Despite some initial reservations, Caritas Internationalis is beginning a new chapter with optimism after members of its representative council positively accepted new statutes and rules that will increase the Vatican’s oversight of the aid and development agency’s Rome headquarters.
Caritas Secretary General Michel Roy told the Register after the council met May 15-17 that the meeting went well despite some reports of unhappiness with the new arrangement. “We could have expected different reactions, but all was positive,” Roy said. Others reported an “optimistic mood” at the meeting.
Under the new guidelines published May 2, the Vatican will exercise increased monitoring of Caritas Internationalis’ operations, finances and staffing. Senior officials in the organization will be required to maintain a position of fidelity to the teachings of the Church.
The overhaul was prompted by evidence that the humanitarian confederation was losing its Catholic identity, a concern repeatedly expressed at the confederation’s General Assembly in Rome last May by several high-ranking Vatican figures, including Pope Benedict XVI.
The confederation of 164 Catholic humanitarian agencies, whose original statutes were approved by the Vatican in 1951, are mostly sponsored by national bishops’ conferences, such as the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services or the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
The Vatican stresses that those relationships remain unchanged; the decree applies specifically to the legal status and workings of Caritas Internationalis’ Vatican headquarters, which is run as a Holy See institution.
Vatican official Msgr. Osvaldo Neves de Almeida, a Brazilian lawyer charged with devising the decree, said in a statement that the Holy See wished to exercise oversight over Caritas so that “both its humanitarian and charitable action and the content of the documents that it disseminates may be in harmony with the Apostolic See and with the Church’s magisterium.”
The revised statutes and rules essentially clarify Caritas Internationalis’ relationship with the Holy See, which was first formalized by Blessed John Paul II in 2004.
In practical terms, the organization will be more accountable to the Vatican through the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Pope’s charitable arm.
Under the terms of the new decree, the department will be able to appoint an “ecclesiastical assistant” to “promote its Catholic identity,” as well as be responsible for approving texts issued by the charity that have “doctrinal or moral content.”
Cor Unum will also have a say in any agreements struck between Caritas and other non-governmental organizations.
Meanwhile, the Holy See will be able to veto candidates for the post of Caritas treasurer (at present, the Holy See veto only applies to the posts of president and secretary general), while a “Support Commission” composed of three experts will be convened to make sure that the new statutes are being implemented by Caritas.
The main practical novelty under the new legal arrangement, however, is the introduction of three Vatican-nominated bishops on Caritas’ seven-person executive council. Before, the council’s members were elected by the representative council.
Speaking to the Register May 11, Msgr. Neves explained that the need for the new statutes primarily dates back to the new geopolitical order that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when “very efficient” lobbies began to appear on the international scene to impose principles and values contrary to Church teaching.
“Some theological problems for Caritas, as well as for many other Catholic NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), began at that moment,” said Msgr. Neves, adding that although the staff, particularly from the Anglo-Saxon world of central and northern Europe, were “very good and very generous,” they needed stronger theological support to address those new challenges.
This made the organization vulnerable to uncritically adopting politically charged issues (on gender, for example), something that could be avoided if it had a better theological and ethical culture.
The Vatican is therefore stressing that the new decree is “mainly pedagogical” in nature. “We are not trying to control or persecute anybody, but to have this close and constant dialogue and understanding, because Caritas is something very important for the Church,” said Msgr. Neves, adding that the problem isn’t really with Caritas, but with the international community.
Roy stressed to the Register that Caritas is “already faithful” to the Church’s teaching. “The Holy See is careful and cautious, but we are, too.”
A second reason for the decree was due to operational difficulties associated with Roy’s predecessor, Lesley Anne Knight, who served as secretary general 2007-2011.
Sources say that many people felt that while Knight had many virtues, from the very beginning she acted as if she were completely in opposition to or ignoring the Holy See. The relationship between Knight and the then-president of Cor Unum, Cardinal Paul Cordes, also became strained.
For many observers of the situation, one of the problems was that the original statutes failed to clarify Cor Unum’s role, which appeared to be to “follow and accompany” Caritas, rather like a chaplain of a Catholic private association, instead of being a “dicastery of reference” for a public canonical association.
The Vatican therefore waited until both Knight and Cardinal Cordes had exited the scene before clarifying this relationship.
Another reason for tighter oversight involves the Rome headquarters’ finances. Its budget is relatively small, around $2.5 million, but, according to publicly available figures issued by the organization, it runs a large deficit of approximately $500,000 a year.
“Caritas needs to address this, or in four to five years, it could disappear,” commented Msgr. Neves, adding that the decree will “help them budget better.”
The Vatican says that, since the new decree, Caritas authorities have already begun addressing the problem and are grateful for the renewed support of the Roman Curia structures. But its leaders deny the deficit is huge; rather, it involves some “misunderstandings” on the procedures for reporting Caritas figures.
Msgr. Neves has conceded that may be the case, but believes it requires “deeper discussion.”
More generally, Roy said he accepts and understands the need for the new decree and expected it (the process began in 2007). However, he resented how changes to the executive council were foisted onto the organization without warning — an omission acknowledged by the Vatican. “That should have been presented to us earlier, and we would have come to the same conclusion,” he said.
Soon after their publication, the new guidelines were firmly opposed in some quarters, most notably by Duncan MacClaren, who served as Caritas Internationalis’ secretary general 1999-2007.
Writing in the British weekly The Tablet May 12, MacClaren feared that Caritas supporters would abandon it because of what he called a “heavy-handed Vatican reaction”; that Cor Unum must now approve and ratify decisions for which it has no expertise; that local Caritas members would “do their own thing” during major disasters rather than participate in a coordinated response; that bureaucratic interference would make it difficult to assist the poor quickly and efficiently; that Cor Unum would reduce salaries, therefore attracting fewer high-caliber professionals; and that the “moral promise” would result only in Catholics of a “particular hue” being hired, thereby possibly reducing funding and minimizing its influence in the field of aid and development.
While Roy could understand some of these concerns, he was confident they wouldn’t transpire or could be worked through.
He said he saw Cor Unum as a “compulsory passage” to reach others, but that its role was primarily to “give cultural and doctrinal orientation to the Church for social and pastoral work.”
The small department, he said, “should be involved in at least knowing what’s going on, but it won’t stop it,” he said.
In fact, he believes that by helping Caritas to be closer to the Secretariat of State means it may have “more opportunities than in the past to bring up concerns of the poor and analysis from the grassroots to those who work on global issues and the positions of the Holy See.” He also felt it would raise Caritas’ voice to a higher level, “complementing” whatever input comes from nuncios.
As for the possible withdrawal of support and donations, he said it would depend on “how things move forward,” but noted that members of the representative council offered “lots of appreciation” for the work Caritas was doing at the recent meeting. “If we succeed in reaching our goals, members will support us,” he said.
Concerning possible unhelpful bureaucratic interference, Roy said the decree underlines that humanitarian considerations must “go forward at all costs” and without impediment. Where there could be a problem is at the advocacy level, where a position often has to be taken within 48 hours. “We have to experiment with this to see how we can do it properly,” he said.
On possibly attracting fewer high-quality staff because of lower salaries, he said that may happen in the future, but was confident that the Vatican was aware of the need to pay an appropriate salary, especially if employees have families. As for the likelihood of recruiting Catholics only of a “particular hue,” he again stressed that Caritas has “always conformed to Church teaching,” and he doesn’t foresee less donations as a result. “Only if we became tied and had no space to take initiatives” would there be a problem, he said, but added that is “not the intention of the Holy See.”
Moreover, he agrees with Msgr. Neves: that the real problem concerns values being imposed by the international community rather than any statutes of the Vatican, and he cited conditions being enforced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.
“This is not only a problem with the United States, but also Sweden and a number of countries,” Roy said. “They say, ‘If you want our public money, you have to do this or that.’ And that is not acceptable.”
It seems, then, that after some initial misgivings, both the Vatican and Caritas officials are looking to the future with renewed hope and optimism.
“We met the Holy Father at the [general] audience last week, and he was very encouraging and proud of his Caritas,” Roy said. “This was my feeling during the [representative council] meeting last week,” he added. “The way our Vatican colleagues were participating was one of pride of being with us, and this is important.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.