Pope Demands Stronger Catholic Identity for Charities: Government Funding Not at Risk in New Rules, Experts Say

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ROME * New Vatican rules will not compel Catholic charities around the world to renounce government money, officials both in the Vatican and in leading church-run agencies say, insisting that the main aims are a stronger sense of Catholic identity, including a more direct relationship with bishops, and greater financial transparency.

Experts add, however, that part of the background to the new rules is alarm among some church leaders about the influence of secular organizations that fund charitable work, including some United Nations agencies, while also promoting a liberal social agenda on matters such as contraception, abortion and gay rights.

Over time, observers say, that concern could herald a more cautious approach to collaboration with those organizations by Catholic agencies.

Since the document calls on local bishops to exercise greater vigilance over charitable activity, observers also caution that its practical impact will likely be determined on a case-by-case basis at the local level.

Reaction among leaders in Catholic charities has tended to accent the positive, praising the document's strong endorsement of charitable service and its call for good financial management.

Published on Dec. 1, the new rules came in the form of a motu proprio, meaning a legal decree under the personal authority of the pope. Among other points, Pope Benedict XVI stipulates:

* A charitable group may call itself "Catholic" only with the written consent of church authorities. If a particular agency is deemed to be no longer "in conformity with the church's teaching," the bishop should make that known and take steps to prevent it from using the title "Catholic."

* Personnel must "share, or at least respect" the Catholic identity of church-affiliated charitable organizations, and must also "give an example of Christian life" beyond their professional competence.

* A Catholic charity may not take money "from groups or institutions that pursue ends contrary to the church's teaching."

* To avoid leading people "into error or misunderstanding," bishops are to ensure that parishes and dioceses don't publicize initiatives that, "while presenting themselves as charitable, propose choices or methods at odds with the church's teaching."

* Church-run charities are to practice sound money management and to offer a "witness of Christian sobriety" in the way their resources are administered, including keeping salaries and expenses "proportionate to analogous expenses of other diocesan offices."

The document's title is De Caritate Ministranda, "On the Service of Charity." Benedict wrote that he issued it upon the recommendation of Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, who heads the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican's main oversight agency for charitable activities.

In what many observers regard as a key line, Benedict wrote: "The service of charity is a constitutive element of the church's mission and an indispensable expression of her very being."

The reference to funding sources set off alarms in some circles, given that church-run service providers are often heavily dependent on public money. Catholic Charities USA, for instance, receives around $2 billion annually from the U.S. government, while Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas aid agency, receives close to $600 million.

Speaking to NCR on background Dec. 3, a senior Vatican official said the new rules do not place those funds in jeopardy.

"Government funds are not at stake here, since the government in itself promotes what is good and required for all the community and is entitled to do so by its very nature," the official said, adding that "the government should not attach any unacceptable conditions on the funds it gives to church institutions, which should be guaranteed complete freedom in following their ethos. …