Catholic Relief Services is defending a grant it shared with another aid group that separately funds contraception, which is a violation of church doctrine.
The Baltimore-based group that is the Catholic community's official international humanitarian agency said Tuesday that no private donor money was given to CARE, or to any other group that funds contraception.
Catholic Relief did give $5.3 million to CARE in 2010, but it was federal grant money it was obligated to give that organization under the terms of the grant, Catholic Relief said in a statement. The grant money couldn't be used for contraception because it was specifically designated for food, clean water, sanitation services and basic nutrition programs in Zimbabwe, Madagascar and five countries in Central America.
But in a July 17 story on LifeSiteNews.com, an anti-abortion news outlet, two critics took aim at Catholic Relief.
"Obviously this expenditure of funds on the part of Catholic Relief Services is an immoral use of the money," said William H. Marshner, a professor of theology at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., in the story.
There is "no way to support CARE financially that does not also support the problematic work that they do," added Rev. Shenan Boquet, president of Human Life International, an anti-abortion Catholic group.
Human Life International declined to comment to The Baltimore Sun, and Marshner didn't respond to a request for comment.
Catholic Relief's statement Tuesday to "our friends and donors" demanded a retraction "to these misleading, false and damaging accusations."
The statement said Catholic Relief "is not in agreement with CARE's policy on contraception because we do not support any positions that would be in violation of Catholic teaching on human dignity and the sanctity of human life."
The group also said it carefully vets partners to ensure they are in compliance with church teaching.
Giving money — federal or private — to CARE for "good legitimate purposes" would not violate Catholic doctrine even if the group uses a small amount of its own money for contraception, said Dr. John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises Catholic Relief on grant recipients.
The controversy is reminiscent of one earlier this year that drew criticism for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the breast cancer group, which responded by withholding funding for Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood funds abortions in addition to offering basic health care to low-income women. Komen suffered a backlash from donors and quickly restored the funding.
The Obama administration also faced criticism from Catholic leadership for its requirement that insurance companies pay for contraception for women, even those who work for religious organizations such as schools and hospitals.
So far, the controversy has not harmed Catholic Relief. The organization has gotten few calls about the issue and only a small number of those were from donors, a spokesman said.
A spokesman for a Catholic abortion rights group said he didn't expect the fuss would harm Catholic Relief's reputation or fundraising.
Some Catholics might even want the group to offer contraception in poor countries ravaged by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. He said Catholic organizations provide 25 percent of AIDS care in Africa, but it's not used for condoms.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI gave approval in narrow circumstances for condom use to stem the spread of AIDS, O'Brien said.
"These groups are trying to embarrass Catholic Relief into not providing care they aren't even providing," O'Brien said.