Catholic Charities and Truth

Agencies that promote works of charity on behalf of the Church should be particularly keen on putting Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) into practice – with courage and without reservation. The British Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) welcomed it instead by highlighting climate change and ignoring the human ecology – issues of life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations, natural death – so threatened today by “the moral tenor of society,” which Benedict plainly asserts is the “decisive issue.”

That politicized and self-serving reaction glosses over what is at the heart of the encyclical: only conformity to truth – defending moral and ethical positions unpopular in elite circles – can safeguard authentic charity and foster “integral human development.”

Infidelity to the truth renders “development” work illusory – no matter how vehemently influential governmental agencies or fabulously wealthy donors, whose loveless (i.e. safe-sex, population control) initiatives resemble misanthropy more so than philanthropy, insist otherwise.

CAFOD’s unbalanced vision provides a glimpse into the prevailing mentality at mainstream Catholic charitable agencies in the western world today. They demonstrate a propensity to “think with the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia) only when that coincides with current fashions. But “courage isn’t needed” for that, Benedict recently noted, “because one can always be sure of public applause. What takes courage is adhering to the faith of the Church, even if it contradicts the ‘scheme’ of the contemporary world.” Ditching veritas with the rationalization that it cannot be “imposed” on others since “we live in a pluralistic society” is merely a flotation device that enables them to swim with the tide.

It might be expecting a bit much for, say, members of an Obama bioethics council – or others gainfully employed in the pursuit of an utilitarian utopia promised by our ongoing biotechnical revolution and proposed health care reform – to consider the merits of the encyclical with good will when many Catholic charitable organizations cannot be counted on to deliver as advertised.

Catholic Charities USA, for example, has been mobilizing in favor of Obama’s ominously nebulous health care bill (urging their members to voice support to their representatives “in the next 24 hours”) despite obvious concerns about its implications for the non-negotiables of abortion and euthanasia, and other major drawbacks. The fact that Congressmen would be exempt from any health care restrictions to be imposed on vulnerable citizens fails to meet elementary standards of justice – which Catholic Charities is ordinarily quick to champion. The prospect of health care rationing, which Princeton “ethicist” Peter Singer (on record for supporting infanticide) endorsed in the New York Times, only makes reckless enthusiasm for any old reform – and now! – more unseemly. Is the glamour of an advocacy role that irresistible?

Conveniently, Catholic Charities USA just landed a $100 million contract for natural disaster work from the Department of Health and Human Services. We may never know if there was or was not some sort of quid pro quo, but anyone who has read Brian Anderson’s masterful essay How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul would know that Catholic Charities long ago abandoned confidence in the capacity of moral truth to transform individual lives, only to co-opt the “value-free worldview that has made most government-run poverty efforts a hindrance rather than a help to the poor.” Although the $100 million infusion is being reported as its first contract, Anderson points out that by 2000, 65 percent of Catholic Charities’ annual budget already came from the government.

The Canadian Catholic Organization of Development & Peace, to cite another egregious example, has actually been funding local partners in Latin America involved in abortions. The Peruvian Bishops, frustrated that “the money of Catholic Canadians” which could otherwise greatly benefit their nation, “goes to organizations that explicitly fight against what the Church teaches,” had to intervene directly to put an end to the practice.

Solidarity, evidently, may be abandoned it if it requires taking an unpopular moral stand related to fundamental questions of life and the family, even if Benedict insists that such a stand is at the heart of development work and an indispensable if exacting form of charity.

The late Avery Dulles believed that the tendency to accommodate the culture instead of seeking to leaven it is “the greatest danger facing the Church in our country today.” Benedict says we need “non-conformists” with “an unwillingness to submit” themselves to the fashions of the day.

But what happens when those fashions pervade the Church’s charitable agencies?

Surely charity is worth getting right – even if that means “profound renewal,” as Archbishop Collins of Toronto has called for.

When bishops speak up as clear witnesses to the truth (as Cardinal Rigali and Archbishop Chaput have on health reform) and lead, it galvanizes people into action. In the recent weeks, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, among others has gained national attention by stating that there should be absolutely no support for healthcare reform until fundamental issues are resolved. Why? Reform is needed, he said, but “should we support giving poisoned water to the thirsty? I think not.”

Nothing short of the transformation of organizational culture at Catholic charitable agencies will suffice in our current situation. Cosmetic touches will not awaken them from the slumber of business as usual, which has too often meant the pursuit of social prestige and federal mammon in defiance towards those pesky Church teachings – the “veritas” which is so easily cloistered in polite company.

But in compromising on truth, they compromise on their very raison d’etre, true charity.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.