Pope Benedict XVI has issued an Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio on The Service of Charity (English translation on pages 13-19 of pdf) that many readers will find interesting, and some might even find troubling. John Allen of NCR reports on it here. These canonical prescriptions expand the control of the bishop over charitable organizations in his diocese and enter into force on December 10, 2012. Pope Benedict XVI claims that the Bishops “are charged with primary responsibility for carrying out in the particular Churches the service of Charity” (13, quoting Deus Caritas Est, no. 32). The introduction of this newest apostolic letter explains the goal of these new canon law provisions:

Although the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops explored more specifically the duty of charity as a responsibility incumbent upon the whole Church and upon each Bishop in his Diocese, there was still a need to fill the aforementioned lacuna and to give adequate expression in canonical legislation to both the essential nature of the service of charity in the Church and its constitutive relationship with the episcopal ministry, while outlining the legal aspects of this ecclesial service, especially when carried out in an organized way and with the explicit support of the Bishops (13).

The introduction explains that the Church’s charitable activity “must avoid the risk of becoming just another form of organized social assistance” (14) and organized charitable initiatives “call for appropriate management” (14). While making a distinction between Caritas as an institution promoted by the ecclesiastical Hierarchy and many other initiatives which have arisen from the free enterprise of the faithful, nevertheless this document claims:

To the extent that such activities are promoted by the Hierarchy itself, or are explicitly supported by the authority of the Church’s Pastors, there is a need to ensure that they are managed in conformity with the demands of the Church’s teaching and the intentions of the faithful, and that they likewise respect the legitimate norms laid down by civil authorities (14).

The apostolic letter includes the following norms:

Article 1.1: The faithful have the right to join in associations and to establish agencies to carry out specific charitable services, especially on behalf of the poor and suffering. To the extent that these are linked to the charitable service of the Church’s Pastors and/or intend to use for this purpose contributions made by the faithful, they must submit their own Statuses for the approval of the competent ecclesiastical authority and comply with the following norms.

Article 1.3: In addition to observing the canonical legislation, the collective charitable initiatives to which this Motu Proprio refers are required to follow Catholic principles in their activity and they may not accept commitments which could in any way affect the observance of those principles.

Article 2.2: A charitable agency may use the name “Catholic” only with the written consent of the competent authority, as laid down by canon 300 CIC.

Article 4.1: The diocesan Bishop (cf. canon 414 3 CIC and canon 987 CCEO) exercises his proper pastoral solicitude for the service of charity in the particular Church entrusted to him as its Pastor, guide and the one primarily responsible for that service.

Article 4.3: It is the responsibility of the diocesan Bishop to ensure that in the activities and management of these agencies the norms of the Church’s universal and particular law are respected, as well as the intentions of the faithful who made donations or bequests for these specific purposes(cf. canons 1300 CIC and 1044 CCEO).

Article 7.1: The agencies referred to in Article 1.1 are required to select their personnel from among persons who share, or at least respect, the Catholic identity of these works.

Article 7.2: To ensure an evangelical witness in the service of charity, the diocesan Bishop is to take care that those who work in the Church’s charitable apostolate, along with due professional competence, give an example of Christian life and witness to a formation of heart which testifies to a faith working through charity. To this end, he is also to provide for their theological and pastoral formation, through specific curricula agreed upon by the officers of various agencies and through suitable aids to the spiritual life.

Article 9.3: It is the duty of the diocesan Bishop and the respective parish priests to see that in this area the faithful are not led into error or misunderstanding; hence they are to prevent publicity being given through parish or diocesan structures to initiatives which, while presenting themselves as charitable, propose choices or methods at odds with the Church’s teaching.

Article 10.1: It is the responsibility of the Bishop to supervise the ecclesiastical goods of the charitable agencies subject to his authority.

Article 10.3: In particular, the diocesan Bishop is to ensure that charitable agencies dependent upon him do not receive financial support from groups or institutions that pursue ends contrary to Church’s teaching. Similarly, lest scandal be given to the faithful, the diocesan Bishop is to ensure that these charitable agencies do not accept contributions for initiatives whose ends, or the means used to pursue them, are not in conformity with the Church’s teaching.

Article 11: The diocesan Bishop is obliged, if necessary, to make known to the faithful the fact that they activity of a particular charitable agency is no longer being carried out in conformity with the Church’s teaching, and then to prohibit that agency from using the name “Catholic” and to take the necessary measures should personal responsibilities emerge.

Article 15.1: The Pontifical Council Cor Unum has the task of promoting the application of this legislation and ensuring that it is applied at all levels, without prejudice to the competence of the Pontifical Council for the Laity with regard to associations of the faithful as provided for in Article 133 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, the competence of the Secretariat of State’s Section for Relations with States, and the general competences of other Dicasteries and Institutes of the Roman Curia. In particular, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum is to take care that the charitable service of Catholic institutions at the international level is always to be carried out in communion with the various local Churches.

I am not an expect on canon law and I do not know what scandals or conflicts have led the pope to conclude that this is the best way forward. But I have some questions and concerns.

1. Why do the bishops have the primary responsibility for carrying out the service of charity? Is this a contested claim? What assumptions about the definition of the Church and the role of the Bishop are at work in this apostolic letter?

2. The letter says that this was proposed by the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and that the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts was consulted (15). Was there any wider consultation? Was there consultation with current leaders or administrators from Caritas, Catholic Charities, religious orders?

3. What does the pope mean by “Catholic principles” in Article 1.3 or by “norms of the Church’s universal and particular laws” in Article 4.3?

4. If I am employed by a Catholic charitable organization, how is the bishop supposed to assess whether I “share or at least respect the Catholic identity” of my organization? Could my employment be terminated if I disagree with official Church teaching, even one that is authoritatively taught but noninfallible? What does it mean to “give an example of Christian life and witness to a formation of heart which testifies to a faith working through charity”? By what process, and upon what evidence, would such an assessment be made?

5. Would the inability to accept funds from foundations or organizations that do not fully share the Church’s moral vision unnecessarily limit the good work that Catholic organizations can do for the poor? For example, is Catholic Relief Services now prohibited from partnering with the Gates Foundation on a clean water project?