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Cardinal Bertone may be right to block the head of Caritas: but the way he has done it is a massive own goal

The Roman Curia has to learn both to communicate and to behave with more sensitivity

By on Friday, 25 March 2011

The Vatican has blocked the re-election of Dr Lesley-Anne Knight as secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis (Photo: CNS)

The Vatican has blocked the re-election of Dr Lesley-Anne Knight as secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis (Photo: CNS)

I have to admit that I don’t check up on the Tablet’s online version as often as maybe I should; at my age I have to watch my blood pressure. And I don’t take the print version. Maybe I ought to (despite my personal prejudice against it, born of long years of experience of its consistently anti-magisterial policy); I have just been told that it published a favourable review of a recent book I edited entitled The Holiness of GK Chesterton. Confusing; in the good old days, they always savaged anything I wrote.

Anyway, back to The Tablet online, which last month published a story, which I have just come across via Protect the Pope, which discusses an interview by John L Allen with Dr Lesley Ann Knight, presently secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis. The Tablet story begins thus:

Vatican blocks re-election of Caritas Internationalis chief

The global Catholic development agency Caritas Internationalis (CI) is reeling after the Vatican took the highly unusual step of officially blocking Lesley-Anne Knight from running for a second four-year term as CI secretary general.

The Tablet has learned that three weeks ago the Vatican’s Secretariat of State refused to grant Dr Knight the necessary nihil obstat required for all candidates for the key position. The CI bureau – which includes the international president, secretary general, treasurer and seven regional presidents – has asked the Vatican to “reconsider the decision”….

Cardinal Rodríguez [CI’s president] wrote to all directors of the 165-member international confederation on 5 February to inform them of the Vatican’s decision. The letter… notes that Secretariat of State officials met a CI delegation on that same day and gave only a verbal account of why the Vatican refused to approve Dr Knight’s candidacy. The cardinal does not mention those reasons in his letter….

So, why exactly has the Vatican acted in this way? The interview with John Allen has a couple of clues, perhaps. According to Allen, a letter from Cardinal Bertone stressed that “the decision should not cast doubt on Knight’s merits, but was motivated by a desire to give new emphasis to the “theological dimension” of Caritas, to “improve communication” between Caritas and the Vatican, and to emphasise the need for Caritas to act in “strict co-operation” with Vatican offices”.

But what does that mean? It’s all very well for Cardinal Bertone to say that he wants to improve communications with Caritas; but he’s not doing very well himself. I’m not questioning his decision at all: but I think that we should all be told his explicit reasons.

We may, perhaps, be able to deduce them from Dr Knight’s interview. When asked whether Caritas was trying to improve its relationship with the Vatican, she replied: “Totally. It may be that my personal way of being church, or someone else’s, doesn’t fit a particular brand at the moment. That doesn’t mean you walk away. It means you say, ‘Here I am. I’m Catholic. This is where I belong, and I’m not going anywhere.’ That’s what Caritas now will do, as long as I can lead it. We’ll say, we’re here, how can we help you? How can we be of service? How can we make you proud of us?”

That reference to her way of “being church” (a phrase which in my book is a real ultra-liberalism indicator) and that reference to the Catholicism of the Magisterium as being “a particular brand”, and her disagreement with it as being “at the moment”, as though Rome were in a state of perpetual flux, probably tells us all we need to know. But it’s not enough. If someone is being fired, they have a right to know why, in terms. And even from a PR point of view, it’s yet another example of Rome’s utter inability to communicate with the modern world: it’s simply asking for accusations of unfairness and authoritarianism, and it’s already getting them, big time.

Have a look at this extract from John Allen’s interview with Dr Knight. Allen asks her how many times, in the four years she has been secretary-general, she has spoken with the Vatican Secretary of State who has just fired her. This is her response. If she is speaking the truth, which I have no reason to doubt, then even if Cardinal Bertone’s actions are justified (which I also have no reason to doubt) the least that must be said is that he has handled this whole affair with a most shocking combination of high-handedness and incompetence.

DR KNIGHT: Cardinal Bertone has never spoken to me [my italics]. He has never invited me to a meeting or asked to speak with me. I have only spoken to people at under-secretary level. There has also been minimal contact from Cor Unum [the Vatican office responsible for overseeing charitable activity].

This is connected to the concern about whether Caritas is Catholic enough, because it raises the question, does the Holy See actually know what Caritas is doing? The information flow tends to be one-way. I submit all my reports and my finances [to Vatican officials]. I send a monthly update newsletter, which goes to all the top officials in the Secretariat of State. This month it will be Libya, plus the one-year anniversary of the Chile earthquake and the World Social Forum. I always say if there’s anything you would like to have more information about, or if you’d like a discussion about something, please contact me. There’s absolutely zero response [my italics].

JOHN ALLEN: Was the decision on the nihil obstat a complete surprise to you?

DR KNIGHT: Absolutely. It was a total surprise. We had no inkling of this at all. Bear in mind that our executive board meetings are attended by Cor Unum. They are totally aware of all the processes. They knew I was fully endorsed by the board in November of last year. There was no question about what was happening, but there was no indication of what they were thinking.

I repeat. I do not question Cardinal Bertone’s decision: I can’t, because I don’t know the reasons for it, nobody does: and I trust him. But it has to be said that the way he has handled this matter has been, from a purely human point of view, quite shocking. Justice must not only be done; it must be seen to be done. Giving little hints in explanation of one’s actions, with a nod here and a wink there, is unworthy of the high standards of conduct which ought to characterise the highest leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. So is waffling on with lofty but inexplicit talk of a desire to give new emphasis to the “theological dimension” of Caritas (meaning what precisely? It probably does mean something), to talk of the need to “improve communication” between Caritas and the Vatican, and to emphasise the need for Caritas to act in “strict co-operation” with Vatican offices: how can Dr Knight co-operate with people who won’t even talk to her? She says of Cor Unum that “there was no indication of what they were thinking”. If that’s true, and I bet it is, it’s just not good enough.

I think that Pope Benedict’s has the potential to be one of the great pontificates of Catholic history. But with communications skills like those of the men on whom he has to rely, how will we ever know? Do they even want to tell anyone what is going on in their minds? This whole affair is turning out to be a massive own goal on Cardinal Bertone’s part. He will in the course of time need to weed people out; probably many more than he is doing; God knows, there’s plenty of dead wood, obstructing the mission of the Church. But he will really have to go about it more skilfully, and with greater sensitivity, than this.

  • Camillus

    WHO HIRED HER IN THE FIRST PLACE?