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Guestview: How Catholic should a Catholic charity be?

June 1, 2011

(Homeless Egyptian children enjoy a meal in Kafr El Sisi Center for Children at Risk in the Giza neighbourhood of Cairo March 12, 2007. The street children are fed, taught vocational skills, given health care and counselled at the center run by Caritas/Goran Tomasevic)

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.

(North Koreans receive rice distributed in August 1997 in Nampo, North Korea, by Caritas Japan. Before this delivery, malnutrition had spread, particularly among infants, because no rice had been distributed for three months in the areas hit by flooding and drought/Caritas)

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.

 

(Homeless people have a free Christmas lunch served by Caritas at a Catholic monastery in Grodno, some 260 km (162 miles) west of Minsk, December 23, 2009/Alexander Sayenko)

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Comments
2 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I rather think the clue is in the term ‘Catholic Charity’. If the church is so deeply linked to an organisation then it should indeed be an expectation that the staff of that organisation are practicing Catholics.

Following this line it is not unreasonable to then expect them to provide for all the needs of the people they help including spiritual.

This may restrict the theaters that they are able to deploy to, as the author notes above, but there are many secular charities who can go where Christian charities cannot and would therefore be able to work in these places.

Caritas needs a strong Catholic identity, philosophy and vision to take it forward and this is a start. However that vision needs to permiate through all levels of the organisation – not just in who is working for it but in what they are doing and where.

The author is absolutely right – Lets not assume that this will be an easy task.

Posted by ThoughtfulPug | Report as abusive
 

I feel like this article was poorly written and difficult to understand. I had to read this sentence: “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.” three times before I understood what the first half of it meant. A reader should not have to work that hard to understand a story.

“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.”

Eek.

Posted by BeesKnees | Report as abusive
 

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