Challenges for the Caritas Network

Real estate agents unable to grasp the paramount importance of “location, location, location” would not last very long. Reminders about something so elementary are not needed. Keeping “identity, identity, identity” front and center within Catholic charitable organizations, as I have written previously (here and here), seems to require more vigilance, though why that is so is a long tale.

Identity was the recurring theme of a momentous Caritas Internationalis gathering in late May, following news that its executive director would not be permitted another term. The prominent French commentator Jean-Marie Guénois described Pope Benedict XVI’s attempts to reform the Caritas network as revolutionary – not in terms of new doctrine, but in the sense that he is reasserting control over an entire area of the Church’s vital activity in agencies that have veered far off course.

In a remarkable address to the Caritas Assembly, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah (president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum) stressed that expressions of authentic Catholic charity are especially needed today, not least because the number of other actors on the scene is mushrooming. Most NGO activities, he reminded them, are expressions of prevailing western culture, now characterized by widespread religious indifference and secularization – “a humanism without God.” For all its tremendous material, scientific, and technological progress, the West, he maintained, is also suffering from “serious moral regression.”

Western Catholics agencies should be all the more eager to stand in solidarity with the Church in other parts of the world precisely against just such moral regression – a considerable obstacle to human development everywhere, perhaps especially in the “developed,” but bleaker, swaths of the modern West.

Yet on my own many trips to Africa with Catholic Relief Services, for example, it was not uncommon to hear locals refer to them as the “non-Catholic Catholic agency.” (Imagine what they say about CAFOD – the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development).

African bishops would tell me (after my talks about AIDS) how surprising it was to hear a young Western CRS employee speak the common Catholic language, whereas my superiors back in Baltimore told me that I would change my thinking about the way we should approach AIDS prevention – that I’d begin to oppose Church teachings – once I spent yet more time in Africa.

That Caritas’ new motto, “One Human Family – Zero Poverty” – platitudinous, vapid, quintessentially secular-NGO-ish – also doubles as the title of their strategic plan for the next four years should dispel any notion that striking reforms will occur overnight.  “Business as usual”, it’s fair to surmise, will prevail within many of the Caritas member agencies for some time to come.

If reform is really to happen, I’d suggest briefly that two concrete things need to be addressed. First, charitable agencies will have to revisit the extent to which they seek public funds.  A considerable portion of staff time revolves around the government’s aid agenda, which naturally diverts time and energy away from pursuing other needs or worthy initiatives. 

Even when collaboration on given projects does not constitute an unacceptable level of material cooperation with morally objectionable practices, dependence on public funds all too easily tends to make the charity’s priorities nearly synonymous with those of the state. In other words, the Catholic charitable agency needs to be on guard against becoming merely a sub-contractor to a “donor” that holds a fundamentally different anthropological, much less theological, vision. 

Routine participation in government-sponsored aid programs seems even less appealing anyway, in some cases, considering their repeated failures to deliver even material “development.” Besides, forgoing some publicly funded opportunities does not mean other opportunities would not open up. Highly committed, wealthy donors who presently shy away from giving to some Catholic charities would, and do, contribute greatly to distinctively Catholic causes. In this light, Cardinal Sarah’s belief that great things are in store if only Caritas would rely on Benedict XVI’s encyclical on charity, Deus Caritas Est, as its own Magna Carta rings true from both a spiritual and practical perspective.

Since many Caritas member employees are unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to the contents of Magisterial teaching, however, the second and probably more important thing charitable agencies need to do is revisit how they approach hiring and developing staff. Perhaps this needs little explanation other than restating the truism that “personnel is policy.”  When those in charge of programming for a country or region are not Catholic, or are aloof Catholics, their priorities tend to gravitate towards those of the governmental donors and wider NGO “community,” especially if presiding over “growth” is what gets you ahead within the agency.

If an agency is presently more comfortable addressing “climate change”(or is it “climate justice”?) than proactively promoting what Benedict XVI has long called the “non-negotiables,” how will they attract the next generation of leaders with the minds and hearts capable of carrying out the necessary reforms? Since graduates of elite universities and professionals at secular aid agencies often view prospective employers (CRS, World Bank, Red Cross, etc.) in their field as interchangeable, recruiting from such pools, as is now customary, seems part of the problem.

Addressing these matters may be a tall order – a really long-term proposition. But I suspect that if they are not tackled in a deliberate way by individual Caritas agencies, Benedict’s original and enlightening vision of charity will be a dead letter in Catholic relief circles. That would be a pity – and a great loss for peoples around the world.

The “non-negotiables” may represent sources of contention between Catholics and the rest of the “development community”, but they are, in fact, nothing short of indispensible to authentic human development. Catholic charities need to be led by people who really believe that.  

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.