Catholic Relief Services and The Scandal of Fidelity

For those following the minor scandal within the Catholic Church regarding Catholic Relief Services and some of the highly questionable beneficiaries of their grants, the response from CRS has been less than confidence building even in the best light.

Worse still, as the challenges to CRS decision making grew louder and more confident, the reaction of Catholic Relief have varied from nothing-to-see-here to outright vitriol, questioning the rights and ability of Catholics to even size up or understand how the bevy of Catholic charitable organizations enmeshed in the national umbrella even work.  Bishops too have had questions, only to be assured by their staff that everything is OK, nothing is going on… and hey, did you see how Pope Francis is talking up social justice?

For the non-Catholic, it’s easy to misunderstand the Catholic social justice movement as something more reflective of its Marxist counterpart.  For practicing Catholics, the distinction is sometimes difficult as well, as Marxist understandings of social justice tend to infect how Catholics principles are interpreted into action.  To this end, Archibishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia is very clear about ensuring that we do not fall into the trap of “political Catholicism” as it were in the opening lines of his magisterial work “Render Unto Caesar” (which if you have not read it, you ought to):

Neither party fully represents a Catholic way of thinking about social issues.  One of the lessons we need to learn from the last fifty years is that a preferred American “Catholic party” doesn’t exist.  The sooner Catholics feel at home in any political party, the sooner that party begins to take them for granted and then to ignore their concerns.  Party loyalty is a dead end.  It’s a lethal form of laziness.  Issues matter.  Character matters.  Acting on principle matters.  They belong to a vocabulary of the herd, and human beings deserve better.  Real freedom demands an ability to think, and a great deal of modern life seems deliberately designed to discourage that.

Catholic Relief Services — along with the panoply of national Catholic charitable organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) — seem to suffer from precisely this problem.  Rather than executing Catholic charity on Catholic terms, the party line seems to be very much the same: we live in a mixed up world, ergo even the Catholic Church has to cut cards with the devil, and sometimes and in some things bend on issues such as the dignity of human life.

This is an interpretation of social justice that while understandable to the political left, is alien to the Catholic worldview.  One need go no further than Pope St. John Paul II to discover otherwise:

From the same atheistic source, socialism also derives its choice of the means of action condemned in Rerum novarum, namely, class struggle. The Pope does not, of course, intend to condemn every possible form of social conflict. The Church is well aware that in the course of history conflicts of interest between different social groups inevitably arise, and that in the face of such conflicts Christians must often take a position, honestly and decisively. The Encyclical Laborem exercens moreover clearly recognized the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a “struggle for social justice”; Quadragesimo anno had already stated that “if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice”.

However, what is condemned in class struggle is the idea that conflict is not restrained by ethical or juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of oneself); a reasonable compromise is thus excluded, and what is pursued is not the general good of society, but a partisan interest which replaces the common good and sets out to destroy whatever stands in its way. In a word, it is a question of transferring to the sphere of internal conflict between social groups the doctrine of “total war”, which the militarism and imperialism of that time brought to bear on international relations. As a result of this doctrine, the search for a proper balance between the interests of the various nations was replaced by attempts to impose the absolute domination of one’s own side through the destruction of the other side’s capacity to resist, using every possible means, not excluding the use of lies, terror tactics against citizens, and weapons of utter destruction (which precisely in those years were beginning to be designed). Therefore class struggle in the Marxist sense and militarism have the same root, namely, atheism and contempt for the human person, which place the principle of force above that of reason and law.

In short, the whole point of Centesimus Annus was that if so-called “social justice” does not respect the dignity of human life, it is not true social justice.

Fast forward to Catholic Relief Services and today, where the Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor had some choice words for the ongoing scandal:

One of the ill fruits of the Church’s ideological divisions has been a dangerous split between those who are “social justice Catholics” and those who are “pro-life Catholics.” This fracturing of the Gospel message and the core teachings of the Church has led to a host of unintended consequences. Layered onto this polarization has been the erosion of Catholic identity in some sectors of the Church, and a kind of ideological vigilantism in others. Both can lead to a tremendous distrust of institutional Church structures and a readiness to ascribe nefarious or self-serving motives to those Catholics with whom one disagrees.

Good so far, until OSV comes off the rails…

All of this is the backdrop to what’s become an increasingly nasty campaign against a variety of social justice-oriented Catholic organizations. This onslaught of accusations is sowing extraordinary confusion and mistrust, which in turn not only divides the Church, but also threatens assistance to those in need.

…and of what has this “increasingly nasty campaign” consisted?  LifeSiteNews offers some insight courtesy of one of the individuals pointing out the rot in the Catholic social justice movement.  Of specific note, here’s some of the gifts given by CRS to a handful of organizations doing some very unCatholic things:

  • $5.3 million to CARE, an organization that recently attended the London Family Planning Summit, announcing its full devotion to incorporating birth control programs in its charitable work,
  • $2.7 million to a population control organization that uses its work in distributing anti-malaria drugs and mosquito nets (the area for which CRS says it gave funds to Population Services International) as a means of spreading its population control programs,
  • CRS’ evaluation of its own project called “Preventing AIDS in Northeast India,”was found actually complaining that contraceptives were discussed in fidelity to Catholic teaching, noting “there was almost no reference to full and accurate information about condoms; any references to condoms were made only to explain how the community used to condemn condom use,”
  • Another CRS document on condom use in Vietnam that contradicts Catholic teaching on the matter of contraception.

The article concludes:

Despite the fact that CRS claims that it does not promote condoms, it is clear from at least these three documents that this claim simply is not true. CRS’ own documents not only provide positive information on condom use, but CRS’ evaluation of the PANI project complains that not enough information is being given on the correct use of condoms and their effectiveness. Unless you are trying to encourage people to use condoms, there is no reason to tell them about how to use them, or about how effective they are. Because of this, CRS cannot claim that it does not promote condoms.

Whether CRS is defending its funding practices on the basis that it isn’t providing fungible money to abortion and birth control promoting organizations, or that in funding such organizations “there’s a threshold in terms of what the focus of an agency is, and the preponderance of their work,” or that it is never directly involved in the promotion of birth control, we can see in this one article that CRS fails on all counts. 1) CRS is providing fungible money to MEDiCAM and CORE Group, which directly promote abortion and birth control; 2) CRS is providing millions of dollars to an organization whose sole focus and purpose for existing is the spread of abortion and birth control for the purpose of population control; and 3) CRS’ own documents identify its participation in the promotion of condom use.

In short, the problem we have here is not one of Catholic social justice, nor is it one of whether or not Catholic social justice has a role… but rather, whether the “social justice” and charity being presented by the staffs and apparatchiks of these Catholic charitable organizations is truly Catholic — both in spirit and in practice.

To this end, the OSV editorial lays out four concerns:

First, it is essential that Catholic organizations consciously affirm and live by their Catholic values. While not every employee may be a Catholic in every part of the world, the employees of any organization supported in whole or in part by Catholic donors must be crystal clear on the principles and values of that Catholic organization. While organizations like CRS receive or distribute government funding for humanitarian efforts such as malaria control or water purification, their identity and its foundational principles must never be muted.

Second, it’s complicated out there. Partner organizations may be opposed to Catholic beliefs or priorities. A system of highly sensitive checks and balances must be in place so that neither the bishops nor the Catholics who support these efforts are disappointed to find that funds were erroneously given for activities opposed to Church teaching or Catholic principles. CRS is to be applauded for asking outside organizations like the National Catholic Bioethics Center to review proposed partnerships and funding relationships. This shows an institutional humility and collaboration worth emulating.

Third, if there is one lesson the Church must continually relearn these days, it’s that transparency is mandatory. This means that an aid agency, like a diocese or bishops’ conference, must respond quickly and thoroughly when allegations are made, and do so publicly and consistently.

Finally, it is incumbent on those who publicly attack Catholic organizations to exhibit the same humility and transparency, as well as a mindfulness of what is at stake when poorly documented or overly broad accusations are made. The humility that is required of all Catholic organizations is most demanded of those who would appoint themselves watchdogs, which means that collaborative efforts to identify and correct potential abuses must come long before a war of press releases is initiated.

Three of which are directed towards Catholic Relief Services; one of which is directed towards the Catholic faithful.

On the first three, the issue is very clear:

(1) Fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church is not optional for a Catholic charity — we either are or are not practicing and living our faith.

(2) Yes, it’s complicated out there… but this is no excuse not to stand fast a little, to be more firm in our faith and to respect the dignity of human life in every aspect and at all times.

Perhaps most importantly, (3) transparency is not a matter of quickly explaining away scandal… rather, no Catholic should ever have to question whether their donation or gift is being used for Catholic purposes — ever.  When the Catholic faithful have to begin wondering whether our charity is being used for the purposes of say, getting rid of poverty by creating fewer poor people, then the entire edifice of Catholic charitable organizations (and that of the Church) comes to a screeching halt.  Ours is a faith, not the average non-profit.

On the fourth point, (4) a little bit of understanding goes a long way.  This unfortunately is where the words “attack” come into conflict with “fidelity” — is it really an attack to expose the rot?  Is it really an attack to point out an injustice within a framework that claims to uphold justice, and do so in a Catholic manner?

To this, the editors of Our Sunday Visitor would do well to take their own medicine.  OSV might perhaps want to consider whether there ought to be a conflict between, as they put it, social justice Catholics and pro-life Catholics.  The Catholic Church and several successive popes — from Leo XIII to Francis — have been remarkably clear on this.  There is no division, and moreover without a respect for the dignity of human life there can be no social justice.

This is not an attack.  This is the Catholic faith acting in society — the example of John Paul II and Leo XIII.  When our Catholic charitable institutions no longer live up to this standard, it is appropriate — nay, necessary — for the Catholic laity to whom so much has been asked by the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council, to ask why we are not living up to our promise and in full fidelity to our faith.

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in a 2002 USA Today op-ed concerning the abuse of children put the topic of scandal back on the Catholic Church rather bluntly:

In other words, how can we expect the Catholic people to be faithful to their sacred vows if they know that some, perhaps many, priests and bishops are not faithful to theirs?

The simple fact is that, if priests and bishops had been faithful to the church’s teaching and their sacred vows, there would be no scandal. Jesus asks in Luke 18, “When the Son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?” The crisis created by clerical sexual scandals is essentially about three things: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity.  (emphasis added)

Part of what we’re seeing here isn’t necessarily the CRS scandal or the CCHD scandal in and of itself.  Rather, it is a different scandal all together — a scandal recognized by Catholic thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton when he writes that virtue today has all the exhilaration of a vice.  It is a scandal of fidelity that some individuals within CRS are desperate to silence.  They know that the generation influenced by Pope John Paul II will no longer be satisfied by a Catholic bureaucracy striving for mediocrity.  Archbishop Chaput put it well in his November 2011 address to the students and faculty of Assumption College:

We make the future, not the other way around. Nothing in this world is inevitable except the victory of Jesus Christ; and that includes what history finally says about the character of the nation we call America. During my years as a bishop I’ve met thousands—and I mean many many thousands—of young adults on fire for Jesus Christ and deeply committed to their Catholic faith. And I’ve seen them come together in movements and projects that give their hunger for God real force: things like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, Communion and Liberation, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, the Christian Life Movement, and efforts like the wonderful new lay graduate school in Denver, the Augustine Institute.

I could name many other examples, but you get the idea. These Catholic young people aren’t alone. You can find them in every corner of the country. But they need the kind of leadership and the kind of education that radiates confidence in the Word of God; fidelity to the Catholic faith; and a missionary zeal to make all things new in Jesus Christ—including the public square.

I do think Father Murray misread how eager Catholics were to fit into the American mainstream and how painfully they felt their own social inferiority. And he didn’t live to see where these problems would lead. Instead of Catholics converting the culture, the culture too often bleached out the apostolic zeal in Catholics while leaving the brand label intact. Plenty of exceptions exist to that trend, but so far not enough of them to make a difference. This is why the large number of Catholics in political and economic leadership in our country has such limited effect on the country’s direction. And the lack of a vigorous Catholic witness goes beyond politics and the economy. It applies in a uniquely hurtful way to Catholic higher education.

The simple truth is that the generation of Catholics rising in America would rather be in the mainstream as a witness rather than in the world as a collaborator.  That is the core of Catholic social justice, and a Catholic laity unafraid to live the Gospel rightly will accept no less.Fr. Neuhaus would be pleased.

Unfortunately, the old guard is having a hard time catching up.  Catholic Relief Services makes a critical mistake when, in order to fit in to the system of government grants and worldly non-profits — some of whom are antithetical to Catholic morals and virtues — they sacrifice their Catholic identity in order to be of the world rather than in it.

St. Peter had a different view on the matter, as do his successors and the Catholic faithful as a whole.