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Catholic Relief Services Head Defends Collaboration With Partners Opposed to Church Teaching


John Burger - published on 05/18/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Carolyn Woo says it's important for Church to be in "family planning" discussions

Carolyn Y. Woo is the second lay person and first woman to lead Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic Church in the United States. She came to CRS as president & CEO in January 2012 but served on its board for six years before that. 

Woo served from 1997 to 2011 as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Prior to that, she served as associate executive vice president for academic affairs at Purdue University.

Born and reared in Hong Kong, she was taught by Maryknoll Sisters there. She immigrated to the United States to attend Purdue, where she received a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate and became a member of its faculty. Recently, she published Working for a Better World.

She spoke with Aleteia about the work of Catholic Relief Services, an agency with some 5000 employees which each year reaches more than 130 million people in nearly 100 countries; the ways in which it is easier to respond to natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Nepal, and some of the controversies that have arisen over CRS’s Catholic identity. 

I found it interesting that you begin your book not with “I was born in Hong Kong,” and the story of your growing up, but with a dilemma you faced in a recent career move. You honestly didn’t feel qualified to lead an international Catholic relief agency. But here you are.

I read [former University of Notre Dame president] Father [Theodore] Hesburgh’s book, I met with him, and in the very last paragraph of the last chapter of the book, in essence he said God has a sense of humor. He does not choose the best and the mightiest. He just chooses a person, a little person, to get the job done.

And that has always stuck with me. That was one of the motivations to go to Notre Dame, and that was a reminder also when I took the job at Catholic Relief Services. There was no way I would have felt qualified to go into this field. I’ve never done international development. It’s a very complicated, large, high-velocity environment. At least one-third of our work is in emergency, and very quick decision-making has to take place. So I neither have the political or geographical or functional experience related to international development.

So how, after you began as president and CEO, did you move into the job and find that you were indeed qualified?

Everybody brings different gifts to a picture…. In the end, what I bring to this role is not so much to be a quicker or smarter decision-maker in international development; it’s to understand two very big things: one is the alignment that CRS seeks as the external environment is changing rapidly. We know what our mission is, and that does not change. Our mission is to respond to God’s call in the Gospel and go serve everyone…. But the environment has changed so much that if we’re not attuned to it we may actually lose the ability to do that work. We may actually not receive funding to do this work. We need to know what is the best way we could add value and impact to this work to serve the very poor, that nowadays it’s not enough to just show up and provide food and non-food items in an emergency. There is a whole question of "How do you take people out of poverty? How do you get to a solution that is sustainable, so that after you leave, people don’t fall back, so there’s a permanent (as much as possible) transformation in people’s lives, and what do you have to do in order to sustain those solutions?"…

You’ve been affiliated with CRS since 2004. What are the things that impress you about it?

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