Blessed John Paul II

New statutes for Caritas may have far-reaching consequences for new evangelization

  • May 8, 2012

ROME - Much of the recent news from Rome deals with matters that, though important, will have minimal effect on the life of the Church as a whole. The negotiations with the Society of St. Pius X, the admission of former Anglicans to full communion, even the doctrinal assessment of one of the leadership associations of American women religious — all of these items are at the margins, rather than the centre, of the universal Church. The Society of St. Pius X has a significant presence in only a few countries, the former Anglicans in even fewer and the congregational leadership subject to doctrinal assessment represents an aging and rapidly diminishing component of American religious life.

Yet one recent piece of news is potentially of great significance for the daily life of the Church throughout the world. The Holy See announced last week reformed statutes for Caritas Internationalis, the global umbrella group of various Catholic development agencies.

Caritas Internationalis, based in Vatican City, is made up of 164 Catholic relief, development and social service agencies working in almost 200 countries. Most of the members are national Caritas bodies, or relief and development agencies sponsored by national bishops’ conferences, such as the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

The new statutes bind Caritas Internationalis more closely to the Holy See. Any documents it issues, or moral guidelines for aid work, will be reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Holy See office for economic affairs will supervise its financial accounting and procedures. Any agreements that Caritas Internationalis enters into with governments will have to be approved by the Secretariat of State. And its top leadership will have to be approved by the papal charity department, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.

The stricter oversight is aimed at ensuring that all of the works of Caritas are consistent with Catholic teaching and that the international aid body does not operate a sort of independent foreign policy apart from the Holy See’s own relations with states.

The reformed statutes arose from longstanding concerns that the Church’s vast development and aid agencies too often operated as if the Church’s doctrinal and moral teaching was something of a burden to be borne. Especially in collaboration with secular aid agencies, the attitude was not rare that Catholic teaching was a policy to be worked around when found inconvenient by secular lights. Many in the Caritas family may therefore regard the new statutes as something of a disciplinary manoeuvre. Some in Caritas may well chafe against a tighter leash.

Yet it would be a mistake to see this as merely an act of discipline or mere enforcement of orthodoxy. There is nothing “mere” about it, for the ongoing reform of Caritas seeks to make concrete a point of fundamental Christian orthodoxy, namely that care for the afflicted and suffering is an essential part of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In 2004, when Blessed John Paul II set in motion the current reforms, he framed the work of Caritas in the context of the new commandment of love given to the Church by Jesus at the Last Supper. More profoundly, in 2005, when Pope Benedict wrote his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, he taught that the Church’s charitable service was as essential to her mission as preaching Jesus Christ and administering the sacraments.

That was something of a pointed reminder to Catholics who think that the “real” work of the Church is teaching doctrine and celebrating the sacraments, with the works of charity taking second place. It was also a reminder that the works of charity are not the soft, attractive part of Catholic life, as opposed to the hard, forbidding teaching on faith and morals. Doctrine, sacraments and charitable works all proceed from the same Gospel, and the work of evangelization requires all three.

The reform of Caritas Internationalis — which may well serve as a template for the relationship of national Caritas agencies with their own local bishops — therefore has an important theological point to make. One cannot separate different aspects of Catholic life from each other, choosing to live one but not the other.

It is more than 20 years ago that a reform of Catholic higher education was attempted with the document Ex Corde Ecclesiae — meaning from the heart of the Church. Just as the work of education proceeds from the heart of the Church, so too do the works of charity.

And given that every parish in the world does some sort of charitable work, to insist again upon that may well have far-reaching consequences for the new evangelization.

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