Pope Benedict, charity and the role of faith-based aid

A Caritas office in Puerto Maldonado, in Peru’s southeastern Amazon region of Madre de Dios, 12 December 2018. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

As Pope Benedict’s legacy is being written in the days following his death, his retirement – the first for a pontiff in six centuries – is vying for the top position among reasons for him to be remembered. But for some humanitarians, the importance that he awarded to charity may be even more lasting.

Known within the Church as the head of the Vatican department in charge of defending Catholic doctrine before ascending to the papacy, the late pope set to quickly publish his own views once he was elected to the position.

The former professor’s first encyclicals, or papal documents on church doctrine, focused on the concept of caritas  – meaning both charity and love in Latin. The first of these, called Deus Caritas Est or God is love, was about the love of God and how this is linked to the love people have towards each other, particularly those in need. For Benedict, the faithful had a duty to be charitable in life.

In 2009, he produced another encyclical on charity entitled Caritas in Veritate, or charity in truth, addressed to all parts of society regarding the need for moral action amid global inequalities.

“He always saw the spiritual, as well as the pure humanitarian dimension, in terms of the work of the church and charity,” Monsignor Robert Vitillo, secretary general of the Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), told Geneva Solutions by phone. Benedict died in the Vatican on 31 December.

“It was a significant milestone for Pope Benedict to make this the theme of his first encyclical,” he added.

Some observers have said that Benedict’s expressions toward charity reflected his own character, often described as self-effacing, in contrast to the outsized personalities of his papal predecessors.

Elisabeth Parmentier, professor of theology at the University of Geneva, who had met Benedict, said the impression he projected was one of a “shy and delicate person, who listened carefully to others”.

“As a person, he tried to live this charity, interested in others. As pope, he was a real pastor,” she said, adding that in contrast, his socially conservative stance on church doctrine and having to deal with issues of power in the Vatican, “must have been very difficult for him”.

Critics of the late pope however argue that his papacy was overshadowed by the unresolved sexual abuse scandal within the Church, which he was accused of failing to address. Although he apologised for the hurt that sexual abuse had caused to victims, he failed to enact reforms to put an end to sexual violence during his eight years as pope.

Other scandals included internal documents leaked by his butler, who was sent to prison but later pardoned by Benedict, and a speech in which the pope quoted a mediaeval text using the words “evil and inhuman” to describe Islam, prompting outrage in the Muslim world. Benedict expressed regret for the reaction his speech caused.

Benedict-inspired response

Vitillo stressed that while charitable work has always existed within the Catholic church, Benedict “was really emphasising that the work of charity was an important constitutive element of the work of the Church”.

The ICMC, which was established under Pope Pius XII in the aftermath of the Second World War to respond to refugees and displaced people in Europe, has since worked with UN agencies, the United States, the European Union and other nations to help resettle people. Vitillo said the NGO helped resettle half a million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians following the conflict in southeast Asia during the 1970s.

“We serve all people,” Vitillo said. “It doesn’t matter who we serve because we are faith-inspired.”

“The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI has been crucial for our confederation,” said Maria Amparo Alonso Escobar, temporary administrator at Vatican-based Caritas Internationalis, the second largest global aid network after the Red Cross.

“Inspired by Pope Benedict XVI, (Caritas) has sought to nurture a universal community built on global solidarity and service to the diverse needs of those experiencing poverty, injustice, and hardship,” she wrote in an email response to Geneva Solutions.

Caritas has played a key role in regions where other organisations may have less access. Its offices can be found in many isolated regions, such as in the Peruvian Amazon, where it assists female victims of sexual exploitation working near illegal gold mines as well as newly arrived Venezuelan migrants with basic needs and logistics. In Venezuela, where the Church plays an influential role politically in the context of the humanitarian crisis, Caritas has been one of the few aid organisations that has continued to operate in the country, amid growing needs.

Carol Pezo (left), human rights lawyer for Caritas in Puerto Maldonado in southeastern Peru, with a colleague in front of the Catholic aid organisation’s offices, 12 December 2018. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

“Our grassroots presence allows us to understand the nature of crises – today increasingly triggered by multiple factors in conjunction with each other – and to act together with the communities,” Alonso Escobar said.

Caritas Internationalis recently underwent a major management shakeup. In November, a statement from the Vatican said that “real deficiencies were noted in management and procedures” in the organisation. Its secretary general, Aloysius John, was ousted following accusations of bullying and mishandling of sexual abuse at Caritas in the Central African Republic.

Pope Francis appointed  Pier Francesco Pinelli as temporary commissioner with the support of Alonso Escobar, Caritas’ former head of advocacy, ahead of elections this year for Caritas’ leadership, and called for a review of its charter.

Cooperation and access

While Caritas has an advocacy office a few steps away from the UN’s European headquarters, dozens of other faith-based organisations are also headquartered in Geneva.

Thorsten Göbel, director of programmes at ACT Alliance, a network of 150 NGOs, mostly representing Protestant and Orthodox churches, told Geneva Solutions that the group works with Catholic counterparts on issues including climate change, migration, displacement and emergency response.

“We have a lot of similarities on humanitarian issues, with our focus on strengthening local actors, which is important, as many of the member organisations are national organisations,” he said.

ACT Alliance was established in 2010 by the World Council of Churches, an ecumenical organisation assembling Protestant and Orthodox churches, and the Lutheran World Foundation as their “agency for humanitarian relief, sustainable development and advocacy”. Its members mobilise more than $3 billion annually.

In South Sudan, ACT Alliance and Caritas have long worked together to fund and implement a joint response programme in the context of the country’s complex and protracted crisis, that has included record-breaking flooding, a locust plague and famine. In other countries, regular contacts between ACT Alliance members and Catholic organisations take place, Göbel said, for UN emergency coordination mechanisms in other crisis situations.

He said that faith-based aid groups are at times able to negotiate access to regions experiencing conflict or other humanitarian crises where other international aid organisations are not allowed to reach. Recently this had occurred in two countries in Africa and Asia, but refused to name them.

“Trust is an important element,” said the programmes chief. “There is definitely a role of trust by the populations and leaders that faith actors could play and can play in moderating.”

For Caritas Internationalis’ Alonso Escobar, commitment to helping on the ground goes back to the Church’s mission.

“The teachings of (Pope Benedict) have encouraged us to contribute to the work of charity, which is a concrete expression of the essence of the Church and, therefore, cannot be a mere social welfare activity,” she said.