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Posted February 6, 2008

Catholic Identity is Still Very Much in!!

Beefing up the Catholic in Catholic charities

By John Allen
National Catholic Reporter

Without a doubt, the push for robust assertion of traditional Catholic identity is the most consequential mega-trend in the life of the church today, and it is also the core of Benedict XVI's agenda as pope. Emboldened by the election of John Paul II in 1978, the identity wave hit the arena of liturgy first, then went on to engulf Catholic education, Catholic media, priestly identity and formation, religious orders, and virtually every other sphere of ecclesiastical life.

Most recently, identity pressures are beginning to swell among church-run charities and social service agencies. It may well be here that the irresistible force of the Catholic identity movement runs most explosively into the immovable object of secular expectations and the civil law.

Recent days have made clear who the Vatican's point man on the Catholic identity of church-run charities is going to be: Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, the 73-year-old German president of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum."

Cordes was the main drafter of the second section of Pope Benedict XVI's December 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, which dealt with the institutional dynamics of Catholic charities, and his elevation as a cardinal last November was a clear sign of papal support and gratitude. He was on the public stage in Rome again this week, presenting the pope's message for Lent, which focuses this year on giving alms.

In the brief message, Benedict encourages giving aid without fanfare as a gift of self. He argues that countries with a Christian majority have a special responsibility, and says that aiding the poor "is a duty of justice even prior to being an act of charity."

It was Cordes' comments on Catholic charities and secularization, however, in a Tuesday press conference devoted to the Lenten message, which carried the greatest news value.

I asked Cordes about a current case in Colorado, where a proposed measure before the state legislature would bar church-run charities that receive public funding from hiring and firing personnel on the basis of their religious convictions. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has threatened to end the services provided by Catholic charities rather than comply.

Faced with such a question, the normal maneuver for a Vatican official would be to say that he doesn't want to get into specific cases, remaining on the level of general principles. Cordes, however, did not mince words in endorsing Chaput's action: "This bishop is doing the right thing," he said. (Speaking in Italian, Cordes' precise words were, "questo vescovo fa bene.")

"Theologically, charitable activity and the good deeds of the faithful are always connected to the proclamation of the word," Cordes said. "Service is tied to testimony to the Word of God, and no one must break this connection."

"This points to a great contemporary problem," Cordes said. "Thanks to the generosity of many donors, the charitable agencies of the church are able to do their work. But this carries a risk that the spirit of a Catholic agency can become secularized, doing only what the donor has in view."

"Catholic agencies have to be very careful not to lose their liberty, taking money from donors who later try to introduce a mentality that does not correspond to ecclesiastical objectives," Cordes warned.

In fact, Cordes said, "Cor Unum" will be sponsoring a spiritual retreat for the directors of Catholic charities in North and South America in June in Guadalajara, Mexico, precisely as a response to this perceived threat of secularization -- which Cordes described as "not the fault" of the directors of Catholic agencies, but rather the surrounding culture.

Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher of the Papal Household, will lead the retreat, Cordes said.

To put his point into a sound bite, Cordes said, he wants the world to understand "that there's a difference between Caritas and the Red Cross."

Late last week, Cordes also gave an address to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, a Vatican body that deals with implementation of the Code of Canon Law, in which he suggested that bishops may need more precise canonical tools to oversee and defend the Catholic identity of church-run charitable agencies.

Efforts to beef up the specifically Catholic dimension of church-run charities and social service agencies have already generated collisions with public authorities.

Catholic Charities in Boston, for example, was forced to stop providing adoption services in April 2006 after it failed to win an exemption from a state law which required adoption agencies that receive public funding to provide services to same-sex couples. At roughly the same time, the Archdiocese of San Francisco announced that it would reconsider its participation in a similar program. In February 2007, the English government announced that private adoption agencies that refuse to serve gay couples would no longer receive reimbursements for their services, resulting in the loss of over $9 million in annual payments to Catholic charities in England.

Of course, church-run social services are hardly the only zone of life where public assertions of church teaching sometimes court secular blow-back.

On Nov. 1, 2004, for example, just one day ahead of the American presidential election between George Bush and John Kerry, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, a liberal Democrat, published an opinion piece in the New York Observer stating that, "By injecting themselves in partisan politics, the bishops have raised a red flag that could cast a shadow on the tax-exempt status of all religious institutions." Similar pressures are growing in Europe. In 2006, the Executive Commission of the European Union ordered Spain to stop exempting the Catholic Church from sales tax. Though that move was not tied to any specific political intervention by the Church, European observers said the subtext was growing hostility between the EU and the leadership of the Catholic Church.

Nor is this sort of veiled threat heard only from the left; conservative organizations in the United States, for example, appealed for a review of the tax-exempt status of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2006 after Cardinal Roger Mahony took outspoken positions in favor of immigration reform.

Nonetheless, because charitable enterprises tend to be the type of Catholic institution most likely to receive public funds, to be most dependent upon that funding, and to be engaged in activity that in many ways is essentially secular and humanitarian, it is here where the identity pressures are likely to generate the most political and financial turbulence.

In other words, the "liturgy wars" and the battles over Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's 1990 document on Catholic education, may yet pale in comparison to the stormy seas ahead in the arena of Catholic charities. Anyone looking to forecast those tempests would do well to keep an eye on Cordes.