CRS, Its Partners and the Appearance of Scandal

How Catholic Relief Services Determines What Is Morally Acceptable: Part 2 of a Register Special Report

WASHINGTON — Catholic Relief Services has faced a recent wave of allegations that it has given scandal by working with groups that promote abortion and contraception.

While the U.S. bishops’ international aid charity is currently reviewing one controversial funding decision, overall, CRS asserts that it abides by a standard anchored in Catholic moral tradition. CRS’ critics, however, contend otherwise, and they cite its past missteps as evidence CRS must conform to a higher standard. Experts consulted by the Register said the critics’ demands extend beyond what Church teaching specifies.

The latest controversy focuses on a $26-million Global Fund grant to combat malaria in Guinea by distributing six million insecticide-laden bed nets. The Global Fund, an international financier for efforts combating malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis, chose CRS through its Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) as one of two prime recipients for the grant.

“Malaria is the No. 1 killer of children in Guinea under 5 years old,” Schuyler Thorup, CRS executive vice president for overseas operations, told the Register. Thorup said the project would cover 60% of Guinea’s malaria-infected areas and reduce malaria cases by 25% over 10 years.

“It has the possibility of really saving tens of thousands of lives,” he said of the plan. “We see this as critical in responding to our mission.”

CRS had the task of managing the grant and distributing the funds to five sub-recipients selected by CCM’s independent board. One of them was Population Services International (PSI), an organization that promotes contraception (and abortion drugs in several countries), but that also conducts anti-malaria and water-purification efforts.

When reported in July that CRS was disbursing $2.7 million to PSI for implementing its share of the anti-malaria project to distribute bed netting, some Catholic pro-life leaders expressed grave concern. These critics questioned how a funding relationship with an organization like PSI could be anything but scandalous.

“You just don’t give money to the enemies of Christ — period,” Michael Hichborn, spokesman for American Life League (ALL), told the Register.

Hichborn said ALL believes CRS should have quit its role in the Global Fund grant, killing the project, rather than allow PSI to leverage any newfound credibility to distribute contraceptives in Guinea once the project was over.

“You don’t give them money; you don’t give them prestige; you don’t even give them a place to speak. But that’s exactly what CRS is doing,” he said.


Moral Theology

CRS officials counter they are conforming to Catholic moral theology, which allows the use of prudential moral judgment and cooperation with wrongdoers engaged in evil activities — under specific conditions — when a good end or avoiding a worse evil cannot be accomplished any other way.

“It’s trying to judge what is the associational risk for both the issue of scandal and what is the greater good that can weigh on the other side,” Thorup said of CRS’ approach to grants and partnerships.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) explains in its document called “What is the Principle of Cooperation in Evil?”  that the Church has developed its teachings to help Catholics understand “which cooperation [with evil] may or may not be tolerated.”

Catholic teaching makes a distinction between “formal cooperation,” sharing the intention of the wrongdoer, and “material cooperation,” giving some kind of assistance to a wrongdoer without sharing his evil intention. Both formal cooperation and immediate (or direct) material cooperation, where a person’s help is “essential” for a wrongdoer to commit his evil act, are immoral.

However, NCBC explains that mediate (or indirect) material cooperation, where “the [wrongdoer’s] action could occur even without this cooperation,” is morally permissible in three circumstances: first, “if some great good were to be gained (or prevented from being lost) or if some great evil were to be avoided”; second, the “reason for cooperation must be proportionate” to the good preserved and evil avoided; and third, the “danger of scandal (i.e., leading others into doing evil, leading others into error or spreading confusion) must be avoided.”

“As long as strings are attached, the cooperation isn’t formal,” William Marshner, a professor of theology at Christendom College, told the Register. He said a Catholic entity or person could licitly work with problematic groups under the principle of indirect material cooperation “if there is no choice about the organization through which to work, and your money has strings attached to it — that it can’t be used for this, that and the other thing — and you prudentially have some accounting to make sure of that.”

Acting on behalf of ALL, Marshner has twice examined grants made by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and he found a number of past CCHD grants constituted formal cooperation in evil on the basis that they went into the general fund of the problematic groups and could be used to finance activities at odds with Church teaching. “The Church would have to assure itself that the money was being used as directed and not going into a general fund,” he said.


CRS Policy Audits

CRS has an internal audit department for both policy and financial accountability. Multiple CRS officials and bishops interviewed by the Register said CRS sends investigators to evaluate allegations of wrongdoing, and it has a comprehensive review system of evaluating grants, partnerships and associations that involves input from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee and outside consultants like NCBC.

The CRS contracted with NCBC in 2011 to review the morality of $5.3 million in federal pass-through grants it made to CARE, an international relief agency that promotes contraception. John Haas, a moral theologian and president of NCBC, reported in a July 25, 2012 post that NCBC concluded the grants in themselves were morally legitimate because they “would be used exclusively for good purposes that could not be effectively realized by CRS otherwise.” But Haas also expressed “grave concern” over the risk of scandal in partnering with CARE, which is well known for its abortion advocacy. The NCBC urged CRS to repudiate publicly the pro-abortion statements by CARE leadership in order to reduce the risk of scandal. CRS said that it tried to counter this risk by working “to publicly affirm our adherence to the teaching of the Church.”

The ultimate authority over tough funding calls and decision-making resides with the 22-member CRS board, which lists 14 U.S. Catholic bishops on its website.

“The board is very engaged with these questions,” said Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour of Brooklyn. “CRS wants to be clean as a whistle.”

Bishop Mansour, a CRS board member, told the Register that CRS tries to execute sound moral judgment, but said not all decisions are infallible, and that, “if there is a concern brought to us, we will re-evaluate.”

“Nobody on the board and nobody on senior management is afraid of hearing something that we don’t like to hear,” he said.


Fixing Mistakes

A number of reforms are the result of past problems CRS has had related to Catholic identity, including the public endorsement of the pro-abortion March of Women by a CRS staffer in 2000 and CRS’ role in 2007 in facilitating the distribution of a flip chart produced by the Zambian government that contained instructions on condom use.

Then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the CRS board chairman at the time, said subsequently that the flip-chart distribution was “just unacceptable.” He oversaw a series of changes, developing CRS’ current system of policy review and the Protecting Life training program, which all CRS employees are required to undergo.

And CRS officials — including Bishop Gerald Kicanas, current CRS chairman, and Bishop Mansour — confirmed to the Register that the accusations over PSI in Guinea have caused CRS to reconsider any future relationship with PSI.

Thorup explained that neither CRS nor the Guinea bishops’ conference were aware of PSI’s abortion-related activities at the time of the Global Fund grant.

“We’re now looking at that more carefully,” Bishop Mansour said.

Father Shenan Boquet, president of Human Life International, said pro-life advocacy groups have long been concerned over population-control groups like PSI rebranding themselves by “masking [their agenda] within other charitable works” in order to increase their influence.

He suggested that CRS could improve its knowledge on these population-control groups disguised as development agencies by enlisting “very reputable, strong pro-life, pro-family groups,” which would share with CRS “a larger perspective and more on-the-ground insight” into the nature of their activities.



A related issue is CRS’ close working relationship with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a major worldwide funder of population control. The White House requested $530 million for family planning out of its proposed $51.6-billion State Department and USAID budget for Fiscal Year 2014.

The Population Research Institute’s president, Steven Mosher — whose allegations of CRS wrongdoing in an anti-malaria program in Madagascar were analyzed in Part 1 of the Register’s CRS Special Report — pointed out that 60% of CRS’ money comes from public sources, mostly through USAID.

“If you sup with the devil, you need to bring a long spoon. But I don’t think there’s a spoon long enough to sup with this particular devil,” said Mosher, referring to USAID.

Mosher argued CRS should depend on private donations only, thereby freeing CRS to hire faithful Catholics preferentially and prevent involvement in situations where USAID might pressure CRS to violate Catholic teaching.

Shannon Senefeld, director of CRS program quality, countered that CRS has a “co-operate agreement” with USAID that safeguards Catholic identity.

“We write a proposal that is in line with our Catholic values, our Catholic identity, and that is what USAID agrees to fund,” she said.

Yet Father Boquet urges greater caution in accepting USAID funds. He referenced a “motu proprio” published by Pope Benedict XVI, “On the Service of Charity,” which provides a legislative framework for Catholic charitable groups. Father Boquet believes the “motu proprio” precluded taking government money, which he argued was the only prudent course of action.

Instead, he suggested that, by not taking USAID or public funds, the organization could hire more Catholics and would not have to work with groups also involved in artificial family planning.

“It’s our hope that CRS will use its position as an industry leader to bring Pope Benedict’s vision into reality and will, as soon as possible, extricate itself from situations where it has no choice but to pass along money and credibility to very destructive organizations — even if the specific project has merit,” Father Bouquet said.

Msgr. Pietro Dal Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which is tasked with implementing the “motu proprio,” said in an interview with Catholic News Service in December 2012 that Caritas organizations like CRS could take money from governments that fund abortion and contraception, so along as they were not required to adhere to conditions that contradicted Church teachings. However, he added, they should refrain from financial relationships with private organizations whose stated core goals “do not conform to the Church’s teaching.”

Marshner affirmed Msgr. Dal Toso’s comments, saying that the Church’s moral theology does not require the rejection of funding from sources that fund both bad and good projects, so long as it is not engaged in a morally illicit program.

“If I am doing good, and taxpayer money comes to me for doing good, what do I care if it also goes to somebody else for doing wrong?” Marshner asked. “I am not responsible for the moral conduct of USAID.”


Catholic Identity Costs

Catholic organizations have already begun to face the reverse situation of government cutting off funding because they refuse to comply with government mandates ordering them to violate Catholic teaching. The passage of same-sex “marriage” and civil-union laws forced Catholic Charities to shut down adoption and foster-care services in Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

And, in 2011, the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Services lost a $15-million anti-human trafficking grant because it would not provide family planning services.

Bishop Kicanas told the Register that CRS similarly loses grants because of its commitment to Catholic teaching and its position on the dignity of life, marriage and the family. “We regret that, but I think it’s very well known to all our partners what CRS stands for and where we’re at,” he said.

Bishop Kicanas also said that, while he believed many of CRS’ Catholic critics do not harbor ill will toward CRS, talking these issues out privately and bringing these issues to CRS’ attention before making public accusations would be a better approach.

Both HLI and ALL officials, however, told the Register that in their case, both their respective groups repeatedly approached CRS leadership privately with their concerns before making public statements outlining their unresolved issues. Hichborn said he met with CRS leadership in November 2012, but his request for a follow up meeting in the Spring was denied.

“We made CRS fully aware of everything we have uncovered before going public with our information," Hichborn said.

Bishop Kicanas said he hopes that CRS and the concerned pro-life groups could come to a common understanding about CRS and how it carries out its Catholic mission.

“We don’t have to spend our time dividing among ourselves, because our work is so huge and so incredibly important,” he said. “We do have to work sometimes with people who have positions contrary to our own, but we never have to be engaged with things that are contrary to our teaching.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

Part 1 of this Register Special report is

Catholic Relief Services’ Madagascar Aid Analyzed,” published August 18.