HONG KONG — The abrupt — and underhanded — sacking of a key lay Catholic official by Vatican clerics raises disturbing questions about where Pope Benedict XVI is taking the Roman Catholic Church.

That the official is the only woman leading a major Catholic body may be accidental proof of the crass chauvinistic behavior of male cardinals and monsignors. But the fact that the body is the most important interface between the Church and the largely non-Catholic developing world makes the sacking more troublesome.

The victim was Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization for 165 Catholic aid and relief bodies worldwide. Her dismissal could have disastrous effects for the millions of people worldwide who receive billions of dollars of aid each year either from or through Catholic charities, which together have combined budgets of more than $5 billion. There are also widespread potential consequences for the 1.3 billion Catholics and their faith.

Knight, a Zimbabwe-born British citizen with wide hands-on experience of international development, was expected to be re-elected to a second four-year term as secretary general or chief executive of the Rome-based Caritas at its assembly in the summer. She has been showered with praise for her dedication, professionalism and vision, and the Caritas board, including its president, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez, endorsed her for re-election.

These hopes were dashed when Vatican officials declared by an e-mail that Knight had been refused the “nihil obstat” (nothing stands in the way) declaration for candidates. It is not clear who opposed Knight. She was given no opportunity to state her case or to hear why she should not receive a nihil obstat or learn what might have happened in the past four years to change her standing. There was no checklist that people refused the nihil obstat had to fill in to prove their point. Nor was there a checklist that Knight could submit to prove that she was fulfilling her mandate.

No one has accused her of grave offenses such as molesting small children, or stealing funds, or denying key Catholic doctrines, or even being absent from weekly mass. Indeed, all of Knight’s worldwide visits and speeches are suffused with concern for the poor rooted in the love of Jesus Christ. She pointed out that Caritas Internationalis means literally “Love across the nations.”

Outside the Vatican Knight is seen as a dedicated worker who married intimate knowledge with tireless campaigning on behalf of the poor and oppressed of the world, driven by a strong understanding and belief in her Catholicism.

The faceless bureaucrats who decided that Knight should go showed no idea of fairness or justice or indeed how misogynistic the decision would be perceived in the outside world. At the very least, it was anti-democratic for not allowing Caritas worldwide organizations a say.

Efforts by Caritas, supported by president Rodriguez, to get the decision reversed were pre-empted by a letter dated Feb. 15 from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See secretary of state, to all the world’s episcopal conferences, declaring that the Vatican wanted a new leader who would strengthen the Catholic identity of Caritas Internationalis and develop more cordial relations with the Holy See.

The letter, bizarrely, said the decision should not cast doubt on Knight’s merits. Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the pontifical council Cor Unum, the Vatican office that overseas charitable activity, also praised the job that Knight had done in making the Caritas confederation “more agile and professional.”

The unanswered question is whether Pope Benedict XVI himself knew and approved of the sacking or whether it was merely done by his minions pursuing his policies. The involvement of two cardinals including Bertone, often described as the pope’s right-hand man, will make it difficult to get the decision reversed.

Knight herself said she had never talked with Bertone and had minimal contact with Cor Unum, although its officials sit, mostly silently, on the Caritas board. “The information flow tends to be one-way. I submit all my reports and finances (to Vatican officials),” said Knight. “I submit a monthly update newsletter, which goes to all the top officials in the secretariat of state. I always say if there’s anything you would like to have more information about, or if you’d like a discussion about something, please contact me. There’s absolutely zero response.”

The Vatican responded, with Monsignor Giampietro Dal Toso, Cardinal Sarah’s deputy at Cor Unum, complaining to the Catholic New Agency that Knight’s interview was unhelpful.

Knight’s fault is that she has tried to make Caritas more catholic or universal — so that Caritas and its associates play a leading role in discussions of development issues, including care of the environment and global warming, become closely involved in development projects worldwide and bring aid and comfort on the spot whenever humanitarian disaster strikes.

The Caritas website declares that “Caritas has many faces. Community center and international relief agency. Home for the elderly and school for the former child soldier. HIV care provider and human rights campaigner. Caritas is all these things and much more. Caritas provides assistance to the poor, the vulnerable and the excluded on behalf of a billion Catholics round the world.”

The Vatican is pushing a new ultra-Catholic vision of what Caritas should be doing. Since Benedict became pope, a narrower vision has come into focus. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter summed it up by saying that the work of a Catholic charity in the view of the Vatican “ought to be palpably Catholic, and its ultimate aim not merely to eliminate poverty or feed the hungry, but to bring people to Christ. There are plenty of outfits that offer bread, but only the church can bring salvation.”

Some leading Catholic bishops would like to draw a line at working with governments of bodies that provide advice or funding for contraception. Has the Vatican considered the repercussions of getting rid of Knight? Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid are at risk if governments decide to pull funds from an ultra-Caritas.

In 2009, Catholic Relief Services’ own $156 million funds leveraged another $625 million from the U.S. government and others. Ordinary Catholics may also rebel against the Vatican’s heavy-handedness. In some countries Catholics, appalled by the wayward behavior of priests, are preferring to give to CRS or Caritas rather than to church collections.

Above all, Benedict’s new vision looks like a circling of the Catholic wagons against the wicked world. Did not Christ attract the outcasts and the sinners rather than the self-righteous who knew how to save themselves?

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, then the world’s best-selling Catholic newspaper.

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