Catholic organizations have long stood on the front lines of efforts to provide relief and humanitarian aid to people in need throughout the world. But what about these organizations makes them distinctly Catholic? 

The question has come to the forefront of debate in recent weeks after the Vatican’s mandate that global Catholic aid agency Caritas Internationalis seek new leadership. The organization’s current secretary-general, Lesley-Anne Knight, was denied the “nihil obstat” — a necessary Vatican stamp of approval — to be nominated to a second term in the position on the basis of a perceived need by the Holy See for major changes in the way Caritas operates. 

As tensions mount between the two sides, a new group appears to be gaining ground — and the Vatican’s favor — in the world of Catholic humanitarian aid. The Tempe, Ariz.-based Caritas in Veritate International, which takes both its name and mission from the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI, is not only using Catholic teaching to inspire its works but is attempting to spread that teaching to the people it serves. 

Identity questioned 

The Vatican’s decision to block Knight from a second term as secretary-general comes on the heels of concerns over whether the international organization, which has member groups in 165 countries, was maintaining a strong enough Catholic identity. 

Patrick Nicholson, a spokesman for Caritas Internationalis, told Our Sunday Visitor that the Vatican has asked the organization to focus on improvements to this and other areas of its work and that Caritas officials plan to address the need for change at their upcoming general assembly in May. 

“It will be vital to reflect on how best Caritas can serve the poor on behalf of the Church,” Nicholson said. “As ever, the advice and counsel of the Holy See will be welcome and enriching.” 

But determining when a Catholic organization has crossed the line between providing faith-based or secular aid can often be difficult. According to Michael Wiest, executive vice president of charitable giving for Catholic Relief Services, certain partnerships or other actions that further an agency’s mission can sometimes be seen as an abandonment of Catholic identity. 

“Sometimes it might be a legitimate concern, that organizations have become more secular than Catholic,” Wiest told OSV. “But sometimes it is a misperception of things like taking government funding, having non-Catholic employees — those kinds of things sometimes get … caught up in this conversation about ‘how Catholic are you anyway?’” 

For CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international aid agency and a member of Caritas Internationalis, maintaining its Catholic identity has been a top priority that influences decisions on all aspects of its work, Wiest said. He explained that the organization has looked to the teachings of the Church to continuously re-evaluate its mission, with the goal of being an unmistakably Catholic presence in the places it serves as opposed to just another charitable organization. 

“We are an expression of Christ’s love to our brothers and sisters around the world, and our work is to promote just and peaceful societies, the kingdom of God on earth,” Wiest said. “And that implies more than just socioeconomic development.” 

But for Caritas in Veritate International, being a Catholic aid organization has an added dimension — sharing the truth of the Gospel with those they serve. 

“To be treating the needs of the body without treating the needs of the soul can be a big mistake,” said Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, a founding member of Caritas in Veritate and president of the Magis Center for Reason and Faith in Irvine, Calif. 

“We are truly trying to do both,” he told OSV. “We don’t want to sacrifice one scintilla of the aid that we might be able to give to people, but we also want to directly bring the light of Christ to them as well.” 

That’s not an approach that Caritas Internationalis is willing to take in its work, which according to Nicholson is a necessity to ensure the safety of the organization’s staff and to maintain its relationships with the countries it serves. 

“Caritas cannot proselytize in delivering aid,” Nicholson said. “To do so would put the lives of both beneficiaries and staff at great risk and force the closure of programs that save the lives of millions of people.” 

Father Spitzer recognizes that concern and says that Caritas in Veritate is willing to forgo evangelizing in countries where it is not permitted or safe to do so. Yet he feels it is crucial for aid workers to always be prepared to talk about the faith rather than assuming that it will never be acceptable. 

“Frequently enough, it is wanted,” Father Spitzer said. 

“There’s no doubt that restrictions can exist, and so if you are going to serve people in countries that have restrictions, you are going to have to temper what you say in terms of your Christian mission to them,” he added. “But nevertheless, if you do have the possibility, you want to optimize your ability to evangelize not only wherever that is allowed but wherever the hunger and the possibility exists.” 

With the support of the Vatican’s Cor Unum pontifical council already behind it, and its work closely following recent papal encyclicals, some believe Caritas in Veritate International could replace Caritas Internationalis as the Church’s leader in international humanitarian aid. 

Father Spitzer said he believes that the Church is indeed moving in the direction of a more missionary-based approach in its service to the poor. 

“Just reading what Pope Benedict’s encyclicals say, it is very clear that we want to be respectful of other places, but … we want to be bringing Jesus to them,” he said. 

“I do think the Church is going in that direction,” he continued. “And why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you want to bring this transformative, full experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ? We want that to be part and parcel of what we do and who we are.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Illumined by Faith (sidebar)

The risk for our time is that the de facto interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development. Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value. The sharing of goods and resources, from which authentic development proceeds, is not guaranteed by merely technical progress and relationships of utility, but by the potential of love that overcomes evil with good (see Rom 12:21), opening up the path towards reciprocity of consciences and liberties. 

— Caritas in Veritate, No. 9

New Face of Catholic Aid (sidebar)

Founded May 1, 2010, Caritas in Veritate International was formed out of the work of Youth Arise International, a network of 45 groups worldwide devoted to forming young missionary leaders, and the Partnership for China, an effort to serve the Catholic population of China. Describing itself as a “charitable missionary organization,” Caritas in Veritate trains volunteers to respond in crisis situations, serve the needs of the poor and spread the truth of the Gospel in countries throughout the world. 

The organization’s first major project is the Caritas Village in Haiti, a sustainable community offering housing, medical and social services, education and economic development opportunities to families displaced by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. 

Caritas in Veritate operates from its international headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., with offices in Washington, D.C., and Rome.