Changes at Caritas International

The Vatican seeks to promote the organization’s distinctively Catholic identity.

In February, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, confirmed that the Vatican had declined to approve a second term for Lesley-Anne Knight, the secretary-general of Caritas International. That announcement triggered several weeks of maneuvering that ended with a decisive statement by the Vatican of its determination to promote a more distinctively Catholic identity for the international consortium of relief agencies.

Caritas International officials had reportedly lobbied quietly, behind the scenes, to reverse the Vatican’s decision and gain another four-year term for Knight—to no avail. Knight herself told the National Catholic Register that she had been caught completely off guard by the Vatican’s decision, having heard no criticism of her leadership from Rome, and having had only “minimal contact” with the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican office with responsibility for supervising Caritas International.

Knight added that the drive for an evangelical Catholic presence in relief work could pose problems for international partnerships. “If you’re Caritas-Japan, what does Catholic identity in Japan mean?” she asked. “It may not be the same for Caritas in Spain.” Any attempt to make uniform policies, she warned, would run the risk of leaving local affiliates “disillusioned.”

Although Vatican officials did not offer any public explanation for seeking a change in leadership, it was clear that Rome had grown “disillusioned” with Knight—and to a large extent, with the international organization she led. The Holy See had granted a formal charter to Caritas International; in exchange the Church leadership wanted assurances that the organization would be something more than just another humanitarian agency. The Vatican wanted a change.

The Vatican agenda

Against that background, the delegates of Caritas International gathered in Rome in May for their general assembly, to elect a new leadership team and to discuss new statutes for their organization.

Even before the meeting began, the Vatican had demonstrated its determination to exercise greater influence over the organization by seizing control of the agenda. Father Timothy Radcliffe, the former worldwide leader of the Dominican religious order, had been scheduled to deliver the keynote speech as the meeting opened. He was dropped from the program and replaced by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, the preacher of the pontifical household.

At a Mass opening the general assembly, Cardinal Bertone told the general assembly of Caritas International that the Church’s relief and development agencies must have a lively Christian identity. “The Church’s charitable activity, like that of Christ, could never be limited to assisting people’s material needs, however urgent and immediate those needs might be,” he said in his homily. “A humanitarian assistance which would habitually prescind from its Christian identity, adapting a ‘neutral’ approach seeking to please everyone, would risk, even in cases where it obtained its immediate goals, failing to offer men and women a fine service consonant with their full dignity.”

Relief efforts based on the “neutral” approach, Cardinal Bertone continued, could “eventually foster in those whom they assist a materialistic mentality which the latter would then bring to other relationships and to their approach to social issues.” With that sentence the secretary of state came as close as any Roman official would come to a clear explanation of the Vatican’s dissatisfaction with Knight. Under her guidance, Caritas International had frequently collaborated with other relief agencies that would be found in opposition to the Church on controversial issues such as the distribution of condoms, the legalization of abortion, or the promotion of contraception. Such partnerships worried the Vatican.

In contrast to the “neutral” approach, Cardinal Bertone proposed an unabashedly evangelical attitude toward charitable work—an approach guided by the desire to spread the Gospel as well as to provide for material needs. “In a word,” he said, “the Church must not only practice charity, but practice it as Christ did.”

In his address to the opening session, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga—who would be re-elected as president of Caritas International during the assembly—offered a defense of the outgoing leadership:

“We all would have loved to continue our journey with the current secretary-general, Mrs. Lesley-Anne Knight, whose professionalism, deep faith, and commitment to Caritas is known and appreciated within the Church and outside in the humanitarian and development community. In only four years she has put in place and led an international team of highly skilled and committed people who serve our confederation in the fields of humanitarian aid and advocacy. Lesley-Anne has invested her vision, personal energy, and faith into our work.”

“Lesley-Anne will not be with us for the next mandate. The way she was not allowed to stand as a candidate to be appraised by the incoming Executive Committee has caused grievance in our confederation, above all within the many women working for Caritas across the world. They have seen much hope in her election and achievements. We will not lose Lesley-Anne as a vibrant Christian and a strong believer. We will lose her as our next general-secretary. But what she achieved must go on. We need more than ever before a strong Secretariat and a strong leader. The dialogue with the Holy See about our common future and way of being Church must also continue.”

With that mild protest duly noted on the record, the assembly then heard two other Vatican officials explain how Caritas should operate.

The president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum said that Caritas International must be an expression of the charitable mission of the Church, and not an organization that exists alongside the Church. New juridical norms for the organization, Cardinal Robert Sarah told the Caritas general assembly, would ensure that the consortium of bishops’ relief and development agencies will “remain essentially and structurally an instrument of the charity of the Church.”

I believe it is important to understand that our charitable organizations are located within the Church and not alongside her,” said the Guinea-born cardinal. “A Caritas that wasn’t an ecclesial expression would have no meaning or existence.”

All charitable work should be “guided by the principle of the integral development of the human person,” Cardinal Sarah added. “Therefore, it is not merely philanthropic and humanitarian assistance aimed at relieving a certain kind of distress, but also and above all it entails giving back to human persons all their dignity as children of God, and promoting an anthropology that also encompasses the religious dimension of human persons, namely their encounter with God.”

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, followed up with a plea to the delegates to recognize their role in the Church’s work of evangelization. “In testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of relief and development, Caritas is part and parcel of evangelization,” the cardinal from Ghana said. Acknowledging that some critics view Catholic relief efforts as pretexts for encouraging conversions, Cardinal Turkson said that Caritas International should avoid two opposite extremes: “one, an abuse of the gratuitous charity we are called to offer; the other, an excessive caution about proselytism which would block legitimate and necessary evangelization.”

“We should not draw a fictitious distinction between ‘professionalism’ and evangelization,” the cardinal continued. Referring back to the talk by Cardinal Sarah, he drove home the Vatican’s message for the Caritas meeting, saying that “the task before us is to re-establish the link between evangelization and charity.”

A new leader

With those multiple messages from Vatican officials ringing in their ears, the Caritas delegates elected Michel Roy, the director of a French charity, as the organization’s new secretary-general.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Roy, who had worked with Secours Catholique, outlined four priorities for his work:

            • “reinforcement of the humanitarian response of the Caritas network to the victims of man-made or natural disasters”;

            • “the promotion and coordination of the integral human development work which is the base of all Caritas organizations”;

            • “advocacy for a better and more just world”;

            • improved “coordination, access, and communication among the members.”

Conspicuously missing from Roy’s list of priorities was any expression of determination to strengthen the Catholic identity of the relief effort. He had, after all, been elected by the delegates who represented the incumbent leadership of the organization.

The Pope’s message

Still, when the Caritas delegates left Rome, they could have had no lingering doubts about the Vatican’s commitment to change in their organizational approach. On May 27 that message was underlined by Pope Benedict XVI, who reminded them that Caritas “differs from other social agencies in that it is ecclesial; it shares in the mission of the Church.”

As the international aid consortium of Catholic relief agencies celebrates its 60th anniversary, Pope Benedict pointed to two key moments in the history of Caritas International. The first was its founding by Pope Pius XII in the aftermath of World War II “to demonstrate the solidarity and concern of the entire Church in the face of so many situations of conflict and emergency in the world.” The second was the decision by Pope John Paul II to give the agency official canonical status. At that time, the Pontiff observed, Caritas “took on a particular role in the heart of the ecclesial community.”

Because of the group’s special status, the Pope continued, “the Holy See is also responsible for following its activity and exercising oversight.” During this year’s Caritas assembly, the Vatican made a determined effort to sharpen that oversight, and especially to ensure that Caritas International preserves its distinctive Catholic identity.

Pope Benedict spoke at some length about that identity during his address to the Caritas delegates. He reminded them that Christian charity is not merely benevolent work, but also a form of evangelization and a service to God’s people. “Without a transcendent foundation, without a reference to God the Creator, without an appreciation of our eternal destiny, we risk falling prey to harmful ideologies,” he said.

The Pope also reminded the delegates that Caritas is “an organization charged with fostering communion between the universal Church and the particular churches, as well as communion between all the faithful in the exercise of charity.” He encouraged them to work “in close collaboration with the Church’s pastors” in all their relief efforts.

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