Tension over Catholic identity of church-run charities swirls in Rome, Denver


A senior Vatican official has called for more clear provisions in the Code of Canon Law to underscore the duty, and the authority, of bishops to defend the Catholic identity of church-run charitable agencies.

The comments, made yesterday in Rome, come amid new tensions over the religious identity of Catholic charitable agencies, this time in Colorado. It's a dispute which, among other things, threatens to pit the Archdiocese of Denver against the Anti-Defamation League, a major Jewish civil rights organization.
t“The bishop, the principle of unity in his diocese, with due respect for the necessary autonomy, has a duty of supervision over the initiatives of single individuals and of Catholic organizations in the charitable arena,” said German Archbishop Paul-Josef Cordes, President of the Vatican’s main charitable office, “Cor Unum.”

“There’s a duty to supervise, so that persons and programs correspond to a Christian spirit and become authentic places of witness,” Cordes said. “That implies attention to convictions, and to the style of life of those who work in Catholic organizations.”

Cordes noted that the Code does not contain any specific provisions regarding the administration of church-run charities, and appeared to suggest that future revisions may need to spell out the rights and responsibilities of bishops in this area. Beyond matters of Catholic identity, Cordes also pointed to the need for clear financial controls and sound accounting practices.

Cordes spoke as part of a conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts marking the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the 1983 edition of the Code of Canon Law.

Denver offers the most recent test case for issues surrounding the Catholic identity of church-run charities, particularly those which receive public funding.

The controversy began with a Jan. 23 opinion piece from Archbishop Charles Chaput in the Register, the newspaper of the archdiocese. In it, Chaput objected to a bill currently before the Colorado General Assembly which, as he described it, would restrict the ability of charities sponsored by religious groups to hire and fire personnel on the basis of religious beliefs.

Chaput, known for his candor, did not mix words about the possible fallout from the bill: If a Catholic charity “can no longer have the freedom it needs to be ‘Catholic,’ it will end its services,” he warned.

“This is not idle talk,” Chaput added. “I am very serious.”

In a final paragraph, Chaput wrote that he had heard the Anti-Defamation League was a “primary force” behind the bill, and urged the group to “disassociate itself from this ill-conceived piece of legislation.”

In a January 25 letter to the Register, a regional director of the Anti-Defamation League defended the proposed bill, arguing that there should be “no religious litmus test” for someone doing a government job, “whether the government-funded program is administered by the public sector, a secular private institution, or a religious organization.”

The bill “is not aimed at Catholic Charities,” the Anti-Defamation League spokesperson wrote, “nor is there any reason why Catholic Charities cannot continue its important work if the bill is passed.”

Colorado is merely the latest front in tensions between the Catholic Church and governments in various parts of the world over publicly-funded charitable programs administered by the church.

Catholic Charities in Boston, for example, was forced to stop providing adoption services in April 2006 after it failed to win an exemption from a state law which required adoption agencies that receive public funding to provide services to same-sex couples. At roughly the same time, the Archdiocese of San Francisco announced that it would reconsider its participation in a similar program. In February 2007, the English government announced that private adoption agencies which refuse to serve gay couples would no longer receive reimbursements for their services, resulting in the loss of over $9 million in annual payments to Catholic charities in England.

While Cordes did not directly address these controversies, he cited a September 2006 homily from Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to Bavaria which seems indirectly to bear on the issues they raise.

“During their visits ad Limina, the Bishops, most recently those of Africa, have always mentioned with gratitude the generosity of German Catholics and ask me to convey that gratitude, and that is what I wish to do now, publically,” the pope said then. “Every now and then, however, some African Bishop will say to me: ‘If I come to Germany and present social projects, suddenly every door opens. But if I come with a plan for evangelization, I meet with reservations.’”

“Clearly some people have the idea that social projects should be urgently undertaken, while anything dealing with God or even the Catholic faith is of limited and lesser urgency. Yet the experience of those Bishops is that evangelization itself should be foremost, that the God of Jesus Christ must be known, believed in and loved, and that hearts must be converted if progress is to be made on social issues and reconciliation is to begin, and if - for example - AIDS is to be combated by realistically facing its deeper causes and the sick are to be given the loving care they need. Social issues and the Gospel are inseparable,” Benedict said.

The Cordes address this week suggests that the Vatican is concerned about precisely the issues raised by the current dispute in Colorado – and may be preparing to give bishops additional canonical tools to defend Catholic identity.

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