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

WEB-Carolyn-Woo-CNS-Matt-Cashore-courtesy-of-University-of-Notre-Dame

CNS-Matt-Cashore-courtesy-of-University-of-Notre-Dame

John Burger - published on 05/18/15

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?


Being on the board actually changed me in significant ways. The first thing is that people ignore the pain and suffering and the violence and oppression that is in the world. And I don’t think I’m much better. There are parts of newspapers where I say, “Oh, I don’t think I need to know this.”

So the first thing is for me to say to myself, “Carolyn, this is your world. Just because it’s on a completely different continent doesn’t mean you should close your eyes to it—that everyone is brothers and sisters.” It allows me, for example, nowadays, to hear Bishop [Antoine] Audo of Aleppo in Syria, who would often say, “Please don’t forget us. Please don’t abandon us.” That call now resonates with me, and in the most troubled places, the Church and the people outside of the Church say, “Does anyone care? Please don’t forget us. We are in the middle of misery….”

Number two is that people always say, "There are no solutions. These things just keep happening, and there are always problems…" And that is not true. There are real improvements which have taken place when we collectively work on it. We see, for example, the reduction in malaria rates, in polio rates, in child mortality for children under five years of age. It used to be 12 million children die a year. Now it’s not great, but it’s 7 million. …

The third thing which is really amazing to me is the presence of God amidst people of many different faiths, the presence of God that does not limit itself to little boxes. …

And there may be things about the agency you now head that you feel need attention. What do you have in mind?

One of the things clearly is that we work with a lot of Church partners. We serve about 100 million beneficiaries and work with about 500 Catholic organizations around the world. … They are not just our partners; they are our brothers and sisters, and ultimately our goal is to build their capacity so they will stand on their own, so they will be respected as noted service providers in their own communities. …

CRS has been criticized by some for failing to live up to Catholic standards in some ways. What has been done in response?

The type of attacks come in three forms. The first is: Why do we work with other organizations which don’t follow Catholic Church teaching? The reason we do that is because, for example, we are responsible for 10 countries in Africa where the people there receive ARTZ drugs, a lot of times…making sure a whole country receives malaria-preventing drugs. So we have very broad responsibilities. There are places we still cannot reach. and sometimes that’s because there are no roads, which is quite common, by the way, in a lot of the countries in which we work. We also have a policy that we do not want staff to be traveling at night because of danger.

So when we have responsibilities for these types of activities, for the scope of these activities, if we don’t reach out to other partners who have coverage of those territories, we are basically leaving a big swath of population unattended. … If we don’t collaborate with other agencies, we are leaving those people without any hospitals or clinics or access to those medications.

Sometimes it’s, “Why do you belong to certain associations?” For example, the Cambodia Medical Association. It’s just like the American Medical Association. It’s very large, it covers all kinds of medical specialties, from malaria to nutrition to family planning. We belong because we need to find out what is the best treatment nowadays for nutrition and malaria and TB and chronic diseases. We do not attend the sessions for family planning. In fact, our Church partners use our membership to attend the sessions of the Cambodia Medical Association because we all need to know the parts that relate to us.


And also when we participate in family planning conversations, it’s to present natural family planning. If we are not there making our case, believe me, it would go away. Nobody would even ever know that there is something called Natural Family Planning, and that it works. CRS oftentimes is the only voice to say, “Wait a minute; this is our approach It’s different from yours, and this is our evidence that it works.” So we are actually making the voice of the Catholic approach acceptable in these secular organizations.

The second one is that people accuse us of making contraceptives available or abortion and so on, and that is just absolutely not true. CRS refrains from any of those activities. There are grants where it may require the distribution of contraceptives. We refrain from participating in those grants. Or we seek special waivers so that we do not participate in those parts.

By the way, everywhere we work, we work with the Church. So the local Church invites us. The local Church has a relationship with us. When we go into these projects the Church is either working with us on these projects, or when it’s sensitive, we say to them Do you have any difficulty with that?

Number three,…CRS has a senior person who is in a civil gay marriage, and the question is, “Is that a violation of Church teaching?” I just want to say we are working through this. Gay marriage, of course, is a very complex issue. The Church is very clear that marriage as a sacrament is a between a man and a woman open to procreation. There’s also the Church teaching on natural law. Those are the teachings. … Does it mean that the Church should not employ anyone who is in a gay marriage? Are we giving a blanket No?… If it’s not a blanket No, are there particular positions, such as positions that are ministerial in nature, positions which relate to the formation of the faith of young children at school? … While the teaching is clear, as it translates into practice there has not been defined a common approach for dealing with employment, particularly when the position is non-ministerial, when the person is not a Catholic, when the agency is not a school. So we’re in that area when there have been various steps forward, but not a clear path.

Civil marriage is protected by the State of Maryland and 36 other states, as well as DC, so we’re also dealing with a new intersection between in this case state law and Church teaching where the practice is being defined.

CRS governance is not a loose governance. The board consists of bishops and lay people. The chair of our board is a bishop who is appointed by the USCCB. Our by-laws call for one bishop more than laypeople. We have had regular and consistent meetings with our board on these issues.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the federal government or grant makers because you won’t distribute contraceptives? What kind of blowback has CRS suffered because of your decision to opt out of programs?

There is work we don’t participate in, and I think people respect us for that. We have refrained from quite a number of projects. There have been programs in the past where a water program was tied to contraceptives. In those cases, when we think that is unfair, we have to complain. We’ve taken it all the way to the White House, and we actually had some of these proposal requirements redrafted to say there is no reason why there is a contraceptive requirement in this grant related to water, for example.

So, actually, it’s very important for us to stay in that conversation to define the space where Catholics need to act. People often say, “Why would you work with the US government, or why would you take US government money to do your work?” In a lot of this international development work, the US government does not actually go into these places with US government employees… You give grants to different implementing agencies. CRS is one implementer among others, and we are the only large Catholic implementer.


And why shouldn’t Catholics, by merit of our excellent work, be an implementer? Our operating principle is Catholic social teaching. Our approach is called Integral Human Development, which comes from Church teaching of how we serve and transform life, grounded in Catholic social teaching. Why shouldn’t we demonstrate our approach….We work so extensively with the Church. This is the way to build the capacity of the local Church to rebuild.

Another thing is that Catholics are taxpayers. Why shouldn’t we have our presence, our approach, our philosophy be represented? … Wihen we pay taxes, it doesn’t mean that we agree with everything that the government does. And actually, Cor Unum, which is a Vatican dicastery, once said “You should not take money from institutions whose values are against the Catholic Church,” and then in an interview in 2013, they clarified that that does not include government. There is no scandal, in that there has never been an interpretation that the Church completely agrees with the government. …

What areas of the world have you visited recently where CRS is working, and what did you see there? 

The most recent would be northern Iraq, where ISIS has displaced a lot of people—a whole diocese, really, in Mosul, to be there with the Church, to be there with the people.

I’ll be going to some of the Central American countries [dealing] with extreme issues of poverty as well as dramatic violence.

There are several hot spots that get a lot of media attention, but there are places and problems that are overlooked, aren’t there?

There is so much violence in the world. Even in developed countries. We just went through the violence here in Baltimore [where CRS is headquartered]. I was in Australia during the hostage-taking in a cafe. I was in Paris a couple of weeks after the Charlie Hebdo incident. Violence is so pervasive.

Natural disasters are heartbreaking when you see them, and there’s a lot of loss of life, like in Nepal, where you can see complete buildings collapsed on people. But after natural disasters you can aim to build back better, in a more sustainable way, and you can actually see progress. In countries where violence is the root cause it’s very hard to work. We are working with a lot of Syrian refugees, now in the [fifth] year of the Syrian conflict. There are millions of people who have been displaced, ranging from poor families to middle class families. And children are completely traumatized. They have seen death. They have seen their own family members not only die but die without a leg, die with their heads open, people shot to death, bombed to death. And we all know that violence greatly affects the brain development of children. …

So this is our work. This is the work of the Church. Sometimes people cannot even pronounce our name. They think of us as US and Catholic. A Yazidi woman said about us, “I don’t know much, but they must be givers.”

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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