By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
A senior Vatican official has offered his support to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver in a dispute in Colorado over the ability of Catholic Charities to hire and fire personnel on the basis of religious affiliation.
In mid-January, Chaput objected to a proposed measure currently before the Colorado legislature which would bar charitable agencies that receive state funding from discrimination on the basis of religion in personnel policies. In a column in his archdiocesan newspaper, Chaput argued that such a measure would compromise the Catholic identity of church-run charities, and that he would rather see those charities stop delivering services rather than comply.
“This is not idle talk,” Chaput added. “I am very serious.”
In a press conference today in Rome devoted to Pope Benedict XVI's message for Lent, which is on the subject of charitable giving, Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, head of the Vatican’s main charitable organization “Cor Unum,” expressed support for Chaput’s position. In response to a reporter’s question, Cordes said: “This bishop is doing the right thing.” (In Italian, his response was "questo vescovo fa bene.")
“Theologically, charitable activity and the good deeds of the faithful are always connected to the proclamation of the Word,” Cordes said. “Jesus performed his works because he was moved by mercy, but also to proclaim the gospel. Service is always tied to testimony to the Word of God, and no one must break this connection.”
“This points to a great contemporary problem,” Cordes said. “Thanks to the generosity of many donors, the charitable agencies of the church are able to do their work. But this carries a risk that the spirit of a Catholic agency can become secularized, doing only what the donor has in view.”
Cordes then invoked the encyclical letter of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, which dealt among other things with the Catholic identity of church-run charities.
“The pope’s encyclical was not just put together out of thin air. It was a response to a development in society,” Cordes said. “Catholic agencies have to be very careful not to lose their liberty, taking money from donors who later try to introduce a mentality that does not correspond to ecclesiastical objectives.”
In fact, Cordes said, “Cor Unum” will be sponsoring a spiritual retreat for the directors of Catholic charities in North and South America in June in Guadalajara, Mexico, precisely as a response to this perceived threat of secularization – which Cordes described as “not the fault” of the directors of Catholic agencies, but rather the surrounding culture.
Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher of the Papal Household, will lead the retreat, Cordes said.
To put his point into a sound bite, Cordes said, he wants the world to understand “that there’s a difference between Caritas and the Red Cross.”
Late last week, Cordes also gave an address to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, a Vatican body that deals with implementation of the Code of Canon Law,, in which he suggested that bishops may need more precise canonical tools to oversee and defend the Catholic identity of church-run charitable agencies.
Meanwhile in Colorado, the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver, Christopher Rose, published a letter in the current issue of the archdiocesan paper defending Chaput’s position.
Hiring religious believers to operate charities sponsored by those religious bodies, Rose argued, is not discrimination, but rather “the legitimate practice of faith-based agencies seeking to hire people of like faith to ensure that their mission of serving the poor is faithfully undertaken.”