One of the ill fruits of the Church’s ideological divisions has been a dangerous split between those who are “social justice Catholics” and those who are “pro-life Catholics.” This fracturing of the Gospel message and the core teachings of the Church has led to a host of unintended consequences. Layered onto this polarization has been the erosion of Catholic identity in some sectors of the Church, and a kind of ideological vigilantism in others. Both can lead to a tremendous distrust of institutional Church structures and a readiness to ascribe nefarious or self-serving motives to those Catholics with whom one disagrees.
The onslaught of accusations against Catholic social justice groups divides the Church and threatens assistance for the neediest among us.
All of this is the backdrop to what’s become an increasingly nasty campaign against a variety of social justice-oriented Catholic organizations. This onslaught of accusations is sowing extraordinary confusion and mistrust, which in turn not only divides the Church, but also threatens assistance to those in need.
Recently, Catholic Relief Services has borne the brunt of these attacks. Our Sunday Visitor has covered this issue, both pointing out problematic situations (several years ago) and more recently defending them from what we believe are unfair or unfounded accusations. Our greater concern is that the drumbeat of criticism will deter good-hearted Catholics from giving to an organization founded by the bishops that is one of the premier first responders to the victims of disasters both natural and man-made. CRS understands, as should other Catholic aid organizations, that there are new lessons and old truths to be garnered from the attacks it is now enduring.
First, it is essential that Catholic organizations consciously affirm and live by their Catholic values. While not every employee may be a Catholic in every part of the world, the employees of any organization supported in whole or in part by Catholic donors must be crystal clear on the principles and values of that Catholic organization. While organizations like CRS receive or distribute government funding for humanitarian efforts such as malaria control or water purification, their identity and its foundational principles must never be muted.
Second, it’s complicated out there. Partner organizations may be opposed to Catholic beliefs or priorities. A system of highly sensitive checks and balances must be in place so that neither the bishops nor the Catholics who support these efforts are disappointed to find that funds were erroneously given for activities opposed to Church teaching or Catholic principles. CRS is to be applauded for asking outside organizations like the National Catholic Bioethics Center to review proposed partnerships and funding relationships. This shows an institutional humility and collaboration worth emulating.
Third, if there is one lesson the Church must continually relearn these days, it’s that transparency is mandatory. This means that an aid agency, like a diocese or bishops’ conference, must respond quickly and thoroughly when allegations are made, and do so publicly and consistently.
Finally, it is incumbent on those who publicly attack Catholic organizations to exhibit the same humility and transparency, as well as a mindfulness of what is at stake when poorly documented or overly broad accusations are made. The humility that is required of all Catholic organizations is most demanded of those who would appoint themselves watchdogs, which means that collaborative efforts to identify and correct potential abuses must come long before a war of press releases is initiated.