Lisa A /

December 1, 2012; Source: National Catholic Reporter

The Vatican has issued new guidelines for Catholic charities, and the rules may have a significant impact on Catholic charities’ ability to collaborate with non-Catholic groups. A new apostolic letter, issued December 1 on the Vatican web site, is titled “De Caritate ministranda,” or, “On the service of charity.” The rules seek to assure that Church-affiliated charitable organizations and charitable works are also compatible with Catholic teaching. The National Catholic Reporter summarizes the edict from Pope Benedict XVI:

  • “A charitable group may call itself ‘Catholic’ only with the written consent of church authorities. If a particular outfit 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 ‘which, while presenting themselves as charitable, propose choices or methods at odds with the church’s teaching.’”

The Reporter article states that Catholic charities are instructed to be “…transparent in the administration of funds, to make regular financial reports, and to ensure that expenses and salaries are ‘proportionate’ to the budgets of other church offices.” However, the accountability mentioned in the letter is to ecclesiastical authority, not to secular authority. There is no change in accountability to governmental entities.

While the apostolic letter only applies to Catholic charities, the rules against taking money from or publicizing groups or initiatives at odds with Catholic dogma could conceivably make collaboration in the delivery of services problematic in some countries and communities. Also, employees of Catholic charities may take issue with giving “an example of Christian life” as a condition of continued employment. Additionally, local Catholic bishops, who already exercise significant authority over Catholic charities, will have to include the new guidelines into their oversight of Catholic charities in their dioceses.

For the Vatican, the rationale for the new rules has a lot to do with branding and the idea that what it means to be Catholic should be reflected in Catholic charitable organizations and charitable activities. This new policy is seen as an attempt to move Catholic charitable policy and messaging closer to the Vatican itself. There have been internal struggles in recent years over the extent to which Catholic faith should be expressly included in Catholic charity. Clearly, the Vatican hopes these struggles will now be resolved in favor of moving towards a more Catholic message-based approach to charity by Catholic groups.

It will be interesting to see how these changes affect Catholic charities in the U.S., where not all bishops are equally committed to a strict interpretation of Vatican-issued rules. What will the strategy mean to Catholics and the people they serve when it is put into practice in communities around the world? –Michael Wyland