Bishops Defend Catholic Relief Services

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The U.S. Catholic Bishops have felt compelled to once again step into a public relations fray and defend a venerable Catholic agency against an attack from self-appointed Catholic gadflies, primarily LifeSiteNews and the Population Research Institute. These often internet-based entities, which are sustained by donations that are often driven by media campaigns, in recent years have frequently alleged that major Catholic advocacy and humanitarian efforts are supporting—unknowingly or otherwise—community empowerment, economic development or humanitarian relief agencies which may issue statements, join coalitions or engage in direct service which are contrary to Catholic doctrine, most often related to birth control or same sex marriage.

The usual target for such groups, which have turned defending Catholic orthodoxy into an internet-powered cottage industry, has been the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and its mission to support political and economic empowerment among the nation’s low-income communities. Over the past year, however, they have branched out and now include staff members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and even the venerable Catholic Relief Services. Criticism of C.R.S. at LifeSiteNews accelerated last year after the 2012 cancellation of a printing contract between C.R.S. and a company owned and run by the family of American Life League founder Judie Brown. The league is the primary sponsor of LifeSiteNews.


Speaking to media yesterday, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S.C.C.B., expressed some exasperation with the relentlessness of the critics of C.R.S. and other large-scale and complex Catholic operations. According to Cardinal Dolan, C.R.S. staff and individual bishops have tried to respond to the concerns raised by the critical groups. “I 've got to be honest with you,” he added. “With particular groups we’re tempted to get so frustrated that we say, ‘They are never going to be happy.’ They don’t trust us; they don’t believe us. They seem to think that the best thing they can do is criticize.  And we sometimes shrug and say all we can do is tell you we have listened to you…we have looked into [these allegations] scrupulously; we are trying our best and we are convinced that we act in complete consonance with Catholic teaching.”

While C.R.S. President and CEO Carolyn Woo has told the bishops that no agency is perfect, she said the agency tries to respond to concerns as they are raised and assured the bishops, according to Cardinal Dolan, that the agency’s principles are clear and its accountability is vigorous. “I don’t know what more we can ask for,” Cardinal Dolan said.

Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, added, "We don't have perfection here on earth of any organization, but they adhere very strongly in terms of their values and principles ... and they will not deviate from that.”

In their September 10 statement, the bishops wrote, “Sadly, in recent weeks some groups have raised questions about this extraordinary witness to the Gospel of life. They have raised allegations about C.R.S.’s adherence to church teaching and its identity as a Catholic institution.

“In light of this, and based on thorough investigations into the concerns, we wish to assure the Catholic faithful that C.R.S. fully and faithfully adheres to Church teaching in fulfilling its mission of mercy.”

In their statement, the bishops issued a strong defense of the agency. “We want to make it clear that those making these public critiques, albeit, we hope, in good faith, do not speak for the Catholic Church and we advise the Catholic faithful to exercise caution and consult the C.R.S. website for clarification before endorsing or giving credence to the groups’ critiques.

“At the same time, we do urge the Catholic faithful to continue to support Catholic Relief Services. The U.S. Catholic bishops stand firmly behind C.R.S. in its commitment to promote and defend human dignity and the sacredness of every human life from the moment of conception until natural death, and at every moment in between.”

In a previous online statement, C.R.S. spokesperson John Rivera responded to critics. “Over the past months, C.R.S. has been the target of a coordinated series of attacks, condemning aspects of our work, our partners, professional associations, and even some of our employees. We want to be clear that we are open to and welcome correction, presented to us by people and organizations who offer it in the spirit of Christian charity and with the intention of helping us to live the Gospel mission of serving the poorest of the poor around the world.

“In substance and tone, these recent unrelenting attacks are not helpful. They attempt to cause division in the Body of Christ. This is harmful to the church and to the pro-life cause.”

The most recent allegations emerging from the Population Research Institute are that C.R.S. is participating in health programs in Madagascar that are engaged in family planning activities and that local clerics are complaining that C.R.S. entities are “staffed by Protestants.” C.R.S. hiring policies are nondiscriminatory.

Asked to comment on the bishops' statement Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute and author of the reports critical of C.R.S., sent the following statement: "Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of Cor Unum, has clearly stated that a '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.' Since many of the employees of CRS are not Catholic, while some are not even Christian, how can they 'frequent ... the sacraments' or 'have a personal relationship with God.'  How does CRS intend to correct the secular humanistic approach to development that pervades its ranks if it does not preferentially hire Catholics?"

In an online statement Rivera acknowledged that “it is true that C.R.S. works with groups which do not share our Catholic values. We employ non-Catholics as well as Catholics. We belong to coalitions which extend the reach of services to the poor often in remote areas where we do not operate. We are members of professional associations so as to obtain information and technological advances so that we are best prepared to serve those who are in our care. When these associations offer programs which run contrary to church teachings, we do not participate.”

He added, “Our membership in these coalitions gives us a platform to present effective methods and procedures that demonstrate the efficacy of Catholic approaches to health and family planning. These are our opportunities to make space in the public for the Catholic viewpoint and to witness to our faith.” 

Established in 1943, C.R.S. is the international humanitarian agency of the bishops of the United States. Last year, C.R.S. served more than 100 million people in 91 countries.

Responding to specific charges against C.R.S., the bishops reported in their statement:

▪ It is and has been C.R.S.’ policy never to distribute or promote artificial contraceptives or abortifacients or to promote abortion.

▪ All of C.R.S.’ life-saving work to provide food and clean water, to fight malaria and other diseases, to promote education, and to help the poor find ways to support themselves and their families fully conforms with Catholic teaching.

▪ C.R.S. has a very strong training program for all of its nearly 5,000 staff around the world. In 2012, it expanded this program to include an agency-wide tutorial, "Protecting Life”, that informs staff of the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life, contraception and abortion and explains C.R.S.’ requirement that they uphold this teaching in their work.  

▪ C.R.S. has a careful vetting system to ensure that its activities and partnerships with other groups or governments are forms of cooperation that do not violate Catholic teaching. As C.R.S.’ work necessitates collaboration with a broad network of partners in complex environments with a regularly changing focus, this system is constantly reviewed and updated. The agency welcomes questions and concerns offered in a spirit of Christian charity. If any weaknesses or problems are found assessment and action are undertaken to correct the problem.  

▪ C.R.S. represents the Catholic community of the U.S. at the invitation and with the support of local Church leaders in 91 countries around the world. C.R.S.’ activities must be acceptable to those local Churches, follow their policies and the policies of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. If questions or concerns are raised by the local Church in any of the countries served, they are addressed and resolved.

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Mary Reichel
5 years 3 months ago
This looks to me like another cover up scandal by the Bishops. In this carefully worded statement they do not actually deny the facts that CRS gave grants to organizations that also distributed contraception, abortifacients and more. And they cast aspersions on the American Life League which is heroic in its defense of life. I used to trust CRS but no more. How sad that the bishops can't simply admit that mistakes were made and correct the situation.


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