Guestview: How Catholic should a Catholic charity be?
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Abigail Frymann is Online Editor of the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, where this first appeared.
By Abigail Frymann
How Catholic should a Catholic charity be? The confederation of Catholic charities Caritas Internationalis elected a new secretary general, Michel Roy, last week after the re-appointment of the previous incumbent, Lesley-Anne Knight, was blocked, apparently because the Vatican wanted a stronger Catholic identity.
When I wrote for one Protestant charity we would have to check we had spelled out some reference to the spiritual dimension of its work so that supporters knew they weren’t reading about a secular agency. Someone at another charity I have worked with, this time Catholic, admitted that they highlighted their Catholic roots for one audience and played them down for another.
At HIV/Aids conferences, Christian charities are thrown in together with no end of charities that are pro-condom, pro-choice, pro-all sorts of methods they wouldn’t choose to adopt. They have to defend their beliefs in, for example, advocating abstinence or working to reduce the stigma of the disease and convince others that these are intelligent, viable and compassionate responses. And as Christians who carry the hope of the Gospel, there is on the face of it a perversity in not sharing something of that treasure with people who are in need and ask about it.
But in 21st century secular Europe, many people are deeply suspicious of any action they consider remotely redolent of proselytising. Elsewhere in the world, there are very serious risks to being more Catholic, or Christian in one’s identity as a charity worker. In Afghanistan for example – despite its vast needs – religious aid workers have to promise that they will not breathe a word of their faith to be allowed to operate in the country. The dangers of being too open about faith need to be acknowledged miles away in Rome.
Maybe it’s not the Taleban that the Roman officials want their foot-soldiers to stand up to, but the Western liberals. Those, powerful as they may be, do not wield swords. And here Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ phrase comes to mind that religion is not a problem to be solved, but a gift to be discovered afresh.
To work for a Catholic charity, a Christian charity, you have to believe that the “added extra” of your employer’s faith dimension is not just optional, a line to be added to copy at the last minute, but integral to that charity’s mission. It’s not easy and the other voices in the market place will always try to assert that faith isn’t necessary for good works – but (and I’m not talking about the faith identity becoming unpleasantly separatist) at best it’s the salt and light, the inspiration, the ear straining to discern the will of God, the prophetic voice trying to communicate his message to a world that needs his healing.
So let’s not assume that Ms Knight had an easy task heading a Catholic aid network in the very mixed market place of aid, and let’s not assume that strengthening its so-called Catholic identity in a way that makes sense inside and outside the Vatican will be straightforward.