As anticipated, the General Assembly of Caritas Internationalis under way in Rome this week has turned out to be a defining moment in the organisation's 60-year-old history, as one leading Vatican official after another has sought to tie it more closely to the Holy See and the Church's mission ad gentes.
General Assemblies, which happen every four years, bring together some 300 delegates from the confederation's 165 national bodies of Catholic charities in 200 countries. With a combined budget of around $5bn, Caritas is an enormous network of charitable organizations of varying size which are answerable to their the local bishops; given the size and prevalence of Catholic charitable activity, Caritas is for large numbers of people across the globe their primary contact with the Catholic Church.
The four speeches by Vatican officials at this week's assembly is unprecedented in CI's history. The Caritas secretariat's own invited keynote speaker, the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe OP -- a trustee of the British Catholic development agency Cafod -- was stood down to make way for the Vatican's line-up (according to the Tablet, Fr Radcliffe had already prepared his talk.)
The Vatican's agenda is not unexpected. Tensions erupted in February when Lesley-Anne Knight, CI's British secretary-general, was refused the chance to stand for a second four-year term after the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, withdrew permission for her to stand (see earlier post). The CI leadership bureau sought a meeting with the Cardinal to persuade him to reconsider, but was rebuffed, amidst reports of a breakdown in trust between CI and the Vatican (see later post). Cardinal Bertone later wrote to the world's bishops explaining that "during the next four years particular attention will have to be given to harmonising the theological dimension of Caritas Internationalis … with its role as an organisation operating on the international stage".
Since then, however, relations are said to have improved, with the Caritas secretariat accepting that the Vatican has the power to withdraw its nihil obstat to candidates, and both sides cooperating on the revision of CI's complex statutes.
But in his opening address to the assembly delegates yesterday, CI's president, Honduran cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez de Maradiaga, made clear that feelings still run high. Praising Knight's professionalism and faith, he told the assembly that "the way she was not allowed to stand as a candidate ... has caused grievance in our confederation, above all within the many women working for Caritas across the world. They have seen much hope in her election and achievements."
Cardinal Rodríguez was today re-elected for another four-year term as confederation president. Later this week the assembly will choose Dr Knight's replacement. Three of the six candidates have been refused the nihil obstat. Whoever is elected on Thursday from the remaining three - -- Paulo Beccegato of Caritas Italy, Michel Roy of Caritas France, or Karel Zelenka, CRS representative for South Africa -- will have to keep the Vatican much more in mind than in the past.
The view in the Vatican is that since 2004 (when Pope John Paul II amended the statutes) CI is a public juridical body of the Church, and needs therefore to reflect that in its language and actions. That means, for example, tighter control over institutions CI signs working agreements with: according to a detailed backgrounder by the CNS's John Thavis, the Vatican has temporarily suspended relations with certain UN agencies because of disquiet over family planning and abortion. Also of concern to the Vatican is the way that Caritas policy documents are interpreted as offical pronouncements of church teaching -- an issue addressed by the new statutes, which create a formal mechanism of consultation between CI and the Vatican.
Another source of tension has been the relationship between CI and the pontifical council Cor Unum, created by Pope Paul VI in 1971 as a Vatican charitable body "to enable coordination and unification of the Church's efforts whilst intervening on behalf of the poorest". Is CI -- a federation of local national bodies answerable to local bishops -- also accountable to Cor Unum? Tensions over that question have been simmering for years -- as Dr Knight's predecessor, Duncan MacLaren, has described here.
Looking over the speeches by the secretary of state, Cardinal Bertone, the head of Cor Unum, Cardinal Robert Sarah, the president of the Council for Justice & Peace, Peter Turkson, and the preacher to the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the messages are constant and consistent, suggesting that the speeches were well coordinated in advance.
Four principal messages shine through:
1. CI's status means it should work more closely with the Holy See. CI getting public canonical legal status in 2004 was "to unite it more closely to the Holy See to increasingly guarantee the specific nature of our witness of charity in the world" (Sarah); it gave CI a share in the Church's mission -- "a share that Caritas Internationalis is constantly called to reflect deeply upon, to appropriate, and to express in practice" (Bertone); CI's advocacy "unfolds within the policies and directives of the Holy See ... and of the local Episcopal conference" (Turkson). The goal of the assembly is a "renewed relationship with the agencies of the Holy See" (Bertone); "The activity of Caritas Internationalis is supervised and guided by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum" (Turkson).
2. CI is part of the Church's mission. "Our charitable works are located within the Church and not alongside her. A Caritas that wasn't an ecclesial expression would have no meaning or existence" (Sarah). CI is part of the "fundamental dimension of the Church's structured charitable activity", "a public sign of the Church", whose mission is "carried out in the Church" (Bertone). Pius XII set up CI to "operate in the universal Church and gather together the national charitable agencies authorized by the respective Bishops" (Turkson).
3. Catholic charity is a form of evangelization. "The first 'charity' we are called upon to give to our neighbour, even when distributing food and medicines, is to transmit to them the love of God" (Cantalamessa). "Caritas is part and parcel of evangelization" (Turkson). "The Church must not only practise charity, but practise it as Christ did" (Bertone). Caritas is concerned not merely with humanitarian assistance "but also ... promoting an anthropology that also encompasses the religious dimension of human persons, namely their encounter with God". It is "bearing witness to a love that comes not from us but from God". "The most tragic hunger and the most terrible anguish is not lack of food. It's much more about the absence of God and the lack of true love". (Sarah).
4. Beware materialism and professionalism. "There is a risk of turning the service of charity into a civil service function, namely to separate the work of charity from the person who acts" (Sarah). "Your work should never be reduced to a social service, a mere distribution of resources. It is much more than just a job, a question of bureaucracy and administration" (Cantalamessa). We should not restrict our aid to those who share our faith, but "ask ourselves instead about the manner in which we provide our services -- do they reflect the values and the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who remains forever at the centre of our socio-pastoral service?" (Turkson).
It is clear that changes are ahead, as Rome seeks to bring Catholic charitable work -- one of the most visible and important signs of the Church in the world -- into line with Pope Benedict's vision in Deus Caritas Est.
And this isn't just about asserting greater supervision of the CI secretariat in Rome. According to Cardinal Rodriguez, a document has been prepared by Cor Unum -- and is being reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- which will "reemphasize the bishops' responsibility in their local or national Caritas". The document recognizes that, ecclesiologically, Caritas is "of" the bishops; but it will be looking to bishops to instil the same values into the Church's charitable sector locally.