Catholic Relief Services strives to be thoroughly Catholic in a world of competing voices. In touching the lives of 100 million people in 100 countries, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) works with 1,500 partners. Half of these agencies are Catholic; half are not. Like many Catholic organizations that engage with the secular world, CRS sometimes works with organizations that hold positions that are not consistent with the full range of Church teaching. These are always limited to time-bound agreements related to carrying out a specific program or activity that must fully comply with Church teaching; otherwise we would not agree to do it. For example, after a natural disaster or in other situations of great suffering, relationships with those organizations that do not fully follow Catholic teaching may be necessary to save lives and reduce human suffering.
Whatever the circumstances, CRS has a procedure for vetting our relationships with partners to ensure that we are in full compliance with Church teaching. This includes policies and processes reviewed and approved by the oversight committees of our Board of Directors, including bishops elected by the bishops of the United States to represent them in governing CRS. These policies define when it is appropriate to engage in partnerships with organizations that have positions not fully in line with Catholic teaching.
Additionally, CRS consults with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and its president Dr. John Haas, an expert in moral theology who is a consultant to the bishops’ pro-life committee, and Father J. Daniel Mindling, also a consultant to the pro-life committee, to review our grants. We are clear with any group we work with that CRS opposes contraception and abortion.
In 2014, the CRS Board of Directors formed an Advisory Committee on Catholic Identity (ACCI) to provide even greater expertise and to serve as a sounding panel to the Board and executive leadership on important issues related to protecting human life and promoting human dignity in accordance with Catholic teaching as these issues arise and as technology continues to evolve.
In all our relationships with agencies whose mission and purpose involve activities that do not comply with Catholic teaching, we are careful to be limited and clear to avoid implying that CRS facilitates, endorses or otherwise enables the activities of another entity which may violate Catholic teaching. We see our work with such organizations as a positive and powerful aspect of our witness to our Catholic faith, for we can bring our Catholic outlook and values to a variety of people and groups who otherwise would not be exposed to them. We have seen positive results from this engagement, such as Natural Family Planning being considered by other organizations, and our Abstinence and Be Faithful approach to HIV prevention gaining respect in the wider health community.
The following paragraphs respond to questions that were raised about programs and situations involving CRS that occurred between 2008 and 2013.
Dr. Germain Grisez
In 2008, Dr. Grisez of Mount St. Mary’s University publicized a document produced by the government of Zambia on the use of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV that had a CRS logo on it. The message conveyed did not conform to Catholic teaching and should never have had any sign of CRS approval. CRS admitted the mistake, immediately removed the document from circulation and launched a review of all material relating to HIV and AIDS. CRS remains proud of its work on HIV and AIDS which has saved hundreds of thousands of lives while adhering to the tenets of our faith.
Questions were raised about CRS’ apparent funding to the international humanitarian agency CARE, which holds positions on family planning that are not in agreement with Church teaching. CRS makes clear its disagreements with CARE’s positions, because we do not support any positions that violate Church teaching on human dignity and the sanctity of human life. Any funding CRS provides to CARE, or any other international humanitarian organization, comes from an outside source such as the federal government or a foundation, and it must be used for a specific project, and has strict restrictions on its use.
In this instance, CRS grants to CARE were used specifically to provide vital assistance to people in need related to agriculture, emergencies and general welfare, and could not, in any way, be used for contraception. Such grant funds are not fungible. In other words, these funds provided by the federal government or foundations are designated for specific anti-poverty programs and cannot be used for any purpose other than that stated in the grant.
Our work with CARE has been reviewed by our Advisory Committee on Catholic Identity and that work has been deemed consistent with Catholic teaching.
CRS was questioned about its membership in the CORE Group, a professional association of NGOs and humanitarian professionals focused on child survival work overseas, as some of its members do not uphold all tenets of Catholic teaching. The work of the CORE Group has contributed to saving the lives of millions of mothers and children since 1997 through technical expertise and exchange. We can document many lives saved and enhanced through that work, so we see our membership in the CORE Group as a means of demonstrating our faithfulness to Church teaching. In our dealings with those members that do not uphold tenets of Catholic teaching, we acknowledge our differences, air our disagreements on these issues and contribute our Catholic voice to the conversation. As an active and influential member of the CORE Group, we are able to represent Catholic positions on health for mothers and their infants.
Some critics have brought up a document issued by the CORE Group in 2006 that promoted artificial birth control to prevent the spread of HIV. Though two CRS technical staff members reviewed the document, there is no indication that their comments were taken into consideration in any final documents, and CRS certainly did not endorse this particular document. CRS has since revised our policies to ensure that our name is not in any way associated with documents that are counter to Church teaching.
Likewise, CRS was questioned about its membership in MEDiCAM, a professional association of Cambodia-based humanitarian agencies working in the health field, which has members and program areas that do not align with Catholic teaching. The association provides a platform for exchanging information and learning about the programs of each agency, as well as building the capacity of its members. It maintains a large library of technical documents, operates a health email network, publishes a monthly health newsletter and convenes working groups and special health-related events.
CRS is one of several Catholic organizations that are members of MEDiCAM, including local Church agencies and religious institutes. Almost anyone active in the health field in Cambodia belongs. Our critical work there would be hampered if we did not belong.
CRS staff who participate in MEDiCAM and other associations with members who do not agree with Church teaching are able to acknowledge our differences and contribute our Catholic voice to the conversation. As a member of such associations, we are able to represent Catholic positions on health care as well as highlight our work and demonstrate the efficacy of such approaches. As with other such coalitions and working groups in which CRS participates, we see our membership in MEDiCAM as a means of demonstrating our faithfulness to Church teaching.
Document Promoting Condom Use
CRS was made aware of a document on HIV prevention among drug users in Vietnam that contained some unacceptable references to condoms. That document was taken out of circulation. Over the past several years, CRS has produced thousands of documents related to our work, some of which tell our story for a general audience and many others of which are more technical and are aimed at a specialized professional audience. These are written by technical experts on our staff or consultants. All of these documents go through a review process, but sometimes mistakes slip by an editor reading so many pages of text. When that happens, we want to hear about it and correct it. As we’ve stated previously, CRS welcomes input and critique from people of good will who present criticism in a constructive and collegial spirit intended to support and further the life-saving and life-affirming work that CRS does for millions of the poor around the world.
American Life League Allegation
In September, 2013, CRS received the American Life League (ALL) Investigative Report on Grants by CRS for the fiscal year 2012, implying that we had an improper relationship with groups whose activities are not in agreement with Catholic teaching. We carried out a thorough investigation of the information provided. Many of the organizations had been cited in previous reports and no new questions were raised. The relationships and the activities carried out in these grants have been assessed and determined to be appropriate and in conformity with Catholic teaching.
Over the last several years, CRS has redoubled our efforts to ensure that we uphold Catholic teaching in all our programming and reporting. We have established robust training and vetting systems with the assistance of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, the National Catholic Bioethics Center and other theologians and experts. We rigorously monitor and review our relationships with other organizations and our activities and programs to ensure that we are faithful to our Catholic identity. We have established a standing review committee of leading moral theologians and bishops to advise us on an ongoing basis. This consultation includes guidance on programs and partnerships. If an issue arises in any one of our programs reaching nearly 100 million people in 100 countries each year, we work to resolve it immediately.
We will continue to focus on our work serving the poorest of the poor in often challenging environments around the world, responding to Pope Francis' call to "go to the margins" and witness to the teachings of our faith in its fullness.