Brandon Vogt

Compassion vs. CARE: A Defense of Catholic Relief Services

I usually avoid controversy here on the blog, but several of my friends have been discussing the recent accusations against Catholic Relief Services. I’ve yet to see anyone defend them, so I decided to weigh-in, especially since I’m convinced the facts have been misinterpreted and that CRS has been unfairly maligned.

Food, Water, and…Contraception?

Last week, I had the great pleasure of visiting the headquarters of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Baltimore. I was there to give a couple of talks on new media and to help the staff communicate better. Even though I worked with Catholic Relief Services on several projects before, including the computer lab we built in Mombasa, Kenya, the visit was honestly surprising.

Some people accuse CRS of ignoring their Catholic identity—of forgetting the ‘C’ in their name. Yet what I found during my visit was a bubbling, definite sense of Catholic mission. The group seemed not just interested in mere philanthropy; they were clearly driven by their Catholic roots. Everything from the conversations, to the wall furnishings, to the beautiful on-site chapel reflected that.

I also sensed a strong excitement over the new President, Dr. Carolyn Woo, whom many of the staff credited with reinvigorating this specifically-Catholic identity.

So upon returning home, I was surprised to find an alarming article at LifeSiteNews titled “U.S. bishops’ relief agency gives $5.3 million to major contraception-providing charity.” The article seemed to clash with my recent experience, and it raised serious concerns about CRS’s Catholic identity:

“CRS, “the official overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops” has recently given millions to an organization that doles out contraceptives, including abortifacient ‘emergency contraception.’

The most recent CRS annual returns (2010) indicate that the largest CRS grant—$5.3 million—went to CARE, an international “relief and development organization,” that actively promotes and provides contraceptives for women in developing countries, and supports pro-abortion groups and legislation.”

In no uncertain terms, the article implied that CRS supported the twin evils of contraception and abortion through their partnership with CARE—and did so using donations from faithful Catholics. The article also quoted Dr. William Marshner, founding professor of theology at Christendom College. He described CRS’ funding of CARE as “ghastly” and said “obviously this expenditure of funds on the part of Catholic Relief Services is an immoral use of the money.”

However the alarms rang loudest in the article’s comment boxes. CRS had not even responded before commenters accused them, and the bishops who oversee CRS, of being “heretics”, “communists”, “homosexuals”, and complicit in murder among other charges.

CRS Responds

The next day, before pitchforks and torches were raised too high, CRS issued a rebuttal. In the post, Communications Director John Rivera disputed LifeSite’s main accusations and made three important points.

First, in case there was any doubt, CRS vigilantly stands with the Church in its rejection of contraception and abortion:

“CRS is not in agreement with CARE’s position on contraception because we do not support any positions that would be in violation of Catholic teaching on human dignity and the sanctity of human life.”

Second, Rivera noted that the funds in question were non-fungible. “Fungability” is a technical term concerning the capability of being exchanged. For example, suppose I give $10 to a homeless man so he can buy lunch. I know this particular man is an alcoholic, so I tell him he must only use it for food.

In reality, that mandate holds little weight. The money is highly ‘fungible’ since it goes straight into the man’s pocket with the rest of his money. From there he can use it to buy alcohol against my wishes. Even if he does use it to buy food, my $10 gift would free up $10 of his own money, which he otherwise would have spent on food, to now spend on alcohol. It could be argued that even if my intention was to provide food, my $10 gift in fact supported the man’s alcoholism.

So fungibility is very important in a context like this. If CRS’ grant to CARE is fungibile, it means money given for “food, clean water, sanitation services and basic nutrition programs” may actually be supporting contraception and abortion. If it’s not fungibile, the money is being used morally—even admirably.

And according to Rivera, it’s the latter:

“[T]hese funds are not fungible. In other words, these funds provided by the federal government or foundations are specifically designated for the anti-poverty programs mentioned above, and cannot be used for any purpose other than that stated in the grant. If CRS and CARE had not received these grants, they would not have undertaken these programs. Therefore, the funds can in no way be described as “freeing up” money for either CRS or CARE to engage in other activities. Description of such funding being fungible is simply wrong.”

The third point Rivera made is that CRS has strict processes of vetting the morality of their work. They entrust a third-party reviewer, the highly-respected National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) to review their work each year:

“CRS has consulted with Dr. John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, an expert in moral theology who is a member of the bishops’ pro-life committee, to review our grants (including grants with CARE) and he found that none of them constitutes support of or involvement in immoral activities.”

This speaks volumes to CRS’ commitment to Catholic teaching. It’s also a direct and clear refutation of LifeSiteNews’s accusations that CRS funded contraception and abortion.

After Rivera’s cogent response, I expected LifeSiteNews and its commenters to retract their charges. I even wondered whether LifeSite might issue a formal apology.

Yet they didn’t. Instead, the next day they responded with a second article reaffirming the original charges. The new article, however, contained some interesting analysis from Dr. John Haas—the same Dr. Haas who CRS cited in their defense. Since part of Rivera’s argument was that Dr. Haas and the NCBC had reviewed the CARE grant and found nothing immoral, Haas’ opinions hold special weight. Here’s what LifeSiteNews had to say:

“In a follow-up statement on July 24th, CRS states that after reviewing all of their grants, Haas “found that none of them constitutes support of or involvement in immoral activities.”

But when LifeSiteNews contacted Dr. Haas he revealed a very different picture.

Dr. Haas told LifeSiteNews that when he reviewed the proposed donation to CARE it was “of grave concern to me.”

While Haas noted that the NCBC assessment did not dispute that CARE’s project was laudable nor that the monies were non-fungible, he opposed the grant because of the scandal it would cause. His main concern was the stridently pro-abortion stances taken by CARE’s president and CEO, Helene D. Gayle.”

Note that Dr. Haas’ new comments do not contradict any of CRS’ claims. Nor do they “reveal a very different picture.” CRS asserted the NCBC reviewed their projects and partnerships and found nothing immoral, which Haas affirmed. That Haas expressed subjective concern and personally advised against the partnership has no bearing on its objective morality.

Imprudent, but Not Immoral

With the backstory clear, I’d like to offer my own defense of the morality of CRS’ partnership, but I need to make several things clear.

First, I’m a huge fan of LifeSiteNews. I think they do incredible work in defense of the unborn, and they’re a bright light for the Church. God bless them for their work.

Second, I think LifeSite has good intentions in this case. They don’t want the Church to reject sin verbally while supporting it financially; in essence they don’t want hypocrisy. And I’m with them there. Donations from Catholics should never be applied to anything counter to Church teaching. If in fact CRS channeled donations to support abortion or contraception, the group deserves nothing less than firm repudiation.

Third, I’m no moral theologian. I’ve read a lot of Catholic moral theology and consider myself well-versed, but I’m certainly open to critique.

Fourth and finallly, CRS is not the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). The two have been lumped together in many discussions I’ve seen, but they’re worlds apart in terms of their commitment to Catholic identity. CCHD routinely used donations for projects directly counter to Church teaching—their partnership with ACORN being the most infamous. While I’ve personally worked on several CCHD projects locally, I strongly affirm the need for reform and I stopped donating because of it. Nevertheless, CCHD is not CRS.

With those qualifications, my contention is this: CRS’ partnership with CARE may have been imprudent, but it was certainly not immoral.

Was the partnership foolish? Sure. Was it avoidable? You bet. Did it stain CRS’ reputation? A big, definite yes.

But was it wrong? Was it unethical? Was it sinful or heretical in any way? No, across the board. And here are three reasons why:

1. Association doesn’t equal endorsement. It’s a basic fact that partnering for a project does not imply the two parties completely endorse each other’s views. When I serve sandwiches at the local homeless shelter with my virulently pro-abortion friend, I’m not endorsing his views on abortion by feeding the hungry alongside him. In fact, by boldly witnessing to my own views, there’s the small possibility that they rub off on him, causing his views to shift through our partnership.

On the other hand, can dubious associations confuse people, especially when the areas of disagreement are muddy? You bet. In this particular case, CRS certainly could have been more clear in its rejection of CARE’s other work. But a failure to clarify is not participation in evil, nor a promotion of it. Simply put, feeding the hungry or digging a well alongside someone does not mean you promote his views on abortion.

(This, by the way, is why the Vatican works with the United Nations even while objecting to UN policies that promote contraception.)

2. CRS did not fund contraception or abortion. The question of fungibility is key, as mentioned above. It determines whether CRS indirectly financed the pro-abortion, pro-contraception work of CARE or not. In this case, John Rivera asserted that the grant to CARE is non-fungible. Dr. Haas, even though he disagreed with the grant on different grounds, confirmed the same thing. This fact silences the charge that CRS channeled donations to CARE’s immoral work by partnering with them on other developmental projects.

3. Imprudence is not necessarily immoral. Catholic moral theology differentiates between immoral actions—those that are inherently sinful—and imprudent ones. Imprudent choices are ones that are “not careful or sensible; not marked by sound judgment.” Or to say it more colloquially, they involve making a bad call, a poor decision.

Immorality is always wrong, without question. Imprudence, though foolish, is not always evil.

Don’t Abandon the Ship; Help Fix It

Few would doubt CRS chose to enter an imprudent partnership. Most of us would agree it was a mistake, an error, a bad call by any measure. One has to only gauge it by its fruits: the partnership caused significant scandal, turned away many donors, and tarnished CRS’ otherwise admirable image.

Yet still, that doesn’t make the partnership immoral. Or evil. Or sinful.

I think Dr. Haas says it best in the LifeSiteNews article:

“Even though the grants going to CARE are for very laudable and indeed life-saving initiatives, I believe that these very strong public positions taken by the President of CARE in complete opposition to the policies and positions of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops would certainly give rise to legitimate theological scandal if not confusion as to why the Bishops would fund such an organization.”

This whole thing could have been avoided if CRS understood the scandal it would evoke. I’m sure they now regret the partnership. But I’m also convinced it will cause them to be more careful in the future.

For us Catholics, it’s not time to jump-ship on CRS. Whenever our boat scrapes rock, our first move should not be to abandon it. Instead we should assess the damage, fix the problems with permanent solutions, and then steer clear of future dangers.

More practically, it means we shouldn’t stop giving to their work (which would do more harm to the poor and hungry than CRS as an institution.) Instead we should encourage our bishops to tighten their oversight on CRS since, after all, it operates under their aegis. Board members should be questioned, policies revamped, and partnerships reevaluated. We should encourage CRS to value prudence as much as morality, and gauge the potential any action has for scandal.

Despite their imprudence, though, I still support CRS and their otherwise life-changing work. I’ll continue donating every month, our kids will fill up their Rice Bowls with coins next Lent, and I’ll support their projects near and far.

I hope you will, too. Few charities do better work in the name of Christ and his Church. And almost none do it as efficiently or faithfully as CRS.

So together let’s help steer this ship forward in the right direction.

And let’s do all we can to strengthen its Catholic identity, not rip the name-tag off its chest.


Dr. John Haas has clarified his own position over at the National Catholic Bioethics Center website. Check it out!


Earlier I complained that LifeSiteNews was deleting comments I posted on their articles. It turns out their commenting system is acting quirky as noted on their homepage, and they’re currently addressing the problem.
(Photo Credit: CRS, Scotsman)

  • Peruvian

    Wow this is incredible! I’ve been searching for an answer to this issue and this really helped. You rock Brandon because what you did was for God’s church!

  • Dobrodoc1

    No it’s not.

  • Carela22

    Thank you Brandon. I think you clarified lots…I’m proud of your resolve. I have read all these comments and found myself confused and even grieved. I do not believe that you are “anathema” for sharing this with us. Perhaps we Catholics should stop fighting each other and pray for clarity in all these matters. Firs and foremost, it is a matter of charity. We must treat each other with respect. We are not factions that are against one another.
    Here’s my opinion. Yes Lifesite news does a great work, but this does not by any means give them infallibility. People on all sides make mistakes. Humans make mistakes. I am not condemning either side, but I hope that we remember who our real enemy is, the one who divides and causes us doubt even to the loss of our faith…
    Also, what do you think the person who was given clean water to drink and a bowl of rice to eat, and medicine for their ailments would think about these arguments? Perhaps we should consider them as well. Some of these people are faced with the horrific temptation of abortion, because they see no way out of their misery. They see no future for themselves or for their children. Have any of you been to one of these places? Places where children are walking barefoot through the trash heaps, looking for food? Where mothers suffer watching their children die slowly due to starvation and disease? I have been to one of these places, I lived in one of these countries. It was the kindness of strangers that brought hope, brought life. The pro life movement and the social justice movement are not opposing factions. They are groups that should work together to bring an end to the culture of death.
    I will pray for both sides and for solutions to these problems. Real solutions not empty talk and accusations. The church must continue her mission of charity and the end of abortion and contraception. These are not two separate causes. I fear that some see it as such.

  • Brandon Vogt

    (Note: I’ve edited my comment so that no bad intentions were presumed. LifeSiteNews *did* misquote (or at least mischaracterize) Dr. Haas in their article’s headline, which they admit. I can’t say whether it was done intentionally though so I shouldn’t have assumed bad motives. I removed that part from my comment. Mea culpa!)

    This is my last comment on this post though the comboxes will certainly remain open for your own discussion:

    My original reason for defending CRS’ commitment to Catholic morality was that LifeSiteNews misled their readers in their reporting.

    I’m still convinced of that, and it has only been confirmed by their newest update. In their latest post, LifeSiteNews accuses CRS of “spinning the news.” Yet in the very same article they admit to misquoting Dr. John Haas in a headline, which had the disastorous effect, intentional or not, of damagaing CRS’ reputation. It made it seem as Dr. Haas’ claimed the grant was immoral and advised CRS to avoid it, yet they chose it anyways. That is simply untrue.

    • Papabile

      Nice…. you’ve gone from stating this:

      First, I’m a huge fan of LifeSiteNews. I think they do incredible work in defense of the unborn, and they’re a bright light for the Church. God bless them for their work.

      Second, I think LifeSite has good intentions in this case. They don’t want the Church to reject sin verbally while supporting it financially; in essence they don’t want hypocrisy. And I’m with them there.

      to now saying this:

      “My original reason for defending CRS’ commitment to Catholic morality was that LifeSiteNews intentionally exaggerated CRS’ imprudence and misled their readers in their reporting.”

      Nice. Nice. Nice……

      First they had good intentions, now they “intentionally exaggerated CRS’ imprudence and misled…”

      Which is it?

      Oh, yeah, I forgot, one can both have good intentions while intentionally exaggerating and misleading…..

      It’s good to know you’re a “huge fan” of them.

    • Papabile

      I do not think Dr. Haas would claim that “theological scandal” is within the realm of that which is moral.

  • ForChristAlone

    Brandon, given all that you have to say in defense of CRS, the fact that they actually REPRESENT the bishops of the USA and that they are using money donated to them by Catholics, would you publicly recommend that all those working for CRS sign a statement of allegiance to ALL that the Catholic Church teaches – including specifically matters pertaining to abortion, contraception, same sex “marriage” and a homesexual lifestyle? If everyone working for this agency were to sign such a declaration, I would be more than happy to resume my donations to CRS and recommend that others do likewise.

    • Brandon Vogt

      Deacon Ed, thanks for the comment (and your others as well)! Of course I *wish* such a statement would be signed, but it won’t for several reasons–many of which are less than nefarious.

      For example, one thing people often forget is that even though CRS operates under the aegis of the bishops, and even though they are supposed to be the official international Catholic charity of the American Church, Catholic donations make-up a small percentage of their income. Some 80% of the funding comes through government grants, which has huge implications for the requirements they can place on employees.

      I may be wrong, but I don’t think they would be *allowed* to ask employees to sign such a statement, even if they wanted to.

      (You can see how tricky a tightrope CRS has to walk. They have to vigorously maintain their Catholic identity while not being *too Catholic* for government standards. Some may say, as many of my friend have, that the first step to CRS re-claiming its Catholic identity is to reject all government funding–to immediately refuse that 80%. While some Catholics, like yourself, might give more if they made such a move, I doubt it would make up the monumental difference. Cutting out 80% of their funding that would have disastrous effects for their work around the world and the developing countries that depend on it. Quite simply, I don’t know the answer to the problem other than to work within the tension.)

      • ForChristAlone

        When I was the Director of my diocese’s Catholic Charities, we were necessarily small in comparison to similar diocesan agencies because we did not accept a dime of Federal funds. I was very happy about that because I interpreted all that we did, small in scope as it was, as a ministry of the Church and never had to worry about the compromises faced by CRS, CCHD, Catholic Charities USA, etc. .

        And yes, I would recommend that the Church accept NO money from the government as that will allow us to be faithful to Christ without any of the current and future problems that such entanglements will bring. Mark my word that the day is upon us when we will have to face this reality; we will have to choose between God and mammon. If you think for a moment that the Federal government will continue to give grants to the Catholic Church without strings attached, I have a bridge to sell you. As the Holy Father has avered: the Church might just have to get smaller if it is to remain faithful.

        And, lastly, I do believ that requiring ministers of the Church who represent the Church in an official way (social ministry is included) to sign affadavits of belief in Church teachings. Bishop Loverde in Arlington recently did this, as did Bishop Vasa when he was in Oregon. We need to insure that those who work for the Church in official capacities fully represent the Church. If someone cannot do so, they can take their talents elsewhere (like CARE or Planned Parenthood).

  • Gabriel Austin

    Are we talking about the Roman Catholic Church? With its headquarters in Vatican City? Are there no charitable organizations within the Church to whom resources be given? Ever hear of the Daughters of Charity? I could name several dozen other solid Catholic orders which need money. Off hand – St. Patrick’s Missionaries, Columban Fathers, Bishop of Sudan, and on and on.
    Meanwhile the CARE organization [a “humanitarian” group – that weasel word] has income of over $500 million annually; it’s pro-abortion CEO is paid $400,000 annually.

    Discussions about material cooperation with evil and trivial comments about syllogisms are college stuff.

    Charity begins at home; it is also best supervised at home . [It is called subsidiarity]. Giving Catholic money to the poor is best handled by Catholic organizations of which there are several hundred thousand.

    • RooForLife

      I could name several dozen other solid Catholic orders which need money

      Gabriel please do so. I agree with Michael Voris best part is at 5:06-5:54

  • joseph konieczny

    An exercise in dielectics. The defense is over wordy indicating the author”..doth protest too much.” How can one be perfectly sure that some official of CARE can subvert the intent?

  • David L. Gray

    You’re defense of CRS reminds me of some people’s defense of the nuns. No one is saying the nuns are bad, but the LCWR needs correction due to the manner in which they have expressed their faith in action. Similarly, CRS is a swell organization as your preface seems to suggest, but they screwed up – uncessearily caused a scandal – and they need to HUMBLY admit to that error, promise to do better, and move on.

    I’m about tired of them defending their actions. Just take your knocks and offer a mea culpa and move on. Could you imagine Mother Theresa defending a mistake? That’s not the path of sainthood.

    Greatly disappointed by this whole scandal and in those who defend it. As to your question about scandal – this scandal is passive – scandalum datum and acceptum, but not infirmorum.

    • Brandon Vogt

      But there’s a categorical difference between a group of nuns teaching outright heresy and CRS making an imprudent judgement that is in no way sinful, immoral, or heretical.

      • David L. Gray

        I agree there is a difference. My point in drawing the comparison out was only demonstrate how people stand up for the person (fine) as a pretense to excuse that person’s actions (not fine). Your preface grounded your apology for CRS as a defense of their actions by virtue of the person. It’s a non-sequitor defense of an indefensible action.

        I don’t know if anyone sinned in this case – God knows, but it is a fact that they have caused a passive scandal. One which may now give liberty to other Catholic Charities and to Christians to donate to CARE and organizations like it.

        When organizations like Notre Dame and CRS do things they set the example for others. This was a horrible example of charity and use of donations that I pray no one follows.

        Anytime I see an organization having to defend themselves as much as CRS has over the past few days – even sending me tweet after tweet – I become very suspicious. Virtue doesn’t need defense. Moreover, again, a mea culpa and ‘we’ll do better next time’ would have sufficed, but it seems pride has gotten in the way of humility.

        • Brandon Vogt

          First, my preface did not ground my “apology.” It was meant to affirm, through anecdote, CRS’ commitment to Catholic identity–a point that is incredibly relevant here.

          Second, I’m not apologizing for anyone, either in the sense of “excusing” or “defending”. I clearly admitted CRS’ missteps and imprudent decision-making..

          Third, I don’t agree with this:

          “This was a horrible example of charity and use of donations that I pray no one follows.”

          I don’t see how this was a horrible example of charity. 100% of the money went toward food, water, and basic nutritional programs. None of the money went to anything outside of the project, nor to fund any off CARE’s contraception of abortion work. So how are these acts of charity “horrible”?

          Also, the claim that virtue doesn’t need defense sounds noble at first glance, but it’s not true in practice. Take, for instance, priests wrongly accused of abuse. Or Mother Teresa wrongly accused of living a lavish lifestyle. Are you suggesting it’s wrong, or a sign of immorality, that one defends the truth and corrects unjust distortions?

          In my opinion, LifeSiteNews jumped the gun on their accusations, and stirred up needless scandal, and therefore my post was simply written to fill in the details and unravel some of the false charges.

          • David L. Gray

            On your third point I I think CRS now agrees at least in part with me according to a tweet I received today:

            CRS News ‏@CRSnews
            @yosephdaviyd Yes, Haas’s prediction of theological scandal was correct. But we worked hard then, and now, to address it.

            Does virtue need defending? I just don’t think truth ever needs to be ‘vigorously’ defended, I’ll say. Jesus was silent during his persecution. We can offer explanation of our actions, but more than that can tend towards pride, rather than humility and trusting God with the results of obeying Him.

            I found that to be an interesting take by you that LSN is the one who caused the scandal . . .

            Blessings and Shalom – Please continue your unprofitable service to God.

          • Brandon Vogt

            David, thanks again for the comment and for sharing the tweet.

            Just because you defend an action against unfair allegations doesn’t make the action wrong by nature. In other words, it doesn’t make sense to judge the virtue of an action by whether people defend it or not.

            Regardless, I never claimed CRS’ partnership was virtuous and I’m not defending it as such–only that it was not immoral or sinful.

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