Reining in Caritas
Rome reformsDuncan MacLaren
- 12 May 2012
It is one of the most important humanitarian groups in the world, supported by legions of volunteers and donors. But now the Vatican has moved to bring it further under control of Rome. One of Caritas’ former secretary generals explains how this could jeopardise the organisation’s work
“Caritas Internationalis is confident in its future. Its mission to fight against poverty and promote social justice has been renewed as a service of the Catholic Church, and after several years of work on the renovation of its statutes, all its efforts will now be focused on this mission.” That is the official response from Caritas Internationalis (CI), the confederation of all the 165 Caritas members (including Cafod, Sciaf and Trócaire in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, respectively) to the latest decrees from the Vatican concerning its work. I wish it were true.
CI is one of the largest humanitarian, development and social-service networks in the world. It has a staff of one million serving annually 24 million people and a collective income of US$5 billion (£3.1bn). It is a democratic organisation, imbued with the principle of subsidiarity. The role of the general secretariat is to serve the members.
The latest decree and the new statutes and internal rules are the result of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s 2004 chirografo (legal letter), “During the Last Supper”, granting Caritas public juridical personality under canon law. That status bolstered the standing of Caritas within the structure of the Church. It would be difficult, for example, for a bishops’ conference not to cooperate in setting up a Caritas or participating in its response to a humanitarian disaster when Caritas was in such close communion with the Holy Father.
The new legal status made Caritas the prime Catholic agency for humanitarian and development work. That has now been superseded by a new general decree, issued by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. It was meant to complement the chirografo. In fact, it sweeps the chirografo away in a detailed exercise in bureaucratic control.
In the chirografo, the role of the pontifical council Cor Unum, the dicastery for charity, was to “follow and accompany” the activities of CI (“seguire ed accompagnare le attività di CI”, in the original Italian). Whereas before, the Holy See had the right to nominate an ecclesiastical assistant, that is now the competence of Cor Unum. It also has the power to approve agreements with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), approve staff contracts, be involved in all financial matters and even to ratify new members. Bizarrely, senior CI staff will have to swear an oath of loyalty in front of the dicastery’s president. Rather than “following and accompanying” the work of CI, Cor Unum now exercises draconian control.
This is a dicastery which, during my time as secretary general (1999-2007), was always invited to meetings and presented with our information on humanitarian situations all over the world to keep it informed. The communication was one-way and, despite our best efforts, we had the feeling, not of being “accompanied”, but of being spied upon. In writing new guidelines about cooperation in humanitarian situations, a member of the Cor Unum staff was present throughout and never opened his mouth because he was not a professional development or aid worker. Now CI will have Cor Unum approving and ratifying decisions on humanitarian and development matters when they lack the expertise.
In 2005, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Paul Cordes, the then president of Cor Unum, was invited to attend a Caritas meeting in Poland where the seven Caritas regions were to express how they articulated their Catholic identity within their own cultures. He said he had an urgent meeting in Warsaw and would miss the Caritas Catholic identity section. In fact, he spent three days with the Communion and Liberation movement.
When Cardinal Cordes went to Pakistan for three days after an earthquake, he wrote to me about changing the structure of our committee, which was to oversee the humanitarian response of the confederation. He wanted a bishop as chairman, another bishop as co-chairman and a layman as secretary. In fact, we had, as was usual, consulted the Pakistani bishops’ conference and they supplied us with qualified staff to represent the Pakistani Church and we added some of our international experts as per our agreed guidelines. I phoned one bishop who said he lived in a remote diocese and couldn’t meet every day. I told Cardinal Cordes that this was an operational committee but he told me months later that he had “never forgotten Pakistan”.
At the 2007 General Assembly, where Lesley-Anne Knight was elected as CI secretary general, a Cor Unum official attempted to place her at the back of the audience chamber minutes before Pope Benedict XVI was due to come in to give a speech to delegates and meet the outgoing bureau and the new bureau. The reason was probably because she was not Cor Unum’s chosen candidate. It was an act of amazing rudeness.
The Cor Unum official almost had a punch-up with the incoming treasurer, a young Croatian, and shook with rage when Knight was brought by him to the front to meet the Holy Father, as was her right. During her four years as secretary general, Knight was never once invited to the Cor Unum office for talks. The official, Mgr Dal Toso, rather than being sacked for such behaviour, was given promotion and is now secretary to the dicastery.
What other consequences will this control have? My fear is that supporters will abandon Caritas in reaction to what they see as a heavy-handed Curia out of touch with people and certainly the poor. That would jeopardise the work of Caritas in nearly every country in the world – and deny many local Churches the resources to exercise their social mission.
A second consequence could be that CI members will pay their fees but work separately during major disasters. All evaluations of disasters point to a lack of coordination as being a major factor in why NGOs did not do better for those affected. With the imposition of Cor Unum controls, members will increasingly do their own thing instead of having a coordinated response. This could also result in members finding other, creative ways of collaboration outside of Rome to achieve an effective response, a tragedy for communion within the confederation.
National members report to their individual bishops’ conferences but Cor Unum’s president, Cardinal Robert Sarah, writing in L’Osservatore Romano recently, stated that, though they are autonomous under the direction of the local ordinaries, this could inspire the bishops to revise the statutes of their diocesan and national Caritas organisations. Cor Unum forgets that, in most cases, there is a close cooperation between national Caritas members and their bishops. Cor Unum also overestimates its popularity among bishops close to Caritas. With so much bureaucratic interference, Caritas will have difficulties in exercising the humanitarian imperative of assisting the poor quickly and efficiently, and with, as Pope Benedict writes in Deus Caritas Est, “a heart which sees”.
With Cor Unum deciding salaries and contracts, and presumably attempting to reduce salaries, which reflect the development market at the international level, it will also be difficult to attract professionals to work at the general secretariat. If Cor Unum follows its own staff policy, lay people would most likely come from the new movements such as Communion and Liberation, and it is doubtful if anyone who was not a Catholic of a particular hue would be hired. Members of the confederation could then withdraw funds, rendering the general secretariat a lame duck and reducing the Church’s influence in aid and development on the world stage.
The revised statutes and internal rules, while clarifying many issues, ride roughshod over the democratic structure of CI. The new executive board had vacancies for four members. Four candidates (including one bishop) from the membership put their names forward while three bishops from outside were imposed by Cor Unum. That left only one place for an elected representative, thus removing a fundamental principle of democracy.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the CI General Assembly in 2011, rightly stressed that it differed from other social agencies in that it was ecclesial. It shares in the mission of the Church and that has consequences for the way it acts. That is why CI wraps its strategic plan round Catholic Social Teaching principles and uses those principles as indicators of good integral human development practice. That is why it manifests a love of neighbour in its dealings with people of all faiths. This led, for example, to a Muslim woman in Bam after the 2004 earthquake in Iran asking for a Bible to see why the Caritas people “treated us with such love and respect”. That is why periodically Caritas looks at its Catholic identity but within the particular ambit of its mission to serve the poor. As Professor Neil Ormerod has written, “What is important for the life of the Church is that through the full variety of structures and institutions which emerge from its life all aspects of its identity and mission be expressed, not that each individual structure reflects that totality.” But Caritas does not have the ear of the Pope – Cor Unum does.
Largely, the straitjacket decrees are based on the false premise that CI did not follow church teaching. When we negotiated a Memo of Understanding with the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids so that members could have access to its expertise, we were careful to send it for approval to the Secretariat of State. Archbishop, now Cardinal, Tauran replied that it was a good example of the Church’s social teaching in action. When we were part of the Sphere Project with other NGOs to improve standards in humanitarian interventions, we demanded a disclaimer from certain matters which conflicted with church teaching, and that disclaimer, after much insistence, was granted. This is surely the way to interact with the secular world rather than stifle dialogue.
When Archbishop João Braz de Aviz took over as head of the office in the Vatican overseeing religious orders, he said: “Only after we’ve established a dialogue do we discuss issues and try to clear things up if there is a problem. This seems much more fruitful than simply going in with a prejudiced attitude.”
My greatest fear is that with too much bureaucratic control, we as a Church will be betraying the very people we were set up to serve – the poor.