regime is blamed by the new for financial problems the latter only exacerbated. In Chronicles, De Roo addresses the whole sorry episode for the first time. His financial advisor Muriel Clemenger had, he said, “successfully negotiated a number of real estate purchases for the diocese. I trusted her and approved the purchase of the Lacey Lands. She told me all I had to do was sign a mortgage guarantee and that all would be well. In hindsight, I realized how credulous I had been in accepting that information at face value.”

Because the land did not sell as quickly as anticipated, interest costs began to accumulate rapidly just as De Roo was retiring. With the new bishop retaining neither Clemenger nor the lawyer who handled the Lacey deal, the investment became the subject of litigation within months of De Roo’s departure. “The diocese defaulted on payment through a decision made by my successor,” he writes. “I was held responsible. The litigations were ultimately resolved in favour of the diocese, but not until very serious allegations were made and high costs were incurred.” Apart from his heart-wrenching forgiveness of Clemenger, whose written apology to him shortly before her death he includes in Chronicles, De Roo does not say a great deal more on the subject.

He might have had harsh words for his successor, Raymond Roussin, who first approved the decision to default on the interest payments and then, in a panic, decided to pay off the mortgage holders by raising $13 million in debentures from parishioners. He could also have slagged Roussin’s advisors, who had falsely accused De Roo of financial mismanagement. He might even have wagged a disapproving finger at members of the media, who didn’t dig far enough to find out that, when De Roo retired in 1999, the Victoria diocese was in sound enough financial shape to meet its mortgage payments on the Lacey land deal. But he chose to take the high road, instead.

If De Roo has any residual feelings about those who undermined him during the “Laceygate” scandal, they are likely feelings of sadness for his two successors in Victoria. By 2004, as the diocesan debt continued to mount, Roussin was re-appointed after only five years on the job and named archbishop of Vancouver. But that appointment also lasted only five years: wracked with depression, Roussin retired from church ministry. “One day in 2005, I woke up trembling,” he told Vancouver Sunreligion reporter Douglas Todd, two years before packing it in for good in 2009. “I started crying and didn’t know why. I couldn’t get out of bed. I dreaded coming through this door.” Could part of Roussin’s depression have been rooted in a crisis of conscience (aka “Catholic guilt”) over his handling of the financial crisis and his failure to speak up for De Roo, his erstwhile mentor, during the media feeding frenzy? Only he could say for sure.

As for Roussin’s replacement in Victoria, Richard Gagnon, the former Vicar General of Vancouver diocese made it clear that the new sheriff in town was no fan of Vatican II or its champions. One of Gagnon’s first moves as Bishop of Victoria in 2005 was an ill-fated attempt to recover losses on the Lacey deal by suing former diocesan lawyer Kevin Doyle, a pro-Vatican II Catholic. In 2006 Gagnon ordered Mike Favero, the parish priest at Holy Cross in Victoria, to fire parish administrator John Oetter because of parish gossip that Oetter was gay. When Favero refused on both legal and ethical grounds, Gagnon removed him from the parish and put him on leave. In 2007, Gagnon scrapped the soup kitchen ministry at St. Peter’s in Nanaimo after the newly imported eastern European priest complained that the soup kitchen was attracting the “wrong type” of people. And in 2008, Gagnon wrote a letter forbidding all clergy from supporting events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s announcement of Vatican II. This led to the cancellation of a program in Parksville where De Roo was scheduled to speak.

A year later, Gagnon was among the attendees at a party celebrating De Roo’s eighty-fifth birthday. Word soon spread that a rapprochement had been reached: a “reconciliation” ceremony at St. Andrew’s Cathedral was planned for May 31, 2009. The ceremony, to be presided over by De Roo and Gagnon as co-celebrants, would have been a poignant moment. Turning the page once and for all on a sad chapter in diocesan history, it would have provided closure and healing for everyone involved. But it was not to be: the event was “postponed” at the last minute with no explanation, and was never rescheduled. True to form, De Roo does not mention any of this in Chronicles. Like so many other disappointments he had experienced since Vatican II, he privately shrugged off the slight and moved on, always keeping his eye on the prize.

“A world consciousness is becoming more manifest in local spheres,” he concludes in Chronicles. “Some people claim these are the worst of times. Others maintain they are the best of times. From a pastoral perspective, I remind us all that these are the only times. We are called to action now!”

Whether or not you share De Roo’s faith in Vatican II’s potential to transform Roman Catholicism, it’s hard not to admire the integrity with which the former bishop has pursued this goal for more than half a century. De Roo’s perspective is a refreshing departure from the hot air that’s been blowing out of Rome for far too long. Pope Francis could do worse than invite him to the Vatican for a fresh hearing on his ideas.

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