How Pope Benedict changed charity

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga addressed the Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) on 24 September in Sainte-Adèle, Quebec, Canada.

He spoke about how Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI changed the way we think about and practice charity through his landmark encyclical Deus Caritas Est and the Motu Proprio Intima Ecclesiae Natura.

His intervention was followed by a presentation on how Caritas Internationalis is organised throughout the world, which was given by its Secretary General Michel Roy

Read the full text of Cardinal Rodriguez’s speech. 

The role of the bishop in justice, peace and caritas

Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Dear Brother Bishops, I greet you very warmly on behalf of Caritas Internationalis, the confederation of 164 national Catholic aid agencies, working on humanitarian aid and development.

Among them is Development and Peace, Caritas Canada. I’m sure you’re all familiar with their excellent work, including in my home country Honduras, helping communities devastated by mining companies. They are an excellent example of the fraternity in action that’s an important part of the Caritas confederation. Just this month they have supported conferences on  building a communication network in francophone Africa and our emergency response in Latin America. They were one of the key Caritas in the response to drought in West Africa last year that affected over 20 million people. You can feel very proud of Development and Peace, your Caritas organisation in Canada.

With great fraternal solicitude, I would like to encourage you in your mission, you who are “the Servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1) in “household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

Thank you for this invitation to address you and for the opportunity to visit Sainte-Adèle in Quebec. Saint Adèle was an 8th Century German princess, founder of a convent, noted for her holiness, prudence and compassion. She was also a correspondent with Saint Boniface, Apostle of Germany.

I’m often reminded of this remark of Saint Boniface: “In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandons ship but to keep her on her course.”

Boniface strengthened the church in Germany through his example and by creating an institutional structure which remains in place today. It’s this church which of course gave us Joseph Ratzinger. And it’s Pope Benedict XVI that has strengthened our understanding of the evangelical mission of the Church with regards to the service of charity and kept us on course as we navigate life’s storms in the modern world. One could say what Boniface did for Germany, Benedict has done for charity.

My intervention today is on ‘the role of the bishop in justice, peace and caritas’ and I will be drawing heavily on the work of Pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

In response to the Gospel’s call (Mt 25), the Church has worked for and alongside the poorest people in the world throughout its history. Yet Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, published in 2005, presented an official doctrine on charity for the first time. And it puts charity at the heart of the mission of the Church.

His second Encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate,  highlighted some of the challenges to be addressed  by all in order to live according to the charity in truth.

And just a few moth before his resignation,  he published the Motu Proprio Intima Ecclesiae Natura, or On the Service of Charity, which provides the legal framework for the Church’s charitable actions.

Pope Benedict writes in Deus Caritas Est: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity(diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.”[i]

In the Moto Proprio, Pope Benedict says, “the service of charity is a constitutive element of the church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being.”[ii]

In testimony to Christ’s charity, caritas is part of evangelisation. For, as Pope Paul VI affirmed, “evangelisation would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social.”[iii]

Our church is a global people, united in sacrament and solidarity. Being the people of God in the world is our vocation as Christians.

The Church itself in Lumen Gentium is defined as: “Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.”[iv]

Our social concern for justice, the promotion of human development, is obviously not the whole and sole task of the Church, but it is “an essential” part of it, and an vital dimension of our koinonía.

Pope Benedict writes in Deus Caritas Est that the service of charity is an “indispensable expression of her very being”.  He says that all the faithful have the duty to devote themselves to a charitable life.

As Pope Francis said to a meeting of Caritas leadership this year in Rome, “there’s no Church without charity.”[v]

At the opening of the Synod for the New Evangelisation last year, Pope Benedict reminded us of the eminent role of charity in the evangelisation, underlining that the two columns on which the New Evangelisation is built are: “confessio” and “caritas“.

Confessio and caritas — he said – are like the two ways in which God involves us, make us act with him, in him and for humanity, for his creation.[vi]

Today we’re living though a time of grave crisis. It’s not just an economic crisis, nor is it only a cultural crisis; nor is it a crisis of faith. Today, humankind is in danger. Today, the body of Christ is in danger.

As Pope Francis said, “Our civilisation has established a throwaway culture. If it’s no use throw it away, into the garbage! Children, the elderly and outsiders. This is the crisis we’re living through.”[vii]

The rejection of the outsider recalls the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, as Pope Benedict puts it, “we see the twofold reality of Christian charity, which is both universal and practical. The Samaritan happens to meet a Jewish man in need who, in any event, is outside the boundaries of his tribe and his religion. But charity is universal, so this needy “stranger” is in every sense a “neighbour” to the Samaritan. Universality does away with the limits that close established boundaries in this world in and thus create differences and conflicts.”[viii]

The challenges we are facing are real, and sometimes daunting. In his interview book Light of the World, Pope Benedict concludes: “This makes it all the more important for Catholicism to present its faith in a new and vital way and to re-proclaim it as a force for unity, a force of solidarity and of eternity’s openness to time”.[ix]

These encouraging words inspire our commitment to fight poverty and contribute towards building one human family, according to the spirit and vision of the encyclical Spe Salvi: “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through ‘com-passion’ is a cruel and inhuman society”.[x]

Dear friends, the mission of Caritas Internationalis is to serve the poor, and even more the poorest of them first. This is our raison d’être and thus Caritas is at the heart of the Church’s mission of diakonia.

For many people in need, Caritas is the loving face of Christ who brings  relief and comfort, respect and recognition. As Caritas we are called to witness His love and we do it with enthusiasm. We know that God is love and we know and believe that He has created every single person in his image. Therefore we can’t afford to lose one single person from our one human family without losing our own destiny. We would lose a brother or a sister in Christ, who made Himself equal to all of us.

Pope Francis said that Caritas is “an essential part of the Church” and that it “institutionalizes love in the Church”. He said Caritas has two dimensions: action and a divine dimension “situated in the heart of the Church”. He said, “Caritas is the caress of the Church to its people, the caress of the Mother Church to her children, her tenderness and closeness.”

Pope Francis again draws us to the Good Samaritan. “For me, the most beautiful expression of caressing – in the face of need – is that of Good Samaritan. He didn’t say: I picked him up, took him to the inn, paid and went on my way. No. He said he washed his wounds, healed his wounds, picked him up and paid what was due, but first he washed his wounds.”

Reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan in Deus Caritas Est,  Pope Benedict makes these points:

Number one, that “Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.”

Secondly, that “The Church’s charitable organisations, beginning with those of Caritas (at diocesan, national and international levels), ought to do everything in their power to provide the resources and above all the personnel needed for this work.”

Thirdly, “Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent: they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it, and committed to continuing care.”

And finally, “While professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. … a “formation of the heart”. The programme of the Good Samaritan, the programme of Jesus—is “a heart which sees”.[xi]

The exercise of the diakonia of charity, whether in small communities or on the level of the universal Church, requires organisation. In the Moto Proprio, Pope Benedict provides a legal framework for the better ordering of the various forms the Church’s charitable work.

It’s important to have a better understanding of the spirit and the letter of this document whose sources go back and refers to the practice of the early centuries of Christianity, as clearly pointed out in Deus Caritas Est.[xii]

The Motu Priorio provides a legislation to address the different actors of the service of charity. It clarifies not only the responsibility of bishops, but also the commitment of every baptized person in the exercise of charity.

The love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a task of the entire ecclesial community at all levels, from the local community to the diocesan one, from the particular Church to the universal Church as a whole.

Here, we find an echo of what is said in Deus Caritas Est: “Love thus needs to be organised if it is to be an ordered service to the community. The awareness of this responsibility has had a constitutive relevance in the Church from the beginning.[xiii]

Because it is truly an activity of the Church herself, as well as an essential dimension of the Church, the charitable activity must be directly reconnected to the Episcopal ministry.

Because of the Church’s Episcopal nature, diocesan bishops have the “primary responsibility for carrying out in the particular Churches the programme set forth in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 2:42-44)”.[xiv]

The Motu Proprio explains the general mandate given to the bishops. However, the bishop cannot work without that body which he presides over. For this reason, all the faithful are to be educated in the spirit of sharing and genuine charity.

The papal document is addressed to different types of subject: those who exercise authority in the Church, the community of the faithful and the different charitable organisations.

The Moto Proprio highlights the respective levels of responsibility: at the diocesan level, the competence belongs to the bishop; at the national level to the Episcopal conference and at the international level to the Holy See. When the Motu Proprio refers to the “responsibility of the bishop”, these three levels are to be kept in mind.

The Moto Proprio says the community of the faithful and every faithful has the right to form charitable organisations or create foundations to fund concrete charitable initiatives.

The Motu Proprio emphasizes the participation of the Christian community, which must be educated “in the spirit of sharing and authentic charity”.[xv] Thus, we are in an area that promotes and encourages the freedom of the faithful.

Finally, Catholic organisations that operate at the service of charity. There are different types, among which we can at least identify four of them:

  • The Caritas, which require a separate mention, because they are considered as the official instrument of the bishop in the pastoral of charity, as can be seen also in the recent legislation regarding Caritas Internationalis.
  • Other organisations established by the Church’s authority to deal with social situations and fund projects for the promotion of human development.
  • Organisations established by Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.[xvi]
  • Organisations born from the initiative of the faithful. They are subject to the new legislation, if they have been recognised in one way or another by the competent authority, for example if they bear the name “Catholic”.

We are talking here about the responsibility of the bishop in the charitable work as ecclesial mission. Indeed, the bishop is called “Pastor-guide and the one primary responsible” for that service of charity.

Of all the main responsibilities related to his ministry, he has the task of encouraging the faithful to live an active charity and of participating in the mission of the Church.

This implies for the bishop the paternal obligation to feel close to the poorest and from a pastoral point of view, pay a special attention so that the Church at the diocesan and parish level lives the diakonia of charity according to the example of Christ.

The bishop is to educate the faithful in the spirit of sharing and genuine charity. Every Christian community must have a “heart which sees” the miseries which, tragically persist around it and can attend to them.

Our communities needs to know how to bring comfort and consolation to the poor and suffering. The bishop is to encourage the faithful to work in charity, either individually or in an organised form in groups of Catholic volunteers.

This responsibility of the bishop also implies that he is the guarantor of the communion. In his person the unity of the three tasks of the Church exists in as much as he constitutes an absolute certainty and assurance of their authenticity and interdependence.

This responsibility entails that the bishop is also the guarantor of dialogue that must exist within the charitable organisations that want a Christian affiliation or even for those who work in his diocese and come from other ecclesial entities.

The guarantee of this unity also includes the right to consent to initiatives of Catholic organisations to ensure that the activities are carried out in accordance with ecclesiastical discipline and therefore, the competence to accept or not a charitable organisation in his diocese.[xvii]

It is clear that the bishop cannot preside alone over the service of charity; this is why it is suggested to create an ad hoc office, which deals on his behalf and under his watchful supervision with the service of charity.

This could be the task of Caritas whose specificity is different from other organisations created within secular associations or religious institutions.

However, it is not realistic or opportune to limit the Church’s pastoral of charity to Caritas alone. Charitable organisations, throughout the world are extremely numerous and reflect the variety of charisms in the Church. The task of the bishop is to support this plurality of works and not to suffocate it

This seems particularly important because, thank God, many charitable initiatives are emerging, but they often ignore each other. The bishop is therefore to promote among them that communion and ecclesial harmony existing around his person. He is indeed the “Father of the family”.

I would also like to reflect on the responsibility of the bishop in the training of those who work in the service of charity. Often we are simply satisfied by the fact that a person offers time and energy for others. It is obvious that it is not only a matter of doing good, but also doing it well.

Following the example of Christ, those who work in the service of charity ought to be humble like Him, not considering themselves as the centre of their action, but rather being able to bear witness of their relationship with God.

The crucial point concerns the selection and training of people who offer their services: they must have a real sensus ecclesiae and live in faith and charity. This allows them to confront and judge the most difficult or the most obscure situation.

This is why their training should be taken seriously, both professionally and spiritually. It is the human person as a whole, created in the image and likeness of God that we want to serve.

The Moto Proprio requires that charitable organisations employ people who agree with the criteria of the Church’s mission, or at least that they respect them.[xviii]

This does not mean that people who are not Catholic cannot be employed in Catholic charitable organisations. However, they must not only have a good knowledge of the Church’s doctrine, but also respect the principles and criteria that define the Church’s charitable mission.

I wish to emphasize the simplicity that should characterize the management of charitable initiatives and to which you are already attentive.

I quote: “In a particular way, the bishop is to see that the management of initiatives dependent on him offers a testimony of Christian simplicity of life. To this end, he will ensure that salaries and operational expenses, while respecting the demands of justice and a necessary level of professionalism, are in due proportion to analogous expenses of his diocesan Curia”.[xix]

This simplicity is also one of the reasons for confidence in our organisations by the faithful. In fact, the administrative expenses are always carefully examined by donors and are subject to comparison.

Another aspect also deserves to be mentioned: the bishop is to ask civil authority to guarantee that Church freely exercises the service of charity, and he himself is to guarantee the respect of civil legislation by all the organisations working in his diocese.[xx]

One of their primary responsibilities is to submit to the competent authority the statutes that need to be approved. These must contain, in addition to the institutional roles and structures of governance, also the guiding principles and objectives of the organisation, the management of the funds and the profile of its workers.[xxi]

The Moto Proprio demands the communion with the bishop of the place where the charitable activity is being carried out. In fact, the Motu Proprio states: “The local ecclesiastical authority retains the full right to give permission for initiatives undertaken by Catholic agencies in areas of his jurisdiction… It is also the duty of the bishop to ensure that the activities carried out in his diocese are conducted in conformity with ecclesiastical discipline”.[xxii]

The Motu Proprio calls for a particular vigilance on the destination of the proceeds of collections. These should be destined to the specific purposes for which they were collected, for the sake of transparency of the organisation.[xxiii] It is not permitted to raise funds or promote activities that are contrary to the doctrine of the Church through parochial or ecclesial structures.[xxiv]

The bishop is to avoid that the Church’s charitable organisations accept funds from institutions whose pursued institutional aims or whose identity — as inscribed in their statutes — are contrary to the teaching of the Church. [xxv] The bishop is also to avoid that the Church’s charitable organisations accept funding from governments or private foundations to promote initiatives that in their aims or means to achieve them, are not in conformity with the Church’s doctrine.

In other words, if the proposed funds are subject to morally unacceptable conditions, then these contributions can in no way be accepted, and this is also to avoid causing scandal for the faithful.

This Motu Proprio creates a new legal situation upon which we must reflect and also find practical applications. This concerns not only the bishops, but also the organisations themselves. It will certainly be necessary to give a special attention to the following points:

  • The urgency or the need for an examination and possible revision of the statutes to ensure compliance and application of the new legislation at its various levels to better express for example the link with the Church and the fidelity to the Doctrine and the teaching of the Magisterium.
  • Organisations have the ecclesial duty to preserve communion with the bishops. They should not interpret this as a disciplinary issue, but as an expression of our belonging to the Church.
  • The creation of places of meeting and reflection at the diocesan level to redefine the criteria used in charitable activity, to clarify and schedule the training offered, to narrow down the guidelines that must be given to the activities and, at the parish level!, to consider the activities that need to be promoted and organised.[xxvi]
  • It is also essential to regularly promote reflection on professional and Christian training, which is a key issue today, for those who work in Catholic charitable organisations.
  • Attention to the situation of the organisations created by religious institutes that at times do not have an institutional connection with those from which they originated.

Dear friends, my intervention has mainly focused on Pope Benedict XVI and his attention to the service of charity in the Church. He is a great encouragement in our mission. If the Church is like a great ship, then he has given us the direction and tools to sail a steady course.

+Oscar Andrés Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga S.D.B.

President of Caritas Internationalis

September 2013

[ii] Motu Proprio Intima Ecclesiae Natura

[iii] Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, § 29, 31.

[iv] Lumen Gentium 1

[v] Speech given by His Holiness Pope Francis to the members of the Representative Council and the staff of Caritas Internationalis, at a private audience, in the Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City,  Rome, 16 May 2013

[vi] Meditation of the Holy Father during the First General Congregation, October 8, 2012

[vii] Speech given by His Holiness Pope Francis to the members of the Representative Council and the staff of Caritas Internationalis, at a private audience, in the Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City,  Rome, 16 May 2013

[viii] B-XVI, Synod Reflection

[ix] Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs Of The Times (9781586176068): Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI p. 114

[x] Spe Salvi 38

[xi] DCE 31

[xii] DCE 21-24 and 32

[xiii] DCE 20

[xiv] DCE 32

[xv] Art. 9 § 1

[xvi] Ad. 1 § 4

[xvii] cf Art. 13

[xviii] Art. 7 § 1

[xix] Art. 10 § 4

[xx] Art. 5

[xxi] Art. 2 § 1

[xxii] Art. 13

[xxiii] Article 10

[xxiv] Article 9 § 3

[xxv] Article 10 § 3

[xxvi] Art. 6 and 8



Please give to Caritas generously. Your support makes our work possible.


Caritas brought together a collection of prayers and reflections for you to use.


Volunteers make a crucial contribution. Find out how you can be one.