Syrian refugees receive humanitarian aid from an Islamic organization in Tripoli, Lebanon, March 6. As temperatures drop to near freezing in Lebanon, Caritas is working to find shelter for Syrian refugees, mostly women and children. (CNS photo/Omar Ibrah im, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A Vatican decree established new statutes and norms for Caritas Internationalis, giving Vatican offices, including the Secretariat of State, greater authority over the work of the Vatican-based umbrella group of Catholic aid agencies.

The decree strengthens the roles Vatican offices and the pope play in working with the charity confederation, including naming and approving new board members and approving its texts, contracts with foreign governments and financial transactions.

It also creates a special “support commission” of legal, technical and organizational experts named by the pope to help the organization follow the new norms as well as canon law and the laws of Vatican City State concerning the procurement and distribution of aid, and employment of workers.

At least three members of Caritas’ executive board will be papal appointees, and Pope Benedict XVI named U.S. Bishop Bernard A. Hebda of Gaylord, Mich., as one of them.

The general decree — signed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, and approved by Pope Benedict XVI — was published by the Vatican May 2 and went into effect the same day. At the same time, the new statutes and internal rules of the federation were published on the Caritas website.

Prepared by the Secretary of State in conjunction with the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and legal experts, the decree said it was meant to “complete and interpret” Caritas Internationalis’ juridical status and give the organization a legal foundation and reference point for the application of the new statutes.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Caritas Internationalis president, said, “This is a day of joy and hope” for the organization.

“Our new statutes and rules will modernize our work in delivering humanitarian assistance and development in service to the poor. They will provide us with the framework to carry out our work as part of the mission of the church,” he said in a written statement.

Secretary General Michel Roy said the new statutes and rules clarify that Caritas is “both at the service of the confederation members and of the Holy See.”

The revision process began in 2007 as a follow-up to Blessed John Paul II having raised the technical status of the federation to a “public juridical entity” of the church in 2004. The new status formally recognized that Caritas carries out its charitable activities in the name of the Catholic Church and it meant the organization would function under the administration of the Vatican.

Caritas Internationalis, whose original statutes were approved by the Vatican in 1951, is made up of 164 Catholic relief, development and social service agencies working in almost 200 countries. Most of the member agencies are Caritas or relief and development agencies sponsored by national bishops’ conferences, such as the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services or the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Cor Unum is the Vatican office responsible for coordinating and promoting charitable giving.

Msgr. Osvaldo Neves de Almeida, an official in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, said in an explanatory statement accompanying the decree that the updated status was meant to better support the federation’s activity.

Given Caritas’ worldwide presence, international profile and that it acts in the name of the church, the Vatican “has the task of following its activity and exercising vigilance in order that both its humanitarian and charitable action and the content of the documents that it disseminates may be in harmony with the Apostolic See and with the church’s magisterium, and in order that it may be administered with competence and transparency,” the monsignor wrote.

According to the new norms, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will continue to give doctrinal oversight to texts that are of a moral or doctrinal nature and the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See will continue to monitor the administration of temporal goods.

The Secretariat of State will have to approve official grants coming from governments and international organizations and non-emergency aid and development projects that have been started or are being run by Caritas Internationalis. Cor Unum and the secretariat of state will have to be notified of any agreements made with government authorities or nongovernmental organizations when Caritas Internationalis responds to emergency humanitarian situations.

The new norms are part of Pope Benedict XVI’s concern over the authentic Catholic identity of church-run or sponsored aid and development programs, and his teaching that Catholic charitable activity should not be simple philanthropy, but a reflection of Christian faith and the obligation to love others as Christ loved.

In fact, Pope Benedict “set out the fundamental principles to be developed in the new norms” in a speech to the Caritas general assembly last year and he “gave precise instructions” to the secretary of state on the contents of the new statutes, Msgr. Neves wrote.

The pope told the assembly that the Vatican is responsible for following the activities of Caritas and “exercising oversight to ensure that its humanitarian and charitable activity, and the content of its documents, are completely in accord with the Apostolic See and the church’s magisterium.”

Some new elements laid out in the statutes include:

— Cor Unum will name an ecclesiastical assistant whose role will be to foster “a spirit of communion” between the Vatican and members of the organization, foster reflection on theological questions and promote Caritas’ Catholic identity.

— The list of candidates for president, secretary general and now treasurer will require approval from Cor Unum, the Secretariat of State and the pope.

— The new papal appointees to the executive board are Bishop Hebda, Archbishop Paul Yembuado Ouedraogo of Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, and Maronite Archbishop Youssef Soueif of Cyprus.

— Caritas Internationalis and all of its employees, including those working on contract, will have to abide by the new norms, the norms of canon law and the laws of Vatican City.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, said in a statement that the new legal framework does not apply to national Caritas organizations, which will maintain their autonomy; however, the new norms “could inspire the bishops and bishops’ conferences to eventually review their diocesan or national Caritas statutes.”

— By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service