Reforming Caritas International

Several weeks ago, the Vatican announced that it would not grant the necessary approval for Lesley-Anne Knight’s second, four-year term as secretary general of Caritas International, a global network of 165 Catholic agencies working primarily in the Third World on development and health-care issues. Predictably, the Vatican black ball was deplored by some leaders of Caritas-affiliated agencies, who have been complaining to their diplomatic representatives at the Holy See that this clumsy and unwelcome intervention in their internal affairs would imperil their effectiveness in working with other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

If that’s the case, it won’t be because of anything the Vatican did. Rather, it will be because the INGO world is dominated by an unbending “progressive” orthodoxy on development and health-care questions that sits poorly with Catholic understandings of how people are empowered to break out of the cycle of poverty. INGO shibboleths are also in sharp conflict with Catholic understandings of the best way to fight the AIDS plague in Africa and other poverty-stricken parts of the world. There is very little public evidence that Caritas International, under Knight’s leadership, challenged the rigidities in INGO thinking that are a real-world obstacle to empowering the poor and to driving down the incidence of HIV/AIDS. A case in point was her address to a “Catholic Networking Session” at the 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

There, Knight asked, “Is there a uniquely Catholic approach to the global HIV pandemic? And if so, what is it?” Her first answer: “I fear that there may be people here in Vienna this week who would answer that it is one characterized by dogma, hypocrisy, moralizing, and condemnation.” True enough, given the attitude toward the Church’s sexual ethic prevalent in the INGO universe. But did Ms. Knight challenge this caricature? Not really. The best she could manage was to lament that Catholic AIDS workers (the largest group of non-governmental care-providers for people suffering from AIDS) “are still dogged by these criticisms.”

Nor, in answering her own question, did Knight say what she might have said, which is this: “Yes, there is a uniquely Catholic approach to the global HIV pandemic. It is an approach that takes seriously the dignity of the human person, which includes the capacity of men and women to change patterns of behavior that put themselves, their families, and their communities at risk. It is an approach that takes the spiritual and moral dimensions of the AIDS crisis seriously. It is an approach that stresses abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage — both of which have been shown by independent scholars to drive down the incidence of AIDS in vulnerable populations. It is an approach that refuses to accept the empirically unproven claims that poverty, stigma, and low levels of education drive AIDS epidemics. And it is an approach that refuses to burn incense at the altar of the false god latex, where the real votaries of rigid dogma are to be found among those for whom condoms are instruments of salvation.”

Knight, I hardly need add, said none of this. To the contrary: She put the authority of her position behind a reiteration of the poverty/stigma/low-educational-levels mythology. Which is to say, she reinforced the rigidities that are the true obstacles to the “development innovation and collaboration” for which she called.

I don’t mean to suggest that Knight is singularly wrong-headed. What she said (and didn’t say) in Vienna expressed what is quite likely the consensus among many Caritas International-affiliated agencies. These agencies have absorbed from the INGO atmosphere in which they work, and from the governments and international agencies on whose funding they have come to depend, the approach to development and AIDS that shaped Knight’s speech and rendered it strangely anemic in its Catholic identity.

That identity is what the Holy See is determined to reassert in global Catholic development and health-care efforts. As the drama of that reset unfolds, support for the Vatican’s efforts by the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services would be in order.


George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Deacon Ed

    that we should always carefully scrutinize those with whom we choose to go to bed (the government and other NGOs).

    When you take to bed those who do not share our Catholic teachings, we run the risk of losing our Catholic values, morals and teachings.

    Second point: first question I’d ask of anyone working for a Catholic agency: At what parish do you attend Mass regularly?

    How can we expect not to fall into error if the people hired to lead our Catholic organizations, whose salary is paid for by the poor Catholic slob in the pew, does not believe fully in the teachings of the Church? We get a bunch of Cuomo/Kennedy/Feraro Catholics.

  • Jeff

    Curious question, what does the Church about cases where either the wife or the husband have HIV (i.e. a discordant couple)? Should they then only abstain? Would condom use be allowed to enrich their relationship? Would menopause of the wife affect this at all? In couples where both members have HIV (‘unprotected’) sexual intercourse is also not beneficial because mixing of HIV can bring out a tougher strain especially when different treatment is used.

    In cases where the husband is HIV negative and wife is positive, injection of sperm via ordinary syringe (in developing world settings) would at least expose him to less risk of HIV acquisition.

    I’ve heard of a case from a colleague who’s treated a patient who did not adhere properly to her treatment and made her personal HIV strain resistant to all treatment regimes, she then spread this resistant/untreatable variant to her partner (probably only a boyfriend). Their child also now has resistant (untreatable) HIV.

    Obviously behaviour change is needed but it’s an uphill battle.

  • Nancy

    Do you really suppose in a developing world setting, a man is going to eject his sperm into a syringe so he can make his (HIV positive) partner pregnant? He’s got so many other fun options. And the unborn child probably won’t have access to treatment, so the child will be born with HIV.

    Until the status of women improves, all of this talk is silly. Women are considered less than livestock in many developing countries, without access to a condom, much less the right to say “please put this on.”

  • Stephen

    Cases where one spouse (or both) is HIV positive are the perfect setting to discuss the Church’s position on condoms. The real-world failure rate of condoms is around 8% – about this there is no serious debate among the sellers of condoms or public health officials. That is, a condom is likely to fail at least once in every twelve uses. So telling married couples that they should use a condom in order to be “safe” is to give them false hope and to mislead them. It is almost statistically impossible for one to avoid transmitting the disease to his or her spouse when they have sex using condoms on a regular basis over an extended period of time, although there are several other factors to consider.

    Thus, to portray the Church’s position of not recommending condoms, which is by far the best for the physical well being of all involved, as one of unfair expectations of faithful couples, is to radically miss the point. It is truly the best for all involved, the option which best affirms the freedom, life and dignity of each person.

    Bringing a syringe into the equation violates all of these as well. The Church has recommended in places avoiding pregnancy (by natural, non-contraceptive means) when there is a great likelihood that the child will be born with a fatal disease.

    And the likelihood of women’s status improving in developing nations is not very high when condoms are promoted to the detriment of human freedom, including the freedom to choose – for both men and women – not to have sex outside of faithful, monogamous marriage. Honor both women and men by telling them the truth about themselves, their bodies, and their relationship to their loving Creator.

  • Pew Sitter Veteran

    What is the church teaching? Abstinence? I am not trying to be funny — no one ever spells it out.