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Catholic Relief Services vs. Malaria: The Real Issue

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 22, 2013

Catholic Relief Services has once again set off alarm bells in the pro-life community, this time by granting $2.8 million to Population Services International to fight malaria, even though PSI’s primary purpose, as the name suggests, is to control population through contraception and “safe abortion”. Our Catholic World News report provides considerable detail and a number of related links. But the questions raised by this story are not easy to answer.

Highly-respected and experienced pro-life organizations like the American Life League, Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Human Life International, the Population Research Institute, and LifeSite News have been sharply critical of CRS. CRS counters that the grant is strictly tied to fighting malaria, that by contract it cannot be used for PSI’s other purposes, and that PSI was chosen not by CRS but by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is the ultimate source of the funds. In other words, again, the reality is complex.

The Fungibility Test

One aspect of this complex reality is what we may call the fungibility test. The spokesman for CRS argued that “some will say that all money is fungible, but that is not true. There are very tight controls over the money to ensure it only goes toward the malaria program in Guinea.” Unfortunately, this argument does not really address the question of fungibility. A resource is fungible, like grain, if it doesn’t matter which instance of the resource is used for a particular purpose. If I purchase an automobile, I expect to receive the automobile I personally chose. If I purchase a hundred bushels of grain, I do not care at all whether my hundred bushels come from the grain silo I happened to be looking at when I placed my order. In the same way, people do not care which money they receive, as long as they receive the right amount.

As a medium of exchange, money is intrinsically fungible, and restrictions on the use of funds will be significant only if the availability of funds in one area does not free up other funds for use in other areas. Organizations which live by fundraising, including, face this issue all the time. If we raise funds for a specific purpose (or receive a grant for a specific purpose), we are morally obligated to use the proper amount of money for that purpose. But this means that we will not have to use general funds for that purpose, which ultimately means that more general funds will be available to meet the rest of the budget.

Sometimes an organization will receive a grant for a one-time project that it would not otherwise have done. This project is not part of the budget; in the absence of the grant, the project will not be performed. In an unusual case such as this, the fungibility argument has very limited applicability. But as soon as a particular kind of project becomes a regular part of an organization’s mode of operation—with the revenue raised for this kind of project sustaining the organization, its staff, and its facilities—a grant for a special purpose helps the organization in question to maintain itself as the kind of organization it is, freeing other funds for other aspects of its mission. And in this far more common situation, the fungibility argument has a definite application. Controlled funding becomes almost meaningless.

Thus I am not convinced by the CRS emphasis on non-fungibility.

Who’s Available?

But wait. The fungibility argument is only one part of the moral dilemma associated with funding organizations which engage in immoral activities, and it is not at all the most important one. A more important question is: What organizations are available to undertake the project? In the present case, fighting malaria is a highly moral purpose and a pressing need. A sizeable chunk of money is available to address this need. How many organizations are available, on the ground, to implement the required program? The CRS decision was further complicated by the manner in which grant recipients were chosen, but prescinding from that issue for the moment, using an organization which pursues some immoral purposes to effect this particular moral purpose would not ordinarily be immoral if there is no reasonable alternative.

In a world in which the dominant financial culture approves of contraception, sterilization, and abortion as normal and desirable features of psychological, physical and even planetary health, it will sometimes be as hard to find unobjectionable organizations to implement good programs as it is to purchase legitimate medical services from a doctor or pharmacist who is morally unobjectionable with respect to these same practices.

What is most often at stake is the kind of remote material cooperation with evil which is inescapable for anyone living and operating in the world. We may not directly fund evil, and we may not provide even a small indirect support of evil because we desire the evil (which would be formal cooperation). But generally an indirect support of (or cooperation with) evil in the course of pursuing perfectly good aims in an imperfect world is not only inescapable but morally acceptable. Our Heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45), yet we may pray as needed for both fair weather and rain.

Therefore, paradoxically, neither am I convinced that the pro-life critique of CRS is, in this case, well-founded.

Controlling the Pipeline

But I ask the reader to wait again. As I mentioned, the CRS dilemma in this case is complicated by the fact that the organization which is the source of the funds also chose Population Services International to be the ultimate grant recipient in Guinea. Perhaps less objectionable organizations, equally competent in this area, were readily available; if so, the nature of the arrangement did not permit CRS to choose one of them. Apparently we are dealing with massive funds provided by several different governments and administered through Catholic Relief Services, which has an excellent presence in most world regions. Some of these funds come with strings attached.

Quite apart from whether the use of PSI in this case is morally acceptable, it is the continuing reliance of Catholic Relief Services on government funds which is not only the elephant in the room, but the wooly mammoth. I have insisted repeatedly that Catholics cannot put themselves in the position of passing out grants and providing services which are funded, and therefore controlled, by others, especially the State. Catholics have their own international organization, the Church, with its own moral principles. The Church has dedicated personnel capable of reaching anywhere Catholic action is permitted, and some places where it is not permitted. The Church should control her own pipeline of funding and activity from beginning to end.

Catholic charitable work, which was explained and clarified very recently in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (especially sections 31-39), must always be directed toward the whole person, in all his dimensions, including the all-important moral and spiritual dimensions. This requires a formation of the heart in Christ. For this reason, Catholic charitable organizations “ought to do everything in their power to provide the resources and above all the personnel needed for this work” (31a). While they should be well-disposed to work in harmony with other organizations, this must be done “in a way that respects what is distinctive about the service which Christ requested of his disciples” (34).

Over the past few years, the Church has tried to stimulate a genuine renewal of her social services. Catholic Relief Services appears to be striving toward this same end (see, for example, its renewed commitment to natural family planning). But there is a long way to go. Catholic charity cannot allow itself to be shaped by the secular State, or by the half-truths which a secular culture applies to every human problem. In the end, no Catholic charitable institution can purify its mission without both weaning itself from government funds and using properly-formed Catholic personnel to do the actual work.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Jul. 24, 2013 6:17 PM ET USA

    Come on, you must be joking. Get the $2.8 million back. Ridiculous, scandalous, bizarre.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 24, 2013 6:15 PM ET USA

    We trust the murderers of babies to put the money toward malaria? REALLY? Why not start a catholic malaria organization? There is no excuse for this crap. It is just absurd.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 23, 2013 10:17 AM ET USA

    Come on, Dr. Jeff, toughen up and call a spade a spade. From your first paragraph I knew that the fungibility issue was the controlling influence to this story, but I read the whole thing to learn some of the details. And it dawned on me that with all the Church's reach, and the availability of numerous organizations run by our separated brethern, CRS still chose to unite with Satan? In the end, none of the details mattered, and your last paragraph told me so. The answer WAS easy after all.