USCCB: Catholic charities shouldn't go secular, Vatican official warns

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Ahead of a discussion by the U.S. bishops of now-severed links between their top domestic anti-poverty program and the controversial ACORN network, the pope’s top lieutenant on charitable activities has warned that Catholic relief agencies must not lose their religious identity.

Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, speaking to the bishops this morning, did not enter into the debate about ties between the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and ACORN. He did, however, issue a general caution that Catholic charities must not become “indistinguishable from secular organizations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross, and others.”

Cordes, a German who heads “Cor Unum,” the Vatican’s coordinating body for charitable activity, spoke this morning to the U.S. bishops taking part in their fall meeting Nov. 10-13 in Baltimore.

Cordes lauded the “hundreds of millions” contributed each year to charitable causes by Americans, as well as their “untold hours in voluntary service.” The United States, he said, “is among the most generous of the world’s nations.” Cordes said he wanted to thank American Catholic charitable bodies through the bishops, specifically mentioning Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the Saint Vincent De Paul Society, the Third Order Franciscans, and “so many others.”

Among other things, Cordes expressed awe – and, perhaps, just a twinge of envy – at the financial resources generated by American Catholic charities. He noted, for example, that Catholic Relief Services has a budget of $555 million for overseas relief. By way of comparison, he said, the Vatican office he heads has a budget of just $13 million, which he jokingly described as “peanuts.”

America, however, is not the only place where Catholic charity is big business. He pointed to Germany, where the Catholic relief organization Caritas has a payroll of 500,000 people, making it, he said, the second-largest employer after the state.

Those resources are “a cause for rejoicing,” Cordes said, but added that the church must also be “vigilant about their side-effects.”

“Charitable organizations must not forget the Christian meaning of their activity, influenced by the present philanthropic climate or by excessive reliance on public funds,” Cordes said. Catholic charity, Cordes said, is intended to be a “sign of God’s goodness.”

Cordes said that Cor Unum recently organized a set of spiritual exercises for leaders in church-run charities, to some extent designed to foster a clear sense of what makes Catholic charitable activity distinct from its secular counterparts.

The comments from Cordes may help set the stage for a planned discussion tomorrow by the bishops about their Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which funds anti-poverty programs, and its relationship with the “Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now,” a network of local community groups commonly known as ACORN.

In part, tomorrow’s discussion by the bishops is intended to allay concerns ahead of a planned national collection in American parishes for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development set for Nov. 22-23.

tLast June, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) decided to suspend $1.13 million in grant funding to ACORN on the basis of concerns about “financial management, fiscal transparency and organizational accountability,” according to a letter to the bishops from Auxiliary Bishop Roger Morin of New Orleans, who chairs a subcommittee of the bishops’ conference on the CCHD.

The action came after reports that more than $1 million had been embezzled from ACORN during 1999 and 2000. A task force was convened by the subcommittee to study what happened to CCHD’s grants to ACORN over the last decade.

In early October, additional complaints about ACORN surfaced in the press, this time concerning charges of fraud in voter registration drives in various states, allegedly in an effort to boost the presidential campaign of Barak Obama. Morin said at the time that those charges “raise additional serious concerns,” while stressing that $7.3 million in CCDH funding during the last decade had gone to local ACORN initiatives, not to the group’s national offices.

Nonetheless, reports of partisan activity by ACORN have reinforced perceptions in some quarters that the CCHD sometimes funds groups which are hostile to church teaching on various matters. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, for example, wrote on his First Things blog that the CCHD has been “using the Catholic church as a milk cow to fund organizations that frequently were actively working against the church’s mission, especially in their support of pro-abortion activities and politicians.”

Neuhaus called upon the bishops in Baltimore to “shut down” the CCHD. Failing that, he suggested that Catholics decline to participate in a national collection in support of CCHD scheduled for Nov. 22-23 in parishes across the United States.

Morin, however, has called for the collection to proceed, saying that the CCHD “fights poverty and challenges injustice” in the name of Catholics in the United States.

The discussion of CCHD and ACORN is set for a plenary session tomorrow. In the meantime, the CCHD is sponsoring a reception for the bishops this evening in Baltimore’s Marriott Waterfront hotel.

The heart of Cordes’ presentation was devoted to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in part devoted to laying out the theological roots of Christian charitable activity.

As opposed to other social encyclicals from previous popes, Cordes said, which tended to focus on “factual problems in society and concrete changes,” Deus Caritas Est takes a more ad intra approach, focusing on divine revelation and the example of Christ.

“The first aim is not to change society and structures, but the human heart, which is the foundation for those structures,” Cordes said.

Cordes also offered a peek “behind the curtain” on the evolution of the encyclical. It had first been commissioned, he said, by Pope John Paul II, but work on the document bogged down when the late pope’s health went into decline. Cordes said he showed his draft to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who upon his election as pope decided to return to the subject.

Yet, Cordes said, Benedict XVI put his own distinctive touches on the document. Where Cordes had begun his draft with a reflection on the general climate of philanthropic activity in today’s world, he said, the pope began with a spiritual focus on God as the source of all love – thereby, he said, giving the church’s charitable activity a “theocentric focus.”

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