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Church Organizations are Not Just NGOs

In this reflection for CatholicCare Sydney, I look at how the mission of a Catholic organization makes it more than just another NGO.

Pope Francis has said that the Church is not an NGO. In fact he has said it more than once. Why is he saying this? Is there something wrong with being an NGO? What does it mean for organisations like CatholicCare that are NGOs and also very much part of the Church?

If CatholicCare is true to its mission, it can never be just an NGO. As an agency of the Catholic Church it has a part to play in the mission of building up God’s Reign of justice and peace in our world. The mission and identity of CatholicCare is not defined by its civil law status or organisational form.
We work to enable the social and emotional wellbeing of communities, families and individuals. There are other good NGOs which do this too, but not all of them seek to do this work as instruments of Christ’s liberating presence in the world. Pope Francis wants the whole Church, including its various organisations, to be a sign of Christ’s liberating presence in the world. If we fail to do this, then we are just another NGO. We might care, but we would not be CatholicCare.

Our mission grounds us in the enduring source of our motivation, guiding values, approach and priorities – the liberating presence of God in the world. Our mission informs what we do, why we do these things, how we do them. As a result, the dignity and agency of each and every person, created and loved by God, is at the core of our person-centred approach.

Pope Francis has encouraged us all, atheists and believers alike, to meet one another in doing good. This meeting in doing good often happens within and through NGOs which work for the dignity and rights of human beings without distinction, the wellbeing of people, and the building up of community. It is not that the Pope has a problem with NGOs. In fact Catholic Social Teaching promotes what it calls ‘intermediate groups’ – groups that are bigger than the family but smaller than and not part of the government – and more recent teachings affirm the role of civil society.
The Church is not an NGO, but it can act through NGOs. CatholicCare is not just an NGO, it is a mission based organisation, an instrument of Christ’s liberating presence in the world, and an expression of Church.

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