At Caritas Assembly, Vatican to Address 'Catholic Identity' Issue

By Thavis, John | National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

At Caritas Assembly, Vatican to Address 'Catholic Identity' Issue

Thavis, John, National Catholic Reporter

VATICAN CITY * The general assembly of Caritas Internationalis in late May is shaping up as a defining moment for the confederation of 165 national Catholic charities, at a time when the Vatican is insisting on greater control over Caritas operations.

The agenda of the May 22-27 meeting reflects the Vatican's moves toward closer collaboration and supervision: On the assembly's first full working day, four Vatican officials will speak on the crucial topics of Catholic identity and the juridical status of Caritas Internationalis in the universal church.

Then new statutes for the organization, prepared by a working team of the Holy See and Caritas Internationalis, will be reviewed--statutes that, according to Caritas officials, would require them to consult with the Holy See before making certain decisions and would acknowledge the Holy See's authority over Caritas' financial and personnel issues.

The changes have not come without tension, but Vatican sources said that in recent talks with top officials of Caritas Internationalis the atmosphere has vastly improved, and that there's been "a great level of cooperation." They emphasized that the Vatican remains very supportive of Caritas and appreciates the key role it plays in promoting the church's social teaching and helping those in need.

The Vatican's move toward participation in the governance structures of Caritas Internationalis, the church's worldwide aid and development organization, is motivated in part by the organization's high public profile.

"Caritas Internationalis, as a public entity of the church, is authorized to speak and act for the church in the international forum. Because of that right and duty, it needs to speak the church's language and make sure that its activities and its agreements with non-Catholic agencies reflect what the church teaches," said one Vatican official.

The Vatican, recognizing that Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of independent charities that depend on local bishops, also wants the bishops more directly involved in oversight and collaboration.

Independent of its ongoing dialogue with Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican is giving closer attention to the church's charitable activities in general.

Catholic News Service has learned that the Vatican is currently studying a draft document on the role and responsibility of bishops regarding the church's charitable organizations. The draft document has been prepared by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and is being reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and other Vatican agencies.

Changes are expected to the text and its publication is not imminent, in part because it touches on complicated issues, sources said. But the project is an indication of the Vatican's increased interest in promoting a clearer Catholic identity in the church's charitable activities at every level.

The Vatican's concern is also reflected in its own relationship with international agencies. Sources said, for example, that in recent months the Vatican has, at least temporarily, suspended contributions to certain U.N. agencies dealing with refugees, indigenous peoples and disarmament.

The Vatican's contributions in the past were not large but were seen as symbolic gestures of support. The new policy apparently is a consequence of Vatican disquiet over long-standing disagreements with the United Nations on issues such as abortion, population control and the family.

The debate over Caritas Internationalis became public in February when news emerged that Vatican officials had prevented the organization's secretary-general, Lesley-Anne Knight, from seeking a second four-year term. The Vatican withheld the approval, or "nihil obstat" ("nothing stands in the way"), when she submitted her name as a candidate to continue in the position.

Caritas officials, citing Knight's accomplishments, expressed deep regret at the Vatican's decision and asked the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to reconsider--but to no avail. …

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