National Catholic Register


Caritas Network Shifts Its Focus to Advocacy

BY Anto Akkara

February 29-March 6, 2004 Issue | Posted 2/29/04 at 1:00 PM


MUMBAI, India — The highly visible presence of Catholic social workers with hundreds of nuns mixing freely with social activists of all hues at the fourth World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, in January was no accident.

In fact, dozens of key Church officials associated with the Caritas network — including Caritas Internationalis secretary-general Duncan MacLaren — were among several thousand Catholic delegates at the Jan. 16-21 forum, which drew nearly 200,000 social activists to the commercial capital of India.

“During our general assembly last July, all our members decided we should take a much more active and official part in [the World Social Forum]. This is the first time we have done that,” MacLaren told the Register on Jan. 19.

Standing outside a hall where Caritas Internationalis was organizing a World Social Forum seminar on “The War on Terror and Its Threats to Democracy,” MacLaren said, “Initially, our members wanted to know what kind of body the [World Social Forum] was, and then last year we decided we should take a more active part.”

“With our presence in 160 countries, we are one of the largest humanitarian networks. But we are not like other [nongovernmental organizations],” said MacLaren, a Scot who is now in his second term as secretary-general of the Vatican-based organization. “We have a clear mandate from the Church and we have our own ideas in the areas of social service.”

New Direction

Ten years ago, MacLaren pointed out, “We were not doing any advocacy work at all. But we are now getting more involved in advocacy work, focusing on integral human development work, which includes peace-building.”

“The Church has always been for the poor,” he said. “The question is how you would deal with the problems of the poor. New circumstances in the world situation call for new initiatives to deal with such problems.”

Until recently, MacLaren said, “most of the problems we dealt with were helping victims of natural disasters.” But in the contemporary context, where there are ”more and more manmade disasters” in which governments have a hand, he said, “We are not only called upon to serve these people but also to speak up in our own way so the suffering of the people ends.”

As an example of this approach, MacLaren cited the pioneering role the Caritas network has played in caring for HIV/AIDS victims.

“Though we started our HIV/AIDS work 15 years ago, it took time to persuade a lot of Church officials to take it seriously. Now, 40% of the AIDS-affected people are cared for under the Church,” MacLaren said.

As the challenges mount, good will alone will not take one forward, MacLaren insisted.

“Many Church organizations have been in the past amateurish,” he said. “They have lot of good will, a lot of enthusiasm but lack professional training to deal with problems.”

To overcome this defect in Church social action, Caritas Internationalis’ network is now coordinating countries to help weaker national Caritas units with training in management and advocacy work.

MacLaren admitted that Caritas has faced problems in some countries, especially in states where there are conflicts between the state and “people's movements” or rebel groups.

“In general, we have a clear mandate from the Church. We try to persuade the government to do that,” MacLaren said of how Caritas carries on its advocacy work in conflict situations.


Asked about whether the focus on its advocacy role might shift Caritas away from Christian charity and reduce it to just another group in a plethora of nongovernmental organizations that pursue a leftist social agenda, MacLaren told the Register via an e-mail in early February, “Our orthodoxy is scarcely in question.”

“Caritas remains the main relief, development and social-service agency of the Catholic Church, with its HQ in the Vatican,” MacLaren said. “We have a special status with the Holy See and all our members are agencies of their bishops’ conferences. All our new strategies come through a painstaking procedure of reflection and consultation. They do not follow any ‘model’ but are the result of what God tells us through discerning the signs of the times.”

While reiterating that Caritas is not “a social-activist lobby,” MacLaren stressed that “advocacy is important because it is a way of making policies of governments and international organizations more pro-poor.”

Church spokesmen in south Asia have endorsed the Caritas approach.

“As long as the civil society does not create a forum and come up with action, the voice of the society remains silent,” said Father Yvon Ambroise, former executive director of Caritas India, the social-action wing of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “So we have to make the civil society strong in Asia. These societies are very much in need as the attempt of the governments [in the region] is to suppress the voice of the civil society.”

Father Damian Fernando, director of Caritas Sri Lanka, the social-action wing of the Sri Lankan Catholic Church, also has no doubt about the “new challenges” facing Caritas. In fact, apart from providing relief to more than 1 million displaced people in Sri Lanka due to the virtual civil war in the island nation, Father Fernando told the Register that Caritas Sri Lanka is now involved “in a big way in building support for the peace process.”

Caritas Sri Lanka has won lot of praise, even from the national government in the predominantly Buddhist country, for its “peace education program” at the school level. The program seeks to bring the nation's ethnically divided Tamils and Sinhala people closer through exchange programs on the island, where the bloody ethnic conflict has claimed more than 65,000 lives in two decades and displaced 2.5 million people.

“By distributing relief alone, we cannot make an impact in the life of the people,” Father Fernando said. “Without being radical, we need to be proactive and help the people get out of the suffering. That is our mandate.”