The Two Masks of Catholic Relief Services

Catholic Relief Services is back in the news, this time for charges related to a sex ed program it implemented for the federal government in Kenya. Since such headlines are no longer surprising, some background may be helpful before considering this most recent case.

In trying to understand the ongoing controversy regarding “the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States,” there are two primary ways one might err. The first would be to deny that Catholic Relief Services does an incredible amount of good in bringing aid to the poor around the world. The second would be to argue that because CRS does so much good work, good Catholics must look away when questions are raised about how some of its work is done, and with whom CRS partners to do this work.

Indeed, by the light of the Church’s moral and social doctrine, it matters every bit how CRS’s good work is done. In late January CRS announced, somewhat quietly, that the organization has launched a new course in Catholic identity for all CRS employees, revised guidelines for CRS managers and directors on working with other organizations, and a new “Advisory Committee on Catholic Identity, or ACCI, to serve as a sounding board for the understanding and application of moral theology broadly across the agency.”

These promising developments are likely an effort to bridge the odd but unmistakable divide between how CRS’s mission and its fundraising divisions treat the Faith that motivates their work. Those of us who receive CRS’s fundraising pitches (this writer is a former donor) or who have visited CRS’s website in the last few years are likely to see a clear identification with the Church. On the mission delivery and secular communications side of the organization, however, CRS takes a different tack: It apparently takes pride in not sharing the Gospel and in not preferentially hiring Catholics to do the Catholic charity’s work, and it partners with organizations who together spend billions annually on immoral, and often coercive, means of population control.

 

CRS’s critics and supporters alike should welcome the faith-related policy developments, though those who have followed CRS’s statements over the last few years might wonder why such measures were necessary. This may be why almost no one has heard about the new policies—they amount to a tacit admission that there are problems, despite many public statements to the contrary from CRS. Even with this announcement, however, CRS has further steps to take toward accountability, which include publicly correcting its seriously flawed statements explaining away its problematic activities and questioning the motives of their critics, which they did with frustrating regularity.

Though the organization I represent, Human Life International, was not the most vocal of CRS’s critics (the majority of our efforts were in private meetings), our reputation has been harmed by CRS’s attacks on the motives of those—including American Life League, Population Research Institute, and now the Lepanto Institute—who brought their concerns to the public after private outreach failed to reach a satisfactory outcome. And since our most recent requests to meet and discuss problems with proper authorities have not been successful, we make our concerns public here and call for a correction on the record even as we welcome CRS’s commitment to renew its policies and Catholic identity.

Good Work, Strange Policies
Catholic Relief Services has rightly been recognized by many as an excellent provider of humanitarian assistance, often in very precarious and dynamic situations. Serving persecuted Christians in the Middle East, typhoon victims in the Philippines, and displaced families all over the developing world, CRS workers courageously perform corporal works of mercy for those most in need. CRS does this work with somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 employees and contractors working in as many as 90 countries at a given time, and with an annual budget that ranges between 600 million and 900 million dollars annually (823 million in 2011, 701 million in 2012, just over 600 million in 2013).

If your response here is to wonder how it could be possible to count that many nickels and dimes piled into “rice bowls” every year, you needn’t worry: In 2013 (a typical year, percentagewise), only around 3 percent of CRS’s revenue came from Catholics in the pews via the annual collection and rice bowl campaign. 70 percent of its revenue and donated services came from the federal government and another 10 percent or so came from private foundations that, while not listed in the latest published financial reports, in the past has included organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The remainder primarily comes from investment revenue and other standard fundraising such as mailings and events.

Although CEO Carolyn Woo’s $460,000 annual salary (2013) places her safely within the top 1 percent of earners nationally, she at least worked hard for her compensation. What is harder to understand is why, two years after his departure, former CEO Ken Hackett was in 2013 still being paid $469,000 by CRS, ostensibly as remedy for previous “undercompensation.”

Now this might seem like a lot of money for a Catholic charity to give a person who no longer works for the organization, but before we judge, we must realize that in his last full year of employment with CRS (2010), Mr. Hackett made only $380,000.

Many readers will recognize the name: in 2013 Mr. Hackett was appointed ambassador to the Vatican of the most inarguably pro-abortion and pro-same-sex-“marriage” administration in the history of the United States—and arguably the one most hostile to religious freedom. Mr. Hackett, who is often credited with modernizing and growing Catholic Relief Services as its CEO for over two decades, set the charity on its current course as a majority-federal-funded NGO with the magnanimity to overlook the problematic missions of many of its funders and grant recipients.

Questionable remuneration policies aside, it is unclear why more people don’t find perplexing the fact that for every dollar given by Catholics in the pews, CRS annually receives more than 20 from the federal government, and three from private foundations, many of who don’t simply disagree with the Church on her moral and social doctrine, but who spend billions forwarding their worldview. Those of us who work in the field of international pro-life missionary work actually find this fact troubling: CRS receives the vast majority of its very large annual budget from a government and from private organizations that together spend billions annually suppressing fertility in the developing world, and who argue that this longstanding and well known injustice is actually a moral imperative of the development and aid industry. That these organizations can honestly claim longstanding and positive relationships with the Catholic Church undermines the Church’s just criticisms of their unjust assaults on the poor, causing scandal and confusion when Catholics such as those with HLI point out who is paying so much money to stop poor women from having children.

While one cannot in fairness assume that CRS collectively shares the corrupt philosophy of those who fund the majority of its work, is it really unreasonable to ask what compromises, if any, might be necessary in order to keep their funders happy?

Proud Not to Evangelize

We assist people of all backgrounds and religions and we do not attempt to engage in discussions of faith. We’re proud of that. We like to say that we assist everybody because we’re Catholic, we don’t assist people to become Catholic. — CRS spokesman George O’Keefe

Embedded not too deeply in Mr. O’Keefe’s explication of CRS’s policy of non-evangelization is a false dichotomy: In order to conduct charitable service one must either set aside her faith altogether or she must require of the recipient of charity some religious purity test. But surely there is an entire range of other possibilities, isn’t there? The person who, as Pope Benedict XVI envisioned in Deus Caritas est, sees her charitable work as a vocation, participates fully in the sacramental life of the Church and through ongoing orthodox formation in social and moral doctrine can surely serve a brother or sister of any faith or none at all with eyes of love, with the hands of Christ, without demanding conversion or pretending as if the Gospel was somehow off limits.

Maybe we should cut Mr. O’Keefe some slack: At the time he was speaking to a reporter for CNN’s “Belief” blog, not to CRS donors.

In fact, as a federal grant recipient, CRS cannot preferentially hire Catholics (never mind Catholics who know and abide by the Church’s social and moral doctrine) for the majority of its projects, even for positions where moral decisions are paramount. So one is left to ask: in what sense, exactly, is an organization whose public funding dwarfs its Catholic funding, and which cannot preferentially hire Catholics, practicing uniquely and authentically Catholic charity? Isn’t this exactly the recipe for compromise of Catholic identity that the Church has warned about since at least Blessed Paul VI?

Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. (Evangeli nuntiandi 32)

The Church has always set a much higher bar than simply doing humanitarian work as an NGO, and every one of Blessed Paul VI’s successors has become more emphatic about this clear premise over the years. Although the clearest theological expression of this truth is in the second section of Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas est, the most emphatic of the recent pontiffs has certainly been Pope Francis, who has said at least three times that the Catholic Church “is not an NGO!” The Holy Father was clearly not saying that the Church cannot provide organized service to those most in need—he was saying, they have been saying, that the Church does this essential work differently than other humanitarian enterprises.

Frankly, one cannot deny this basic truth of the Church’s social doctrine any more than he can deny that Catholic Relief Services has consistently, explicitly rejected the premise in policy while embracing it in its Catholic-directed public relations and marketing materials.

This is the divide inside CRS. To insist, as a matter of policy and a concession to its majority funders, that the primary charitable agency of the Catholic Church in the United States not proclaim the Gospel as she serves the poor, while ensuring that the majority of those actually implementing projects are not Catholic, is to concede in a clear and dramatic way that the work being done is in no way distinctly Catholic. And to claim, as CRS has several times, that their good work is still in some important (but undefined) way authentically Catholic is to beg the question: then what development work isn’t, and how specifically is CRS truly different from those doing good work who are clearly not Catholic?

In responding to such questions in the past, CRS has rather defensively pointed to certain pages on its website that outline its Catholic beliefs or to articles by its leadership in Catholic media. This is all fine, but in this era of omnipresent video and unrestricted access to online publications, is there still not a single instance of CRS’s experts making the case for what the Catholic Church calls “authentic, integral human development” in industry journals and other forums that reject Catholic social and moral doctrine? That is, when even your funders publicly claim that abortion and contraception are “pillars of human development,” where is that article or video directly challenging this destructive error in the secular venues of the development industry?

We anxiously await this first, though one would think obvious, public demonstration of Catholic authenticity outside the Catholic bubble. Nor is this some merely theological distinction for those “rigid” and “uncompassionate” theologians who still bother to insist that the Church’s praxis must not contradict her doctrine. The practical consequences of CRS’s policy of restricting its Catholic identity to its own website, fundraising appeals and other safe venues go beyond its failure to publicly confront the evils of its partners in the development industry.

Spinning Partnerships
The donor who wants to know where CRS spends its grant money may be satisfied by the published annual report, which highlights a couple of worthwhile sounding projects from the regions where CRS works. But if she wants to see where exactly the dollars went, she will have to make an extra effort. CRS’s grantees are not listed in its published financial reports, nor even in its most recent 990 forms, which list hundreds of individual projects by region and category (education, HIV, etc.), but oddly leave blank the fields for funded organizations. This wasn’t always the case—it was a decision made after critics challenged CRS on a series of grants given to organizations that promote abortion and contraception as “reproductive health.” A look at a few of these challenges may help one understand this particular change in CRS policy.

CRS is (or was, it is difficult to say) a dues-paying member of MEDiCAM, a consortium of various organizations who work together to fight HIV/AIDS and improve ”reproductive health.” In 2012, critics pointed out that a CRS staff representative was on the MEDiCAM steering committee that created a paper that, among other problematic recommendations, advocated for “more training on abortion skill to health providers.” It is not clear whether CRS’s representative on the MEDiCAM committee, Dr. Sok Pun, who was known to promote contraception before working with CRS, completed the course on Catholic doctrine that CRS requires of all of its employees. In response to the revelations, CRS oddly omitted any reference to its staff member participating in the drafting of the problematic document, claimed that the only risk was one of “scandal” (misrepresenting its critics’ charges), and argued that its “critical work [in Cambodia] would be hampered if we did not belong” to the organization. Perhaps so, but at the very least one would expect a position statement from CRS separating itself from the obviously destructive recommendations. Until critics raised the issues, there was on the record only CRS’s credit on the committee, and fungible dues paid to an organization that consistently argues for increased access to abortion.

In 2012 it also came to light that CRS paid dues for its membership in COREgroup, another collection of organizations whose concern is reproductive and child health, in which CRS’s employees have held positions on the board of directors and its HIV/AIDS Working Group. You won’t be surprised at this point to learn that COREgroup, like every single other secular group of its kind in the world, promotes contraception as an essential element of “family planning.” When concerns were raised, CRS’s response again said more about its own philosophy than what it did with the group. With characteristic and strategic understatement, CRS acknowledged that other COREgroup members “do not uphold all tenets of Catholic teaching,” glossing over the fact that the group itself collectively promotes contraception. Its literal cooperation in this essential aspect of COREgroup’s work through paying of fungible dues shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but rather as “a means of demonstrating faithfulness to Catholic teaching.” CRS is still a dues-paying member of COREgroup, according to the group’s web site.

There was quite a stir in 2008 when CRS was forced to admit that it was promoting condom use in Zambia when moral philosopher Germain Grisesz made the charge publicly. After admitting the error, CRS—in the same statement—said that it “doesn’t promote condoms.” But when CRS was found again in 2012 to be the publisher of several documents that promoted condom use, CRS thanked LifeSiteNews for making them aware of “a document” that did not conform to its policy of not promoting condoms, then proceeded to delete all seven problematic documents from its websites.

At a certain point, one begins to notice a pattern: CRS’s public statements always seem to misrepresent the charges, they defend themselves against charges that haven’t been made, and make claims that only raise more questions, assuming (sadly, with good reason) that most will not look into the charges for themselves. This strategy, if it can be called a strategy, is perhaps most clear in how it handled questions raised about its relationship with CARE International.

CARE’s president urged President Obama in 2009 to revoke the Mexico City Policy (which prevents funding groups that promote abortion abroad). CARE consistently and openly supports all “reproductive rights,” but nowhere more than in its commitment to the Gates Foundation-led Family Planning 2020 (a 4.6 billion dollar effort to get 120 million poor women in Africa and Asia to start using long acting reversible contraceptives by the year 2020). Having given 5.3 million dollars to the contraception- and abortion-promoting organization in 2010 and 13.8 million in 2012, a CRS spokesman explained that the funded projects themselves were worthy (indeed, one project was for water treatment), and they “mitigate the risk of scandal by ensuring that our Catholic identity is very clear in the way we present ourselves, including on the home page of our website, which has a section that responds to questions about our partnerships like those raised by Lifesite News,” he added.

In response to criticism of the 2009 CARE grant, the widely respected National Catholic Bioethics Center performed an analysis of the grant, finding that there was little or no risk of material cooperation with evil, since the funds given were sequestered for the intended purpose. It was also determined by the NCBC that because of CARE’s consistent advocacy for abortion and contraception, that scandal would be “unavoidable,” and that if CRS were to keep working with CARE, it must publicly distance itself from CARE’s advocacy of abortion and contraception. CRS added language to its website indicating its pride in its Catholic identity, but no public condemnation of CARE’s position was ever issued in a place where CARE would have to deal with it.

Is CRS still funding the legitimate projects of CARE and others who promote abortion and contraception as a boon for “women’s health?” In response to a reporter’s recent inquiry, CRS published a partial list of its 2013 partners—those grantees based in the United States—and CARE International is mentioned as having again received over 7 million dollars from the Catholic agency. Apparently still on the list also is Population Services International (PSI), a population control group that hires and trains abortionists among its efforts as an abortion and contraception marketing company. PSI learned in the late 1980s that adding legitimate projects like malaria prevention programs would help its image. Of course, PSI admits, its anti-malaria efforts give it an opportunity to promote “reproductive health,” which includes abortion and contraception. The CRS grant was for an anti-malaria program.

One would think that the last people on earth that a Catholic agency would want to lead a malaria prevention program is one that admits that is uses inroads gained through malaria prevention to promote abortion. But CRS stands by this decision, arguing that they were “instructed by the donor to work with PSI in Guinea,” the donor being the (very pro-contraception, anti-HIV organization) Global Fund. So it’s not like CRS had a choice in the matter, and regardless, they took measures to ensure that in this case PSI did not promote abortion, like PSI does everywhere else they work. What happens when the grant is over and PSI is now seen as a health authority and partner of the Catholic Church by several new partners and communities? Apparently that’s not CRS’s problem.

This is where CRS’s denials most clearly exhibit a disconnect with the reality of the modern development and aid industry. CARE, PSI and many other CRS partners don’t simply fail to (note CRS’s wording here) “uphold all tenets of Catholic teaching,” but together spend hundreds of millions to stop poor women from having children, often through abortion. Except for CRS and a very small handful of players, the entire industry has accepted the “overpopulation” premise, and now integrate immoral and unethical population control measures with what would often seem to be the most worthy projects. The Church has known for decades that this is exactly how they get poor countries to accept population control—by hiding the bad within the good! This is why CRS’s grossly inadequate denials and explanations of its many problems cause as much concern as the revelations of the problems themselves.

One also can no longer find which private foundations fund CRS on its published financial documents. In previous years, this list included groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—the single largest funder and promoter of contraception (including abortifacient methods) in the world.

Last Verse, Same as the First
When CRS watchdog Michael Hichborn (then with American Life League, now with the Lepanto Institute) last summer privately presented evidence to CRS of problems with a series of federally funded sex education programs CRS implemented in Kenya, the charity’s Baltimore leadership contacted its partners in Kenya to investigate. The CRS investigation, of course, concluded that the charges were baseless: Apparently all of the official federal grant reports—from the initial grant request all the way through implementation report—incorrectly showed that CRS applied for and won the grant in question, then implemented, tracked, and later revised the programs that included promotion of contraception and other problematic elements. So, at CRS’ request, their federal funders changed the documents to remove mention of the problematic programs.

This has already been a very long article, so you are invited to fact check the report on the matter published by Population Research Institute, which covers in exhaustive detail why CRS’s denial is so utterly improbable. The mathematical probability of all of the government and partner documents being in error is, shall we say, remote, so it is remarkable and disconcerting that CRS was actually able to get its federal partners to change the grant documents online, without noting the changes in the documents. When the PRI/Lepanto report was disseminated, CRS hastily issued another denial, this one again misrepresenting the charges made against them and containing claims that undermine previous CRS statements, especially the new admission that CRS did in fact implement Healthy Choices 2, a project that CRS had removed from its federal partners’ reports on CRS work (see here), since its inclusion as part of the SAIDA project had been an “error.”

Next Steps
It was predicted because it was predictable. When around 75 percent of a Catholic organization’s funding comes from those who not only happen to disagree with the Church on certain issues, but who spend billions pursuing ends that are hostile to Catholic doctrine and to true human flourishing, problems will ensue. This rather obvious point is why Pope Benedict XVI issued his 2012 motu proprio, On the Service of Charity, which added to Canon Law provisions related to bishops’ management of charities that operate under their authority. With what one would think is a fairly clear directive in article 10, paragraph 3, the Holy Father sought to bring to an end a longstanding wrong turn for certain Catholic charities:

In particular, the diocesan Bishop is to ensure that charitable agencies dependent upon him do not receive financial support from groups or institutions that pursue ends contrary to Church teaching. Similarly, lest scandal be given to the faithful, the diocesan Bishop is to ensure that these charitable agencies do not accept contributions for initiatives whose ends, or the means used to pursue them, are not in conformity with the Church’s teaching.

This is now in Canon Law, yet it is not clear that it has been implemented, for reasons that are not entirely clear. As a reason for the delay in enforcement some point to a “clarification” issued soon after the release of the document, in which a secretary for Cor Unum said that the Holy Father did not intend “institutions” to refer to governments or private institutions whose opposition to the Church was not apparent in its statutes.

One finds this claim odd, since this interpretation would allow funding from some of the worst organizations in the world, few of whom state their worst practices in their statutes, rendering the passage basically meaningless. But in lieu of a further and more authoritative clarification, this is where things stand.

Again we must affirm that it is beyond question that CRS does a great deal of good work, often in very difficult circumstances. They undoubtedly have many staff who are passionate about doing good work and their significant effort to ensure that CRS’s Catholic identity is evident in ways beyond its fundraising and communications departments should be welcomed by all.

In justice it is also necessary, however, not simply to pursue internal policy changes, but to publicly acknowledge why such changes were necessary, including a good faith effort to correct problematic statements that remain on the record, and to apologize for questioning the motives and integrity of those who risked their reputations by publicly challenging CRS after private outreach proved fruitless. I am sure that such an effort would be met with a response of optimism for the direction CRS is taking, and would go far toward bringing together groups who should be working together to stand against the Culture of Death, and to build a Culture of Life.

Stephen Phelan

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Stephen Phelan is the Director of Mission Communications at Human Life International.

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