What is Authentic Catholic Charity?

COMMENTARY: Cardinal Robert Sarah of Cor Unum offers some guidelines.

Cardinal Robert Sarah
Cardinal Robert Sarah (photo: Wikipedia)

I must admit at the outset that I am highly skeptical of grandiose schemes for remaking society. This skepticism grows out of my experience in China, where a messianic leader who ostensibly set out to eliminate poverty and create a perfect society instead wound up purging — through famine, torture and firing squad — over 10% of the population. Today, Mao Zedong’s successors continue to abort 13 million children a year under an equally grandiose and misguided scheme to jump-start economic development, commonly known as the one-child policy.

Yet it is just such sweeping and dangerous ideas — of extirpating poverty for all time, of controlling population growth, of fundamentally remaking society into some kind of egalitarian earthly paradise — that now drive most Western foreign-aid programs. Sadly, such ideas have also infiltrated charities run by the Church, according to Cardinal Robert Sarah, the president of Cor Unum, the Vatican council responsible for Catholic charitable activity around the globe.

The result of this “erroneous hermeneutic,” as the good cardinal called it, is that “the hope of salvation found itself reduced to a temporal messianism and the understanding of Christian life to a form of humanitarian engagement. Many missionaries have practically abandoned evangelization and become invested exclusively in development, human promotion and the fight to ‘eliminate poverty.’”

Speaking in November 2012 to the heads of Caritas organizations from across Africa, the cardinal warned, “The great danger consists in believing that the objective of the charitable mission of the Church is to reform society, to fight for a more just or more democratic society. … Fundamentally, it belongs to the state to deal with social questions; that is not the immediate responsibility of the Church.”

One reason for this weakening of Catholic identity in once-great Catholic charities is USAID; the U.S. Agency for International Development disburses its huge budget only to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that agree to play by its rules. And rule No. 1 is that you have to check your faith at the door. This means that Catholic organizations that take USAID money cannot preferentially hire or serve Catholics, and they must never, ever, under any circumstances, preach the Gospel.

What does Cardinal Sarah have to say about taking money under these conditions? The cardinal to Caritas heads: “And I would like to say, right here and now, that the Christian values and the ecclesial identity of the charitable action of the Church are not negotiable! [Catholic charities] must refuse any ideology contrary to the teaching of God transmitted by the Church and categorically reject all financial aid which imposes ideological conditions opposed to the magisterium.”

Few would dispute the fact that USAID is more than happy to, in effect, secularize Catholic charities — that is to say, to turn them into extensions of itself. Witness the callous way the Obama administration has tried to ram the contraceptive mandate down the throats of Catholics.

But we must at all costs resist such pressures, says the Cor Unum cardinal: “We can, thus, not let ourselves be absorbed by those who, with powerful means — financial, of the mass media and of a great manipulative capacity — want to spread … a philosophy of rights that we cannot accept.”

So how does the Church understand and explain authentic Catholic charity? It must, the Church says, go hand-in-hand with the sacraments and the Gospel. As Pope Benedict wrote in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her threefold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable” (25) [italics added].

In other words, you can’t simply distribute mosquito nets and call it “Catholic charity.” You have to be preaching the Good News and celebrating the sacraments at one and the same time. Or in Cardinal Sarah’s words, Catholic charity must not solely aim “at social progress or the improvement in the material living conditions of people, but it seeks to bring men close to God, to the source of all good. It permits the light of Christ to enter the world.”

Of course, the only people who can bring the light of Christ into the world are Christians. And, among Christians, it is only Catholics and the Orthodox who celebrate the sacraments.  So what Cardinal Sarah, reflecting on Deus Caritas Est, seems to be saying is that all of the employees of Catholic charities must be Catholic.  

In fact, he makes that point explicitly later on in his speech: “The personal relationship with God, prayer and the frequenting of the sacraments is thus essential in order that those who work in the charitable organizations of the Church can be true witnesses of the love of Christ and will not fall into activism or secularism.”

How can someone “frequent ... the sacraments” or “have a personal relationship with God” if he or she is not a practicing Catholic? How can a Catholic charity retain its Catholic identity — and reject the impulse to remake societies along secular humanist lines —  if it does not preferentially hire Catholics?

If the Church wants “those who work in the charitable organizations of the Church to be true witnesses of the love of Christ,” then Catholic charities of all stripes must avoid taking government money — money that forbids them from “discriminating” in hiring — and instead actively recruit dedicated Catholic laypeople.

When I imagine authentic Catholic charity at work, what comes to my mind and, I believe, to the minds of most people, are not huge, government-funded NGOs anyway. Rather, I remember a tiny nun who, in 1946, walked alone into the worst slum in the world. Her purse held only a few pennies — and she never did receive a multimillion-dollar grant from USAID — but her heart was overflowing with the love of God.

Many years later, the woman we now know as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta defined the difference between the humanitarianism of the world and the charity of the Church. “The others do good because of something,” she said, “but we do good because of Someone.”

Doing good for Christ will make all the difference in the world.  Even if — perhaps, especially if — USAID won’t fund it.

Steve Mosher is the president of Population Research Institute.

He writes from Virginia.