Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic University

Exploring the Benefits and Challenges of Partnership

by Ken Hackett |

About a decade ago, when the Jesuit Superior general Peter- Hans Kolvenbach delivered a major address at Santa clara university on the commitment to Justice in Jesuit higher education, he took note that he Spoke at the crossroads of “(the) mission and (the) microchip.”

Although the Santa Clara Valley where the University is located is “named after the mission at the heart of this campus,” he said, it is now known worldwide as Silicon Valley, “the home of the microchip.” His juxtaposition of mission and the microchip struck a note with me, and
I was happy to reference it when I delivered the commencement address at Santa Clara Univer- sity this past June.

It is self-evident that the technologies spawned by the microchip have accomplished many wondrous things. They have revolution- ized the way we live, work, and communicate.

But they’ve done some other things, too.

The Internet will sell anything people will buy, ideas and products, good and evil. It has become one of the main recruiting tools for terrorists. Hate groups form many of its virtual communities.

This technology is not inherently evil. Nor is it good. As Pope Benedict XVI tells
us in “Caritas In Veritate,” “ ambivalent.” It is indifferent. It has no moral sense. The microchip might make people a lot of money. But it cannot reach its full potential in service to humanity without the mission. Again, as expressed by Pope Benedict in the same encyclical, “Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile.”

And here is where the contribution
of a Catholic university education comes
in. Cutting-edge technology, research, and specialized knowledge, so much of which is born on the university campus, are not ends in themselves, but tools that can and must be used for God’s mission, to the building of a world of peace, justice, and love.

Father Kolvenbach talked of this 10 years ago, of the need for Jesuit institutions to apply knowledge and wisdom “to the promotion of justice as a concrete, radical but proportionate response to an unjustly suffering world.”

“This sort of justice,” he said, “requires an action-oriented commitment to the poor with a courageous personal option.”
That is exactly what we try to do at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This commitment is the basis of our attempt to reach out and collaborate with Catholic colleges and universities as we pursue the common cause of social justice and the fostering of integral human development around the world. In this collaboration, we rely on our common commitment to the teaching and tradition of the Church, particularly as it
is borne out in Catholic Social Teaching. CRS helps universities to focus on the global dimen- sions of their Catholic identity, giving faculty and students opportunities to act on our faith commitment to global solidarity.

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti Celestina Estana, 70, shows a food voucher she received from CRS. Following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook Haiti on January 12, 2010. Celestina and her four children lived at the Petionville golf course, where some 50,000 Haitians gathered during the day. At night, the camp grew to nearly 100,000 people. Families redeemed the food vouchers for bulgar, vegetable oil, and lentils that might last them about two weeks. Lane Hartill/CRS

Like Catholic colleges and universities, the importance of mission is critical to CRS. We uphold the highest professional standards and hire the most technically competent staff as we pursue our work of relief and development around the world. Our programs are among the most highly regarded in the humanitarian sector. But our efforts will be incomplete at best, and possibly even harmful, if we do not connect our work with the Catholic mission of fostering inte- gral human development that embraces and en- hances all aspects of the human person. As Pope Benedict says in “Caritas In Veritate” (quoting Pope Paul VI from “Populorum Progressio”), “The Christian vocation to development helps to promote the advancement of all men and of the whole man.”

It might not be surprising that a Catholic social service agency like CRS relies heavily on the Church’s rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching in approaching its mission and would seek to engage with Catholic colleges and uni- versities in this endeavor. What might be surpris- ing is that in the not-too distant past, this would not have been the case. To trace this evolution, I need to tell a short story of our past.

CRS was founded in 1943 by the bishops of the United States, born in response to the needs of thousands of refugees displaced and trauma- tized by the violence of World War II. In the post-war years, we expanded our mission to Af- rica, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Our Catholic identity was strong, as we then understood it, and we engaged in the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. As we moved into the late 1960s and beyond, we began to focus more on developing first-rate programs that fostered socio-economic develop- ment. We became known as one of the country’s premier relief and development agencies. Our staff was top-notch. Our Catholic identity, how- ever, became an afterthought. We were almost indistinguishable from other secular American aid agencies, like CARE or Save the Children.

As we began to enter the decade of the 1990s, the landscape in which we operated began to shift noticeably. Ethnic conflict was on the rise and we became all too familiar with the concept of the “failed state.”

Paris, France, 1945 In its early years as “War Relief Services—National Catholic Welfare Conference,” Catholic Relief Services supplies hot soup and milk to the day nurseries of Paris conducted by the Sisters of Charity. Pictured is Rev. Father James H. Hoban of Cincinnati, director of the program, and Dr. J. Henry Amiel of New Orleans, assistant director, during an inspection tour of the work in Paris. CRS Staff

At about the same time, we were seeing
the deadly results of ethnic conflict in Africa and Europe. In the early ’90s, a major uprising in Rwanda foreshadowed the ethnic violence and genocide that would erupt in 1994. In the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, the reality of ethnic cleansing shocked us into realizing the need for reconciliation. It was a profound wake-up call. Ethnic differences, cultural differences, and class differences—all these had to be acknowledged and addressed before real peace could be achieved.

Then came a turning point: the genocide
in Rwanda. For about 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, most of them Tutsis, as well as many moderate Hutus.

CRS had worked in Rwanda, a Catholic country, since before independence in the 1960s. After the 1994 genocide, we realized that all the good work we had been doing—the silos and schools we built, the children we fed, the farms we planted—was not enough. Rwanda shook our agency to the core.

We realized that we had to start addressing the justice issues relating to the societal

Catholic Social Teaching provides the perfect framework for an organization like CRS that seeks to bridge differences and resolve conflict in a myriad of countries and cultures. These principles call people to live in solidarity and harmony. They place the sanctity and dignity of the human person at the center of all we do. They remind us of our rights and responsibilities to the poor. They confirm us as members of society and of the human family.

relationships that were imbalanced in Rwanda. After much reflection, we began incorporating a justice-centered focus in all our programming. And we rediscovered a jewel in our religious tradition that has enabled us to effectively do this: Catholic Social Teaching.

Catholic Social Teaching provides the perfect framework for an organization like CRS that seeks to bridge differences and resolve conflict in a myriad of countries and cultures. These principles call people to live in solidarity and harmony. They place the sanctity and dignity of the human person at the center of
all we do. They remind us of our rights and responsibilities to the poor. They confirm us as members of society and of the human family. They uphold the common good.

At the same time, Catholic Social Teaching speaks universal truths to people of other
faiths and to all people of good will. As an international agency, CRS faced the challenge of getting back to our roots. We embraced our Catholic identity. At the same time we maintained and strengthened our community of staff and partners. Our partners are a tremendous resource for us. They represent religions and cultures from every corner of the globe. Catholic Social Teaching made it possible and imperative for us to be catholic with a small “c,” too.

With Catholic Social Teaching as our guide, we adopted a new perspective on our work. In 1996, as the result of a series of retreats and executive workshops, we determined that the concept of justice, as defined in Catholic Social
Teaching—the establishment and maintenance of right relationships among all people—should be the foundation of our agency strategy. Now we look at everything we do through what we call a “justice lens.” We examined our programs and our policies. We studied how we related to the people we serve and how we related to the Catholic community in the United States. We observed how we related to one another as fellow employees of CRS. Then we evaluated these relationships in terms of whether they help to build a culture of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

Taking a long, hard look at ourselves through the justice lens led us to get involved in some new initiatives. We began what became a deep commitment to peace-building. We began to look at economic justice in the countries
and communities where we work. We began analyzing the effects of extractive industries such as oil and mining. These industries create riches for a few but often have a negative impact on the majority of poor people. We started advocating Fair Trade so that people involved
in the production of commodities like coffee, chocolate, and handcrafts would receive just compensation for their labors.

This focus on justice eventually led us to another principle of Catholic Social Teaching: solidarity. In the year 2000, we once again took time out as an agency to reflect, pray,
and contemplate where God was calling us
for the future. That time of reflection led
us to a profound vision that only through fostering right relationships could we ever hope to permanently better the lives of poor and suffering people overseas. We realized that as
a Catholic agency, we had a responsibility to join our voices with those of the U.S. bishops to call our fellow Catholics in the United States to solidarity with those we serve overseas. We echoed the belief that the Gospel calls all of us to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially those who are poor and marginalized.

So solidarity became our watchword. We have adopted a motto: Solidarity will transform the world. Our goal is to build solidarity within the communities where we work overseas and
to serve Catholics here in the United States
by helping them live their faith in solidarity with those who are the poorest of the poor overseas. As a Catholic organization that can contribute significantly to the understanding
of international social justice issues because
of its experience on the ground, CRS came to recognize that it had not only an opportunity, but also an obligation, to offer concrete ways for Catholics in the United States to respond to the Gospel call to be concerned about the needs of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

To that end, CRS created a U.S. Operations division to expand our work in the United States. Through prayer, education, advocacy, global exchanges, and other programs, our U.S. operation is seeking to journey with Catholics in the United States so that we more fully understand that all aspects of our lives—the way we live, consume, vote, invest, and give—affect all of humanity, both at home and abroad.

Cabrini College students in Washington, D.C., during a lobby day visit arranged with the help of CRS. The students met with their legislators to discuss foreign aid. Jim Stipe/CRS

A major part of this effort has been our outreach to Catholic universities and colleges. CRS has worked with colleges and universities and other Catholic institutions for many years, but those relationships were ad hoc, relying
on our relationships with individual faculty members and campus ministry officials. While this was fruitful for the individuals and parties involved, we saw the value in forging more formal institutional partnerships in order to gain greater breadth, depth, and stability over time.

In 2005, CRS signed formal agreements with four Catholic colleges and universities: Cabrini College, Santa Clara University, Seattle University, and Villanova University. Later, we added the University of Notre Dame.

CRS’s goal in forming these partnerships is to assist these institutions of higher learning to advance their mission of forming faith- filled citizens of the world by connecting CRS’s extensive global experience to their academic expertise, Newman Centers, and

As a Catholic organization that can contribute significantly to the understanding of international social justice issues because of its experience on the ground, CRS came to recognize that it had not only an opportunity, but also an obligation, to offer concrete ways for Catholics in the United States to respond to the Gospel call to be concerned about the needs of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

other social mission offices. Our hope is that through collaboration on many different levels within these institutions we might engage administration, faculty, campus ministers, staff, and students in the academic, theological, and practical considerations of the intersection of faith and social justice as applied to international issues and situations. We want to support faculty research and teaching by grounding their scholarship in the reality of today’s global society. In addition, we want to expose students to the work of the Catholic Church around the world and to provide resources and opportunities that enhance their academic achievement and social outreach.

Finally, we want to provide concrete opportunities for Catholic colleges and universities to contribute to a more just and peaceful world. In the long term, colleges
and universities have great influence in the attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, choice of lifestyles, careers, and political perspectives of society. This happens not only by the education and experience that students obtain while at school, but also by the presence of the institutions themselves in the communities where they
are located. In addition, Catholic colleges and universities strive to integrate Catholic Social Teaching and the social mission of the Church into their campus life and academic programs. There are many opportunities for mutual benefit and support, as both the academic community and CRS attempt to understand and work within a variety of economic, political, and social environments using Catholic Social Teaching that guides who we are, what we do, and how
we do it.

CRS’s partnerships with Catholic colleges and universities have spawned a number of programs. Here are a few highlights:

  • Santa Clara/CRS Partnership Website—Santa Clara University has created a
special part of its website dedicated to the CRS Partnership ( ignatiancenter/partners/crs). It includes a section that helps faculty preparing courses for the University’s new Core Curriculum to integrate resources from CRS.
  • Tech Awards—Through Santa Clara University and its late president, Paul Locatelli, S. J. (who served as a member
of the CRS Board of Directors), CRS has become a Global Outreach Partner of the Tech Awards, which honors innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. The awards are a program of the Tech Museum, located in Silicon Valley.
  • The Global Solidarity network (GSN)— An online learning community, GSN brings together CRS field staff and our Catholic col- lege and university partners to discuss social justice and humanitarian issues around the world. The GSN uses modern information technology to allow students and faculty to access social justice course materials, read- ings, links, best practices, research, and video and audio resources; reflect and discuss social justice issues with students and faculty in the United States and CRS personnel overseas; and organize advocacy efforts. Sessions for the 2010–2011 school year include Eco- nomic Justice and Fair Trade, Peacebuilding, Water, Food Security, and Migration.
  • Academic events and symposia—CRS’s university partners periodically hold events and symposia exploring topics related to humanitarian issues and social justice that include participation by the academic community as well as CRS staff. For example, Villanova University last year convened three events: a faculty workshop on the economic crisis that drew faculty presenters from political science, sociology, ethics, law, and nursing; a symposium, The Economic Crisis and the Common Good: Local and Global Dimensions; and an Earth Day symposium, Beyond Fair Trade: Global Poverty Reduction, Sustainability, Agro- enterprise, and Corporate Responsibility. The two symposia each drew more than 500 faculty and staff members.
What we need in the next phase of our university collaborations is the creativity of the Catholic university community, whose ability to raise the “why” questions and envision new approaches will enable us to raise the bar and reach an even greater number of faculty and students.

Over the past five years of our university collaborations, we’ve celebrated successes and have faced some challenges. Budgetary constraints are always an issue, as is the capacity of CRS field programs and university faculty to accommodate another program into their already busy schedules. Along the way, there have been some lessons learned that we are applying as we go forward.

Faculty engagement is critical. The faculty
is a university’s permanent community that provides continuity and whose engagement with social justice determines long-term success with students.

Our university partners tell us that their collaboration with CRS has paid some additional dividends. Projects and symposia associated with their relationship with CRS bring together faculty from various disciplines who have not necessarily been in conversation with one another, but who share common concern for poor and marginalized people around the world. And in university communities that have long struggled with how to maintain Catholic identity, working with an organization like CRS that consciously seeks to embody the social teaching of the Church offers an opportunity for various schools and disciplines to contribute specifically to the Catholic mission of the university.

A valuable source of energy for successful
CRS collaboration comes from students.
From the creative response of student groups
to disasters like the earthquake in Haiti to the CRS Ambassadors and many other initiatives, students have been among the most enthusiastic boosters of CRS on campus and beyond. For example, students from Cabrini College and Villanova University have gone on advocacy trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on issues like support for overseas food aid and long-term development. In the words of one Cabrini student,
"It felt so amazing to know that because of a 15-minute lobbying session, I was able to give a voice to people who are poverty-stricken, malnourished, and starving, and as a result, hopefully produce legislation that will directly help them improve the status of their life."

CRS can benefit from academic technical assistance in the field. The academic community is a source of a wealth of knowledge and experience that can benefit CRS programs in the field. We’ve found that with longer term university commitments, faculty can offer technical expertise to CRS field staff. Students can also benefit by participating in research projects led by their professors. For example, Susan Jackels of Seattle University is using her expertise in chemistry to assist small-scale farmers in Nicaragua improve the quality of Fair Trade coffee. She is working in partnership with CRS, a Nicaraguan agricultural NGO, and the University of Central America in Managua to help farmers to enhance the quality and consistency of their product.

Catholic colleges and universities are continually seeking to reinforce their Catholic identity and integrate Catholic Social Teaching into campus life, academics, and service to the wider community. The Catholic university is
an important source of intellectual leadership and of scholarly thought to the Church. It is the place where scientists, scholars, and thinkers of the Church are trained and educated. It is where the creative thinking that nurtures the Church’s renewal is born.

Going forward, we can take guidance from Pope Benedict, who in “Caritas In Veritate” says:
"Technological development can give rise to the idea that technology is self- sufficient when too much attention is given to the how questions, and not enough to the many why questions underlying human activity."

In the CRS story, we originally faced the crisis in Rwanda from a perspective of doing.
We gave too much attention to the how question and not enough to the many why questions. Only because of our Catholic identity could
we ask that more profound question. And only because of Catholic identity and Catholic Social Teaching could we envision a different future.

What we need in the next phase of our university collaborations is the creativity of the Catholic university community, whose ability to raise the why questions and envision new approaches will enable us to raise the bar and reach an even greater number of faculty and students. We believe that if CRS and Catholic universities harness our collective relationships and resources in pursuit of the vision of solidarity that underlies the Gospel of Jesus Christ, together we can and will change the world for the better.

The Rwanda genocide, which left nearly 800,000 people dead, marked a turning point in the way CRS began to approach development, incorporating a justice- centered focus in programming. Shown is a genocide memorial at a former church. The crosses were erected to remember the victims of the genocide. Steve Rubin/CRS



  1. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education,” The Santa Clara Lectures 7, no. 1, Santa Clara University (October 6, 2000), 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, “Caritas In Veritate” (June 29, 2009) n. 14.
  4. Ibid., n. 30.
Kolvenbach, 5.

  6. Ibid.

  7. “Caritas In Veritate,” n. 18.
  8. Ibid., n. 70.


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