Reforming Caritas International

ROME—Several weeks ago, the Vatican announced that it would not grant the necessary approval for Lesley-Anne Knight’s second, four-year term as secretary general of Caritas International, a global network of 165 Catholic agencies working primarily in the Third World on development and health-care issues. Predictably, the Vatican black ball was deplored by some leaders of Caritas-affiliated agencies, who have been complaining to their diplomatic representatives at the Holy See that this clumsy and unwelcome intervention in their internal affairs would imperil their effectiveness in working with other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

If that’s the case, it won’t be because of anything the Vatican did. Rather, it will be because the INGO world is dominated by an unbending “progressive” orthodoxy on development and health-care questions that sits poorly with Catholic understandings of how people are empowered to break out of the cycle of poverty. INGO shibboleths are also in sharp conflict with Catholic understandings of the best way to fight the AIDS plague in Africa and other poverty-stricken parts of the world. There is very little public evidence that Caritas International, under Ms. Knight’s leadership, challenged the rigidities in INGO thinking that are a real-world obstacle to empowering the poor and to driving down the incidence of HIV/AIDS. A case in point was her address to a “Catholic Networking Session” at the 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

There, Ms. Knight asked. “Is there a uniquely Catholic approach to the global HIV pandemic? And if so, what is it?” Her first answer: “I fear that there may be people here in Vienna this week who would answer that it is one characterized by dogma, hypocrisy, moralizing and condemnation.” True enough, given the attitude toward the Church’s sexual ethic prevalent in the INGO universe. But did Ms. Knight challenge this caricature? Not really. The best she could manage was to lament that Catholic AIDS workers (the largest group of non-governmental care-providers for people suffering from AIDS) “are still dogged by these criticisms.”

Nor, in answering her own question, did Leslie-Anne Knight say what she might have said, which is this: “Yes, there is a uniquely Catholic approach to the global HIV pandemic. It is an approach that takes seriously the dignity of the human person, which includes the capacity of men and women to change patterns of behavior that put themselves, their families and their communities at risk. It is an approach that takes the spiritual and moral dimensions of the AIDS crisis seriously. It is an approach that stresses abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage—both of which have been shown by independent scholars to drive down the incidence of AIDS in vulnerable populations. It is an approach that refuses to accept the empirically unproven claims that poverty, stigma and low levels of education drive AIDS epidemics. And it is an approach that refuses to burn incense at the altar of the false god latex, where the real votaries of rigid dogma are to be found among those for whom condoms are instruments of salvation.”

Ms. Knight, I hardly need add, said none of this. To the contrary: she put the authority of her position behind a reiteration of the poverty/stigma/low-educational-levels mythology. Which is to say, she reinforced the rigidities that are the true obstacles to the “development innovation and collaboration” for which she called.

I don’t mean to suggest that Ms. Knight is singularly wrong-headed. What she said (and didn’t say) in Vienna expressed what is quite likely the consensus among many Caritas International-affiliated agencies. These agencies have absorbed from the INGO atmosphere in which they work, and from the governments and international agencies on whose funding they have come to depend, the approach to development and AIDS that shaped Ms. Knight’s speech and rendered it strangely anemic in its Catholic identity.

That identity is what the Holy See is determined to reassert in global Catholic development and health care efforts. As the drama of that re-set unfolds, support for the Vatican’s efforts by the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services would be in order.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash