Main Site         

Ubi Caritas…?

2011 June 16
by Paul Vallely

An extraordinary statement was posted out of Rome at the end of last week by Dr  Lesley-Anne Knight, perhaps the most high-profile woman in institutional Roman Catholicism. It began with references to Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy, charismatic leaders who each served less than four years before being assassinated. The invited inference was clear. The removal of Dr Knight as chief executive of Caritas Internationalis – whose member organizations, like Cafod, support 24 million people worldwide from a budget of $5.5 billion – was an act of political assassination. Since it was done by the Vatican this was a pretty explosive statement.

Dr Knight had been expected to serve another four-year term. But her election was blocked by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State which declined to grant her the nihil obstat required for all candidates to key positions. Dr Knight, Curia officials briefed, had “failed to instil a specifically Catholic identity and sense of evangelisation” into her federation’s activities.

The outgoing leader responded by wishing her successor well and saying to him: “You will need the courage of a lion; the skin of a rhinoceros; the wisdom of an owl; and the patience of a polar bear. And I don’t know if there is an animal with eyes in the back of its head, but that could also be very useful!”

So what is it all about? Right-wing bloggers have filled the internet with suggestions that Dr Knight had backed the Caritas agency in Canada in supporting pro-abortion groups in Mexico. But that is a clear a calumny. The Canadian bishops launched a high-level inquiry into those claims in 2009 and pronounced them unfounded. The real problem is more subtle, and more serious.

For Dr Knight, the first woman ever to have been elected to this position, the trouble began four years ago at her first papal audience when senior officials wanted  her to move from the front-row seat occupied by her male predecessor. She stood her ground. Thereafter she routinely pointed out that at least eighty percent of Caritas workers are lay people and a majority are women. None of this has gone down well among powerful traditionalists whose official position is that, though women cannot be ordained, they must, of course, play an important role in the life of the Church.  Small wonder that her comments last week spoke of only “fear, misogyny and prejudice”  Church.

And all this is just the latest example of long-standing tensions between Caritas and Cor Unum, the pontifical council set up to handle aid and development in 1971 when Caritas elected an earlier secretary general who was not favoured by powerful cardinals. Cor Unum people have a history reminding Caritas that they are “supervised and guided” by the pontifical council. Last year Cor Unum’s president went over the head of Caritas in a key decision on relief efforts after the Haiti earthquake.

Dr Knight professionalized the Rome HQ of Caritas when she arrived, tackling debt and reforming financial operations. But she stepped on a lot of Italian toes in the process, and masculine ones to boot. In four years of Caritas the Vatican prime minister, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has declined ever to speak to her. Dr Knight thought that having the strong backing of her direct boss, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga was enough. But she was wrong.

Her real crime, it seems, was simply to work with organisations like the United Nations, backing its Millennium Development Goals, without constantly pointing out that the Vatican is at odds with the goal to achieve universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. She assumed she could work with organisations which have differences with the Church so long as she focused on areas of mutual agreement.

There is more to this than Roman highhandedness. Central to Pope Benedict XVI’s ecclesial vision is a notion of the church as a pure counter-cultural exemplar. Dr Knight saw Caritas programmes as “a shining example of God’s love for humanity”. But that is clearly not enough. We cannot, the Pope is saying, get involved in the messiness of the marketplace without sacrificing our distinct identity.

Preach the gospel everyday and if necessary use words, St Francis of Assisi famously said. For Pope Benedict clearly the words come first. Both church and world are poorer for that.

Comments are closed.