What changes are coming to Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s vast global charity? There are many things still unclear about why Lesley-Anne Knight (pictured), CI’s British secretary-general, has been unexpectedly prevented from applying to renew her term. But one thing is in no doubt: the Curia is planning some radical structural changes, and Dr Knight is seen as an obstacle.
“The Holy See wants a change in the way it works with Caritas and says this requires a change in the person of the secretary-general,” reads CI’s February 18 statement.
Caritas is an odd hybrid: both NGO and church organism, at once a single body with its HQ in Rome and a highly decentralized operation, a "Confederation", dependent on local bishops’ conferences. No one questions its size or reach. Its 165 federated organizations – known as Catholic Relief Services in the U.S., Cafod in the UK, but mostly going by the name of Caritas -- assist 24m people worldwide, employing some 440,000 people, with a budget of around $5.5bn. When people talk of the Catholic Church being the world’s largest civil-society organisation, it’s often Caritas, rather than the networks of schools and parishes, which springs to mind.
On 15 February the Cardinal Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, wrote to the bishops’ conferences of the world to explain why the Vatican was not going to renew Dr Knight’s mandate following the CI’s general assembly in May. In the three-page letter, reported by The Tablet last weekend, Cardinal Bertone said Caritas needed a stronger Catholic identity. The next four years, he explained, would need to focus on “harmonizing the theological dimension of Caritas Internationalis … with its role as an organization operating on the international stage”. This would require, he said, greater cooperation with other ecclesial bodies and with Vatican dicasteries that have an “interest” in CI activities. Caritas’s advocacy work, he explained, needs to be better coordinated “in strict cooperation with the Holy See, which is specifically competent in this regard.”
A firmer Catholic identity and tighter bonds with the Vatican? Why not ask Dr Knight to effect these changes?
The head of the Pontifical Council Cor Unam, the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, has made clear that her competence is not in question. And Cardinal Bertone in his letter insists that denying her a second term “is in no way to cast doubt on her merits or diminish the appreciation for the services she has already rendered”. Which begs the question of what the problem with her is.
I’ve only met the Zimbabwe-born Dr Knight a couple of times. She radiates intelligence and competence. Colleagues speak of her with great respect. She is sharp and sassy and confident. There are reports that she has drawn the ire of Vatican officials with “occasional blunt criticism about the church bureaucracy”, which sounds like her. But it’s not as if Vatican bureaucracy is above criticism.
Caritas members are appalled. CI’s president, Honduran cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez de Maradiaga, has made clear his “incomprehension” at the decision. The CI bureau -- Cardinal Rodriguez, Knight, the organization's treasurer and seven regional presidents -- met Feb. 5 and asked Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, to discuss the issue. But they had no luck. According to Caritas, its leadership “deeply regrets the decision of the Holy See”.
Dr Knight’s predecessor, Duncan MacLaren, who was secretary-general for two terms (1999-2007), says there is “outrage” in the Confederation, not least because the decision appears to trample on CI’s canonical autonomies. “According to the statutes, a list of candidates must be presented timeously to the Holy See which then rings the secretary of the applicant’s bishops’ conference to ascertain whether the candidate is in good standing with the Church,” he explains on the Australian Jesuit website Eureka Street. The list is then sent to the 165 members of the CI confederation, whose Executive Committee selects its favoured candidate, who is presented to the General Assembly for ratification. “It is completely within the statutory right of the Holy See to refuse even an incumbent candidate,” says MacLaren, “but not to judge how that candidate has fared in his/her job in terms of management”.
In short, the candidate is elected by the members, not appointed by the Holy See. The Vatican’s only role is to ensure that they are in good standing with the local Church. “If Knight was in good standing with the Church four years ago, what has changed?” he asks.
MacLaren’s article suggests longstanding tensions between CI and Cor Unam, the Pope’s organisation for charity. A 2004 letter negotiated with the Holy See, Durante L’Ultima Cena, gives Cor Unum a special role to seguire ad accompagnare the activities of CI. According to MacLaren these words (meaning “to follow and accompany” ) are wrongly translated on the Vatican website as “supervise and guide”, suggesting that Cor Unam has a view of itself as overseeing CI which is not recognized by CI.
MacLaren’s contempt for Cor Unam shines through. Its staff were “not qualified” in Caritas’ work and were “usually silent” at joint meetings. They seemed to regard their role as “inquisitorial not collegial”, he says, recalling how the Vatican charity’s then president, Cardinal Cordes, attended a major CI meeting on Catholic identity for just a few hours before departing to spend three days with the Communion and Liberation movement in Warsaw. He contrasts the poor relationship with Cordes with the highly fruitful one with Diarmuid Martin (now Archbishop of Dublin) when he headed the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as if to make clear that it’s not with the Vatican per se that CI has had difficulties, but with certain dicasteries within it.
Cardinal Sarah’s remarks seem to underline this clash of cultures. “We can be competent in organising but lack some qualities for co-ordinating work or for reinforcing the Catholic identity”, he said, referring to Dr Knight. He mentions “new internal challenges”, including the revision of CI’s statutes, challenges which, he says, “involve internal collaboration, the Catholic identity of the confederation, cooperation with the Holy See, greater participation of the various continents, a proper understanding of the proper autonomy of each Caritas member of the confederation.”
Read between those lines, and Dr Knight – together with the rest of CI’s leadership – stands accused in some Vatican quarters of being too independent of the Curia, too much like secular NGOs in its approach to development, and failing to reflect the developing-world – and presumably more traditional – approach of its member organisations.
Some have suggested that Dr Knight's bona fides were undermined by her statement she made for CI in the wake of Pope Benedict's remarks on condoms and Aids last November. Some took it mean she had suggested there had been a change in the Vatican's position; the Vatican's position, of course, was that no such change took place. Yet it's hard to read the statement and come to that conclusion.
"We're just as much in the dark as anyone else", a source close to Dr Knight told me.
This looks like a Vatican coup in some ways reminiscent of the takeover of English liturgical translations from ICEL, the body appointed by 11 bishops conferences. That takeover also had its origin in a dispute over authority with the Congregation for Divine Worship under Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez. A standoff between the CDW and ICEL resulted in Rome revising the principles of liturgical translation, replacing ICEL’s leaders, and putting in place a Vatican watchdog, Vox Clara, to oversee the revisions. At the time it was seen as a blow for Vatican centralism against bishops’ conferences. But such moves are never only about power. The Vatican tends to intervene in this way only if it believes that important principles are at stake.
But it's hard to see what principles might be at stake here. Pope Benedict's 2007 encyclical Caritas in veritate signalled what some saw as a new approach to development, with greater emphasis on taking prophetic stands as a witness to the truth. Yet Caritas workers at the time (2007) never saw CiV as a threat to its modus operandi.
I asked a senior source in Rome about the move against Dr Knight. "It's complicated", was all he would say.
Whatever else it is, this shake-up is an assertion of control by Vatican departments suspicious of CI’s autonomy and global reach. Reforms may be coming which establish a direct supervisory role for Cor Unam and other dicasteries. But for what purpose? The liturgical translation fiasco should serve as a warning. Interference from above can create more problems than it solves.