Leaders of Catholic charities in the U.S. reaffirmed Pope Benedict's recent message on the need to remain firmly rooted in the Gospel and Catholic identity while reaching out to serve those in need.

"The Church's charitable work is directly tied to our love of God," said Don Clemmer, assistant director of media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Love of God and love of neighbor are intricately connected, Clemmer told CNA on Dec. 5. He observed that this theme, highlighted in Pope Benedict XVI's new apostolic letter, is also present in his 2005 encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est."

In his recent message, the pope explained that Catholic charity groups must not be "just another form of organized social assistance," but that charity must instead "express a genuine love for people, a love animated by a personal encounter with Christ."

Released Dec. 1, the "motu proprio" document was written on the Pope's own initiative and issues new rules on the organization of Church charitable agencies.

The work of Catholic charitable organizations partakes in "the sharing of all the faithful in the mission of the Church," the Pope said. These initiatives, while diverse, must conform to Church teaching, and the bishops must be responsible for ensuring this fidelity.

Pope Benedict asked the bishops to foster charitable efforts that are rooted in Gospel spirituality and faithful to Catholic identity, ensuring that such groups do not contradict Church teaching or lead the faithful into confusion and error.

Concerns over the Catholic identity of some charitable institutions have been raised in recent years, along with fears that some groups may be functioning more as secular social service organizations than Church agencies motivated by faith.  

In 2008, staff members at Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Richmond, Va., helped a 16-year-old girl obtain an abortion. In 2010, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, run by U.S. bishops' conference, launched a program of "review and renewal" after being criticized for erroneously funding organizations that promote abortion and homosexuality.

At the same time, pressure from government and secular groups has limited the work of many Catholic organizations in the United States. Catholic Charities in both Washington, D.C., and Illinois announced that they would be forced to close their foster care and public adoption programs due to laws requiring them to place children with gay couples.

Last fall, the Refugee and Migration Services run by the U.S. bishops' conference was denied a federal grant renewal to serve human trafficking victims after new regulations demanded cooperation with the provision of contraception, sterilization and abortion.

Catholic groups across the country are currently threatened by the federal contraception mandate, which will soon force them to offer health insurance plans covering products and procedures that violate Church teaching. Numerous charitable instructions have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate for violating their religious freedom to maintain their Catholic identity.     

Clemmer explained that the Church's charitable efforts must not be "confined," because such work is not merely a side activity, but a key part of the Christian vocation that is "mandated in the Gospel."

Catholic Relief Services, the international relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops' conference, welcomed the Pope's message.

In a statement provided to CNA, the organization said that it "takes its Catholic identity very seriously and will look to the new guidance from the Holy Father to further inform our efforts."

Catholic Relief Services is a member of the Caritas federation, which the pope praised for its "generous and consistent witness of faith and ability to respond to the needs of the poor."

Pro-life groups also applauded the apostolic letter. Father Shenan J. Boquet, president of Human Life International, hailed the motu proprio as "a welcome move toward improving the Church's ability to speak with one voice in the defense of the poor and displaced, the unborn and the elderly, and all who are marginalized."

In recent years, the "secular development industry" has managed to connect assaults on life with aid to the poor, he lamented in a Dec. 3 statement, and this poses a threat and a challenge to the identity of Catholic groups seeking to help those in need.

Fr. Boquet observed that in modern aid efforts, "emergency shelter somehow requires legalized abortion, food comes with condoms and incredible pressure to reduce birth rates, economic assistance requires adoption of a radical sexual and political agenda."

While dialogue and cooperation are important, he acknowledged, they must done without lending aid to activities that violate the teachings of the Church.

Now, he said, leaders of Catholic charitable groups have the opportunity to respond to the Pope's call by developing "a dynamic, creative and evangelistic new paradigm for the work they are called to do in the name of Jesus Christ and His Church."