By Russell Shaw - OSV Newsweekly, 8/19/2012
In recent years, groups of all kinds have hastened to affirm their commitment to transparency. Especially since the eruption of the clergy sex abuse scandal and its cover-up by ecclesiastical authorities, the friends of transparency have included the Catholic Church.
Even the Vatican lately jumped on this bandwagon, declaring transparency to be the operating policy of the Institute for Religious Works — the trouble-plagued Vatican bank.
Unfortunately, the gap between principle and practice is sometimes wide. Not every group finds it easy to be transparent.
One reason for that is habit: “We’ve always done it this way,” meaning we’ve always done business under wraps.
Another is convenience. The group may be doing the right thing, but the people in charge don’t care to take time to explain what they’re up to and why it’s OK. A third reason is lack of a clear, agreed-on understanding of what “transparency” means. (A rough, working definition might be: the practice of openness in the conduct of affairs, with secrecy reserved for cases where it’s needed to protect the rights of individuals or the common good of all.)
Criticism over grant
The latest high-profile incident in which neglecting transparency produced grief for a Church group involves Catholic Relief Services. The U.S. bishops’ overseas development and relief agency has long been one of the crown jewels of the institutional infrastructure of American Catholicism.
Several weeks ago, a pro-life website called LifeSiteNews posted a story saying that in 2010, CRS made a $5.3 million grant to another well-known international charity, CARE. The grant was for food, water, sanitation and nutrition programs for the poor in five Central American countries along with Zimbabwe and Madagascar in Africa.
LifeSiteNews said CARE also provides contraceptives and abortifacients. On those grounds, it criticized the Catholic agency for making the grant. Some other critics agreed.
CRS responded in two July postings on its website. Among other things, it said the grant had the approval of its board of bishops and laypeople, and was reviewed by John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which evaluates moral issues by the teaching of the Church. The NCBC then issued a statement (see sidebar).
A question of disclosure
The principal facts in this dispute appear to be as follows.
CRS and CARE have given each other grants before. The money comes from U.S. government funds that are provided for specific purposes and can’t be used for other purposes. The grants are given by one agency to the other for projects in areas where the grant maker doesn’t have personnel and infrastructure in place and the grant recipient does.
CRS said it has similar relationships with other groups but didn’t name them. In 2010, the year of CRS’ $5.3 million grant to CARE, CARE gave $4 million to CRS.
The Catholic agency said it “strictly upholds Catholic moral teaching” and disagrees with CARE’s position on contraception. None of the money it gave CARE could be used for that purpose, it said. Rather, it went for projects serving a great and good purpose — saving lives that otherwise wouldn’t have been saved.
The bioethics center’s Haas agreed. But he cautioned CRS about the danger of “scandal” if morally legitimate cooperation with a group engaged in doing evil would give others the impression that the Church was “indifferent to the evil.”
This is where CRS should have taken the hint and moved to prevent scandal by making full public disclosure of the facts of its relationships with CARE and other groups — by, for example, spelling it all out on its website.
Instead, CRS added to its mission statement a brief, general declaration that its relationships with other, unnamed groups that don’t adhere to Church teaching are “always and only focused on activities that are fully consistent with” that teaching. It also listed the CARE grant and its grants to other groups in its annual report to the Internal Revenue Service.
These steps fall well short of what is ordinarily meant by transparency. As recent events have shown, that left it to LifeSiteNews to break the story with a negative spin, with CRS obliged to play catchup by issuing explanations it should have issued much earlier.
If CRS is smart, it will learn from this experience and make transparency its across-the-board policy going forward.
Editorial: The need for a Church transparent
People acquainted with Church organizations have seen this pattern of events many times before. For example, the bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, has suffered a series of embarrassing disclosures by outside groups concerning grants to groups opposed to Catholic teaching. Lack of transparency in grant making has been part of the problem.
In days to come, Catholic humanitarian programs at the diocesan, national and international levels will need to practice great care — and consistent transparency — if they intend to have relationships with non-Church groups and the government.
This need, already very real, will increase if, as seems likely, the non-Catholic sector continues to step up its support for activities opposed to Catholic teaching in areas like family planning and abortion. Transparency won’t prevent that from happening, but it could save the Church from avoidable embarrassment and serious moral compromise.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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