Several weeks ago, the Vatican announced that it would not grant the necessary approval for Lesley-Anne Knight’s second, four-year term as secretary general of Caritas International, a global network of 165 Catholic agencies working primarily in the Third World on development and health care issues. Predictably, the Vatican black ball was deplored by some leaders of Caritas-affiliated agencies, who have been complaining to their diplomatic representatives at the Holy See that this clumsy and unwelcome intervention in their internal affairs would imperil their effectiveness in working with other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

If that’s the case, it won’t be because of anything the Vatican did. Rather, it will be because the INGO world is dominated by an unbending “progressive” orthodoxy on development and health care questions that sits poorly with Catholic understandings of how people are empowered to break out of the cycle of poverty. INGO shibboleths are also in sharp conflict with Catholic understandings of the best way to fight the AIDS plague in Africa and other poverty-stricken parts of the world. There is very little public evidence that Caritas International, under Ms. Knight’s leadership, challenged the rigidities in INGO thinking that are a real-world obstacle to empowering the poor and to driving down the incidence of HIV/AIDS. A case in point was her address to a “Catholic Networking Session” at the 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

There, Ms. Knight asked. “Is there a uniquely Catholic approach to the global HIV pandemic? And if so, what is it?” Her first answer: “I fear that there may be people here in Vienna this week who would answer that it is one characterized by dogma, hypocrisy, moralizing, and condemnation.” True enough, given the attitude toward the Church’s sexual ethic prevalent in the INGO universe. But did Ms. Knight challenge this caricature? Not really. The best she could manage was to lament that Catholic AIDS workers (the largest group of non-governmental care-providers for people suffering from AIDS) “are still dogged by these criticisms.”

Nor, in answering her own question, did Leslie-Anne Knight say what she might have said, which is this: “Yes, there is a uniquely Catholic approach to the global HIV pandemic. It is an approach that takes seriously the dignity of the human person, which includes the capacity of men and women to change patterns of behavior that put themselves, their families, and their communities at risk. It is an approach that takes the spiritual and moral dimensions of the AIDS crisis seriously. It is an approach that stresses abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage “ both of which have been shown by independent scholars to drive down the incidence of AIDS in vulnerable populations. It is an approach that refuses to accept the empirically unproven claims that poverty, stigma, and low levels of education drive AIDS epidemics. And it is an approach that refuses to burn incense at the altar of the false god latex, where the real votaries of rigid dogma are to be found among those for whom condoms are instruments of salvation.”

Ms. Knight, I hardly need add, said none of this. To the contrary: she put the authority of her position behind a reiteration of the poverty/stigma/low-educational-levels mythology. Which is to say, she reinforced the rigidities that are the true obstacles to the “development innovation and collaboration” for which she called.

I don’t mean to suggest that Ms. Knight is singularly wrong-headed. What she said (and didn’t say) in Vienna expressed what is quite likely the consensus among many Caritas International-affiliated agencies. These agencies have absorbed from the INGO atmosphere in which they work, and from the governments and international agencies on whose funding they have come to depend, the approach to development and AIDS that shaped Ms. Knight’s speech and rendered it strangely anemic in its Catholic identity.

That identity is what the Holy See is determined to reassert in global Catholic development and health care efforts. As the drama of that re-set unfolds, support for the Vatican’s efforts by the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services would be in order.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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