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CRS doesn't distribute Bibles. Is that good news?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 29, 2011

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has resumed humanitarian operations in Darfur. For the 400,000 people at risk of starvation in that devastated Sudanese province, this is good news. But for me the news is problematical.

CRS had been asked by the Sudanese government to suspend its work in Darfur, because the government could not guarantee the safety of CRS workers. The problem, the Khartoum regime explained, was that CRS had been accused of attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity. According to some rumors circulating around Sudan, CRS workers had been distributing Bibles, as well as food, to the starving people of Darfur.

“This is completely wrong,” said a CRS representative. “It is against all our operating principles.”

Stop right there. It is against the operating principles of CRS to distribute Bibles? Then something is wrong with the operating principles of CRS.

If CRS had indicated that providing food for starving children took priority over proselytism, I could understand. If the agency announced that it was impractical to distribute Bibles, or that the government forbade it, I could understand. But the statement from CRS was much stronger than that. The CRS statement suggested that the agency would oppose the distribution of Bibles as a matter of principle. In that case, a CRS worker who slipped a copy of the Sacred Scriptures to an interested young Muslim in Darfur would be risking a reprimand. How could a Catholic organization, dedicated to the evangelical mission of charity, take such a stand?

Over the centuries many Christians have shed their blood to bring the Good News to people whose rulers had outlawed such missionary activity. I am proud to have known a staunch Protestant minister who, in his old age, repeatedly risked his life smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union. I prefer his principles.

Many humanitarian agencies have responded to the urgent need to feed the people of Darfur. A contribution to any one of those agencies might provide needed help for a desperate family. For Catholics, the only compelling reason for donating to CRS, as opposed to secular humanitarian efforts, would be the assumption that the Catholic agency is inspired by the desire to evangelize as well. Under some circumstances it might be impossible to preach the Gospel effectively, and in many cases it might be more urgent to feed people on the brink of starvation. But in principle a Catholic agency should be looking for opportunities to share the Good News.

If it is really true that the operating principles of CRS militate against distributing the Bible in Darfur, then I’m afraid my own operating principles militate against contributions to CRS.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Apr. 02, 2011 1:07 PM ET USA

    Well said, polish.pinecone4371!!! No serious Catholic can have missed the very troubled history [in the US and elsewhere] of CRS whom I quit supporting 10 years ago. Kudos, Phil... you got it right. Donate to Catholic Culture which is visibly "Catholic" when so many are not.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Apr. 02, 2011 12:00 AM ET USA

    I was shocked when I heard that CRS was being ousted from Darfur because of proselytizing. My first thought was, "If only that was true!"

  • Posted by: Antigone - Apr. 01, 2011 7:01 PM ET USA

    I certainly appreciate AgnesDay's nuanced interpretation, but I'm not sure I totally agree with the implication that it is acceptable for a Catholic organization to exclude Spiritual Works of Mercy from their mission. No one is suggesting that Catholics simply throw Bibles at people to convert them, but we do not know what is meant by "distributing Bibles" here. Perhaps people expressed curiosity and the workers gave them Bibles. To prevent them from doing this WOULD be misguided.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 01, 2011 4:00 PM ET USA

    I'm certainly no fan of CRS, and this is their usual ham-handed way of dealing with issues. However, I think they are saying that they are in the business of spreading the Gospel by the Corporal Works of Mercy. The Spiritual Works of Mercy are outside their charter and mission. As you can tell, it doesn't take Bibles to make converts, something Catholics have been saying right along.

  • Posted by: Antigone - Mar. 31, 2011 10:07 PM ET USA

    Additionally, I don't see why having mixed motives would be bad, as tonydecker asserts. Why is it bad to help others both for helping's sake AND for evangelizing? That is wrongheaded, since evangelization is what we are called by Christ to do. In any case, no one is saying that CRS ought to "use" humanitarian efforts solely for evangelization, as though the corporal works of mercy did not have merit of their own. Rather the concern is that they've abandoned a key aspect of their CATHOLIC mission

  • Posted by: Antigone - Mar. 31, 2011 10:02 PM ET USA

    Of course we ought to perform corporal works of mercy regardless, but Mr. Lawler's point was that CRS was implying not that simply that they are *unable* to evangelize in certain regions (which is a strange claim anyways, as we wouldn't have as many martyrs if they hadn't risked everything to evangelize), but rather that distributing Bibles (i.e. evangelizing) is "totally wrong" and "against their operating principles." This is disturbing - I may as well give to Oxfam instead!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 30, 2011 10:37 PM ET USA

    Either way, I believe that we should contribute to the poor regardless of whether we are able to evangelize to them or not. The corporal works of mercy do not cease to be the corporal works of mercy if the spiritual works of mercy do not coincide with them. We must help the poor, for the sake of helping the poor; we must feed the hungry, for the sake of feeding the hungry. If our motive for helping them is that we can preach to them at the same time, we have a very bad motive for helping them

  • Posted by: Antigone - Mar. 30, 2011 11:32 AM ET USA

    @tonydecker - I'm not sure that your information is accurate. Even secularists complain(ed) about Mother Teresa's evangelization efforts. Moreover, studies show that if Christian organizations do not actively evangelize, then the recipients of charity do not see any difference between them and their secular counterparts. So, preaching the Gospel through our actions is, in fact, not enough to make a difference to those to whom we minister.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 30, 2011 10:32 AM ET USA

    I strongly agree. It is up to us to be very discerning with our tithe money.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 30, 2011 12:04 AM ET USA

    If you look to Mother Teresa's ministry, she refused to directly evangelize to the people. She cared for people because they were God's people, and she loved for the sake of love, not to convert. I truly believe that preaching the Gospel through our actions speaks much louder than words. Now, if people are asking for Bibles and you would refuse them, that is certainly wrong, but I do not think that is where they stand, at least I cannot deduce that from their statement.