What does it mean to truly love your neighbor?  Can you better show love by:

(a)    Telling your neighbor what he wants to hear, or

(b)   Telling him the truth, even if it’s going to cause some discomfort?

Is it truly loving to:

(a)   Give him whatever he wants, or

(b)  Give him only those things which will truly help him in his development– physically, politically, emotionally, and spiritually?

These questions have been front-and-center in the “He Said, She Said” controversy that’s reached its head this month at Caritas Internationalis, as the Vatican has stepped up to take a more active role in determining the focus and dissemination of Catholic aid. 


Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of some 165 Catholic aid organizations around the world.  Their mission is to build a better world, especially serving the poor and the oppressed.  Catholic Relief Services is the United States’ member organization; in Canada, Caritas has the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP).


With its focus on charitable giving and its partnership relationships with non-Catholic groups and governments worldwide, Caritas has not focused on evangelization as a part of its mission to the world.  In fact, in its ardor for strengthening relationships with different groups, it would appear that Caritas has more than once ignored Church teaching on critical issues.

For example, since 2009, the Canadian organization (CCODP) has evoked criticism from pro-life groups for its support of organizations which advocate the legalization of abortion, distribute contraceptives, and endorse homosexual policies. 

When complaints reached the desk of Caritas’ Secretary-General Lesley-Anne Knight, she defended the CCODP—adding in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter that support from Western governments could be jeopardized “if they become too explicitly Catholic.”  In Knight’s view, governments such as the British or Swedish could withdraw needed support for the organization’s poverty programs if Caritas were perceived as being “too Catholic.”


The controversy reached its climax early this year when the Vatican Secretary of State and the Pontifical Council Cor Unum determined that they would not renew Secretary-General Lesley-Anne Knight’s “nihil obstat,” or approval.  Without this endorsement, Knight could not run for a second four-year term as leader of the aid organization. 

Demonstrating the perspective which had brought her downfall, Knight—in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter—responded that the Holy See was “out of touch” with Caritas, criticizing the Vatican’s plan to buff up the aid organization’s Catholic identity, including evangelization among its goals.  Knight further alleged that the flow of information had been one-way, from the Vatican to Caritas, and that there had been little interest on the part of the Vatican in understanding Caritas’ experience-based priorities and perspectives.

Knight added that the Vatican works too slowly to understand the high-speed environment in which Caritas operates world-wide. 

Some media (such as the National Catholic Reporter and U.S. Catholic) jumped up to defend Knight.  Brian Cones, writing in U.S. Catholic, alleged that the Vatican is uncomfortable with lay women in positions of real authority and influence in the Church.  (Mr. Cones forgets the leadership role played by Mary Ann Glendon as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See or, more recently, the appointment of Sr. Sara Butler, professor of theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary, and Sr. Mary Lou Wirtz, president of the International Union of Superiors General, as consultants to the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.)  Cones then dragged out the timeworn argument, which is addressed and officially put to rest in Ordinatio Sacerdotis (Blessed John Paul II, May 22, 1994), that women should be ordained to the priesthood.

Within a week, the secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, responded to Knight’s assertions—telling Catholic News Agency that major reforms desired by the Vatican mandated a change in leadership at the international coalition of relief agencies.  With the goal of revision of Caritas statutes and internal reform, the Vatican would seek new leadership with whom they could hope to reach agreement on policy changes.


At the top of the list, the Vatican wants to ensure that Caritas—as a highly visible entity with strong ties to the Catholic Church—speaks with the mind of the Church. Catholic News Service (May 6) quoted one Vatican official:

Caritas Internationalis, as a public entity of the Church, is authorized to speak and act for the Church in the international forum.  Because of that right and duty, it needs to speak the Church’s language and make sure that its activities and its agreements with non-Catholic agencies reflect what the Church teaches.

 Changes to the organization’s charter are being proposed, and the Vatican has signaled it would like more direct oversight of Caritas’ operations.  And the new draft of Caritas’ statutes strengthens the communication between Caritas and the Vatican, ensuring Rome’s concurrence with any documents and position papers which may be released. 

With the move toward closer collaboration, the Vatican sought to bring in new leadership who would not balk at the Vatican’s stronger supervisory role. 


Addressing Caritas’ 60th annual conference in Rome last week, Pope Benedict XVI thanked the member organizations for their service.  He warned, at the same time, that unless we recognize that human beings were created by God and are called to eternal life, “we risk falling prey to harmful ideologies” which do not advance the good of the whole human person.  Integral development, the Pope reminded, includes the person’s spirituality and eventual salvation.

While a positive relationship between the charitable confederation and the Vatican is to be hoped for, two recent developments seem cause for concern:

  • First, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa was reelected on May 24 to a second four-year term as President of Caritas by a 75% majority of member organizations.   From the beginning, Cardinal Rodriguez had opposed the Vatican’s efforts to gain control over Caritas.  He lobbied for the continuance of Lesley-Anne Knight and has said that he “deeply regrets the decision of the Holy See.” 
  • Second, 56-year-old Michel Roy, director of international advocacy for Secours Catholique, the French Catholic charity, was elected to the post of Secretary-General replacing Lesley-Anne Knight. Roy’s election was confirmed on May 26 at Caritas Internationalis’ general assembly.

Roy assumed office this week and outlined four priorities for his administration:

  1. Reinforcement of the humanitarian response of Caritas member organizations to victims of man-made or natural disasters.
  2. Promotion and coordination of the organization’s integral human development work.
  3. Advocacy for a better and more just world; and
  4. Improving coordination, access, and communication among Caritas’ member organizations.

All of this is well and good; but needed on that list is the Vatican’s stated priority of increased “Catholic Identity” for the organization.   Perhaps he just forgot to mention it?  One hopes that the organization under Roy will not simply continue in the direction charted by his predecessor—emphasizing charity, but stopping short of fully embracing the great wealth of Catholic social teaching, including teachings on sexuality and the dignity of life.

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