Pope Benedict XVI makes a provocative assertion in his 2005 encyclical “God is Love”: “Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the sacraments and the Word.” 

That radical importance placed on the Church’s charitable work helps to explain recent efforts by the pontiff and the Vatican to get more closely involved in the operation of Catholic aid organizations. 

They’ve started with Caritas Internationalis, a 60-year-old Vatican-based confederation of Catholic aid agencies from around the world, including the U.S. bishops’ foreign aid arm, Catholic Relief Services

At a general assembly late last month in Rome, Caritas delegates elected a new secretary general — Michel Roy, a 30-year employee of Secours Catholique (Caritas France) — after the Vatican took the unusual step of denying approval of a second term to the current Caritas head, Lesley-Anne Knight. The Vatican’s move was widely seen as clearing the way for a new executive who will do more to strengthen the organization’s Catholic identity and relationships to Church leadership. 

In recent years, Vatican officials have been concerned that Caritas has insufficiently distinguished itself from some of its United Nations and nongovernmental organization partners, and has adopted the language of “gender politics” and vocabulary used in secular anti-AIDS campaigns rather than the Catholic understanding of sexuality and human dignity. 

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, in his speech opening the assembly, said the Vatican will also soon be urging the world’s bishops to pay closer attention to their local Catholic aid agencies. He said the Pontifical Council Cor Unum is preparing a decree to re-emphasize “the bishops’ responsibility in their local or national Caritas.” Catholic News Service reported in late May that a draft is now being reviewed by the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation. 

Not that the Vatican’s critique implies wholesale dismissal of aid efforts. Pope Benedict praised the Church’s charity work in his address to the Caritas general assembly, saying that through that witness, “seen in the daily lives of her members, the Church reaches out to millions of persons and makes it possible for them to recognize and sense the love of God, who is close to every man and woman in need.” 

That message is not just for “professional” Catholic aid workers. Just as the Church’s charitable organizations need to remember that faith is not some optional add-on to their work, individual Catholics need to remember that charity is not some optional add-on to their faith. 

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, told the Caritas general assembly that one of the priorities of Catholic aid agencies is to “be ruthless” in awakening ordinary Catholics to the plight of the poor. 

“Perhaps the greatest sin committed against the poor is indifference, pretending not to see, ‘passing by on the other side’ (Lk 10:31). ... We see [the poor] on our TV screens or in the pages of newspapers or missionary magazines, but their cries are a distant echo that never reaches our hearts. We protect ourselves from them. ... We need to let our defenses down and be overwhelmed by a healthy anxiety in face of the fearful misery there is in the world.” 

As the pope says, for Catholics, care for the poor is a non-negotiable “essential.”

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.