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)