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Caritas' Missionary Position

Last week the ABC reported that the joint effort by Caritas and the National Council of Churches had gone belly up because the donor base was failing, according to Caritas' CEO Jack de Groot. But maybe not...

Forceten, the Australian ecumenical organisation that has been supporting the needy in many parts of the world with its aid and development projects for almost 40 years, will close at the end of this year. Forceten's two partners are the National Council of Churches in Australia, and Caritas Australia, the aid and development organisation of the Catholic Bishops.

The stated reason for the closure is that Forceten is being squeezed out of the market by larger and higher profile organisations such as Worldvision and Care Australia. Forceten's ageing donor base is reportedly shrinking, and eventually the agency will become unviable.

However it may be that the increasingly problematic nature of ecumenical cooperation has become the real sticking point.

Figures in Forceten's most recent annual report depict a small but financially healthy organisation that is clearly not in decline. Forceten's 2003 donation income was actually 32% up on the previous year, with an increased 80% of the $1.37 million year's donor revenue going to the projects themselves.

Elsewhere, there is increased pressure to attach doctrinal strings to aid and development work.

CAFOD - the Caritas organisation of the Bishops of England and Wales - is likely to suffer from the well-funded and intentionally intimidating campaign of the Catholic Action Group (CAG), which this month launched its appeal to "loyal" Catholics NOT to donate money to the agency.

Referring to the use of condoms to prevent AIDS infection, CAG argues that CAFOD should be boycotted because "they will not openly state that they do not condone condoms in any circumstances". CAG headlines its campaign pitch with the assertion that "contributing to CAFOD is a sin!" The claim is backed up with selected quotations from that Catechism of the Catholic Church, and links to an associated publication called Christian Order, which publishes an 11,000 word editorial detailing the argument for the sinfulness of being a CAFOD donor.

No doubt the staff at Caritas Australia would regard as abhorrent the thought that they might, at some stage in the future, be forced to apply such conditions to their distribution of aid. But it's a fact that denominational - rather than ecumenical - agencies are inherently more vulnerable to such pressure. The corollary of this is that denominational agencies are more attractive to church leaders who can conceive of a possible future need to apply "doctrinal strings". Why, then, close the established ecumenical agency Forceten - with its built-in protection from aid with conditions - in order to boost the specifically denominational agencies that are vulnerable to such practices?

Such pressure is likely to have a serious impact on many aspects of aid work. Recently Caritas distributed Muslim prayer kits in Aceh to enable families affected by the tsunami to maintain their celebration of the festival of Eid. No doubt CAG in the UK would regard giving money to support this as sinful. But the local authorities would be correspondingly reassured that Caritas was providing help where it was needed, and not seeking to proselytise. The Caritas approach provided a refreshing contrast to that of the US Christian groups in Aceh that annoyed local authorities with their insistence on handing out Bibles with their food aid.

Providing aid and development has little or nothing to do with mission and evangelisation. The Bishops reflected that view in the way in which they set up Church agencies. In Australia, we have Caritas responsible for aid and development with no strings attached. Catholic Mission, by contrast, does work in development as part of its primary task of overseas evangelisation. Similarly, the Vatican has Caritas Internationalis, which has a task different to bodies such as Cor Unum ('for Human and Christian Development') and the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

Groups like CAG would have Catholic aid and development agencies behaving like the unwelcome US evangelical aid workers in Aceh. It's consoling that they do not yet have the support they would like as, at the time of writing, 55% of respondents to the web poll on their site disagree with their boycott.

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