The work that Caritas Internationalis does with the poor around the world won’t be affected by the sudden suspension of its management. CNS photo/Ann Wang, Reuters

Francis’ reform rocks Caritas Internationalis

  • December 1, 2022

A dramatic shutdown of the Caritas Internationalis offices in Rome by papal decree was a surprise, and not a surprise, to the leaders of the 162 Catholic agencies that belong to the world’s second largest humanitarian network after the Red Cross.

“This is a real shock to all, but at the same time most knew that things weren’t going well at the secretariat level, with many resignations, complaints and political games that were undermining CI (Caritas Internationalis) for some time now,” said Development and Peace-Caritas Canada executive director Carl Hetu.

By decree, Pope Francis suspended the management, executive committee and regional committee of the Rome office at the centre of the global Catholic network. The former president of the organization, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, has been assigned to assist the new temporary administrator, Dr. Pier Francesco Pinelli, an Italian management consultant. The decree also names Caritas head of advocacy Maria Amparo Alonso Escobar and Portuguese Jesuit Fr. Manuel Morujão to the temporary administration under Pinelli.

The shakeup in Rome is a signal that the Pope considers Caritas a central and important arm of the Church, Cardinal Michael Czerny told The Catholic Register in an email.

“It (the charitable work of Caritas) is already at the centre of the Church’s concern, and the co-ordinating or networking office, Caritas Internationalis, of the worldwide federation of national Caritases has to be up to the measure of this very important mission,” Czerny said.

Nothing about the events in Rome should have any effect on any of the 162 Caritas agencies around the world. They are all autonomous organizations. But by the time the member agencies meet again in May to elect a new executive committee, Czerny hopes the reformed office in Rome will be more useful to the work of the entire network.

“One hopes that a better-run secretariat and more coherent bodies will have a positive ripple effect amongst the 162 Caritas members,” he said. “But they themselves and their operations are not within the purview of the evaluation of CI and the subsequent appointment of a temporary administrator.”

It makes sense that Pope Francis would personally intervene in Caritas, said King’s University College history professor Robert Ventresca, who is one of two general editors of the forthcoming three-volume Cambridge History of the Papacy.

“As with his reforms in other matters of governance, Francis is keenly aware that good governance is essential for the morale of organizations,” Ventresca said by email. “In this case, Francis seems to be signalling the need to reform and modernize structures and processes to make them more responsive to humanitarian needs on the ground. Clearly, Francis is less interested than his immediate predecessors in policing doctrinal alignment and more interested in making sure that humanitarian aid reaches people in need.”

“The Pope sees Caritas as the most important charity and justice organization of the Church,” said Hetu. “If he acted like this, that’s because he realized that with the current leadership it was impossible to move forward.”

Development and Peace members and donors should know that the Canadian organization is legally separate from the office in Rome, and the shake-up has no impact on day-to-day operations in Canada, Hetu said.

“For us, it doesn’t change the way we work. It doesn’t change the program we have. It doesn’t change how the money is used,” he said.

Hetu understands the drive to reform Caritas Internationalis as lining up with the Synod on Synodality, with its emphasis on transparency and an open style of communication.

“His goal is really to redirect Caritas to make it even better, particularly in the sense of reconciliation and synodality — meaning listening and acting,” Hetu said.

Direct papal investment in a transnational network of modern Catholic humanitarian agencies began between the wars in the middle of the last century. In the wake of massive displacements of ethnic and religious minorities in Russia, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere at the end of the First World War, Pope Benedict XV and then Pope Pius XI directed a network of agencies to help refugees. In 1926 these agencies were tied together in the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

In 1951, while Europe’s network of displacement camps were folding, the Cold War was ramping up and the world was coming to terms with the Holocaust, Caritas Interationalis was founded to co-ordinate this work on a more global scale. After the Second Vatican Council bishops’ conferences in Europe and North America set up agencies in response to a broader crisis of development as former colonies in Africa, Asia and Latin America gained independence. Development and Peace in Canada, Catholic Relief Services in the United States and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development in England and Wales were among these agencies.

Under Francis’ curial reforms, the Caritas network has fallen under the leadership of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, of which Czerny is prefect.

“I believe that what the Holy Father has decided expresses his pastoral outlook, his strong, fatherly care — not only towards the poorest, neediest and most suffering in the world, but also towards colleagues and staff who carry out such an important commitment of the Church: charity,” Czerny said.

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