LEICESTER, United Kingdom – As the COVID-19 pandemic causes a health and economic crisis in countries around the world, a new report says governments should see the Catholic Church as a partner in delivering aid and promoting other humanitarian projects.

CAFOD, the international development arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, published the report – Distinctive Role of the Catholic Church in Development and Humanitarian Response – on Sunday.

“The Church has the second largest aid network in the world – Caritas Internationalis,” said Graham Gordon, Head of Policy at CAFOD and author of the report.

“In many countries, it is the only way of reaching the people who need urgent support. This was clear during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and we are putting that experience to work in fighting COVID-19.”

In the report, CAFOD calls on the British government to do more to work with faith-based groups in its international development work.

In particular, the aid agency wants the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to implement an evidence-based learning program with faith actors about what has worked in the past, including in the COVID-19-response; ensure deeper and ongoing engagement with faith leaders and faith groups at a local and national level through UK diplomatic missions; develop a strategic approach to working with faith actors, including a faith advisory group; and provide long-term support for effective partnerships with faith actors, focusing on areas such as peacebuilding and humanitarian response where they are sometimes the only actors who can play an effective role.

“It is time that the part played by the Catholic Church in saving and transforming lives is not only acknowledged, but backed by greater support from donors and government,” Gordon said.

“The Catholic Church is making a distinctive contribution: providing shelter and food for thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, peacebuilding and bearing witness to those who are suffering in Colombia and helping to support free and fair elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he said.

“Its long-term relationships, commitment to communities and acceptance by the local population mean that the Church is often the only institution that stays put when conflict erupts, as in South Sudan. Church leaders will often be at the forefront of defending people’s rights and speaking out for peace and justice, such as through the Church’s Land Commission in Brazil. But its potential as a development and humanitarian partner remains largely untapped,” Gordon added.

The report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the unique role the Catholic Church can play in helping during a crisis, since Church networks, trusted and rooted in local communities, can reach the most vulnerable people and remote places where governments often struggle to reach.

It gives the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Catholic Church is the main provider of community health services, particularly in more remote areas. Due to decades-long conflict in the country, the Church is the only trusted national institution in the country.

“The high-profile leadership of priests and bishops can also be a signal to the local community about what is permitted within their faith in relation to community-focused behaviors. This is particularly effective in countries like the DRC where more than

90 percent of the population belong to faith groups and more than 60 per cent of services are provided by faith-based organizations,” the report says.

“The Church’s role was vital in overcoming resistance to vaccination against Ebola. Bishops were vaccinated in public, alongside 74 other religious leaders, to show that

rumors against the vaccine were false and to set an example to the local population. The vaccination rate increased dramatically after this,” it continues.

The report outlines seven clear ways the Catholic Church makes a lasting difference to people’s lives: Rapid, local, and inclusive humanitarian response; influencing social norms and behavior; peacebuilding, mediation, and reconciliation; strengthening democratic governance through citizen participation; speaking truth to power, witnessing and accompanying suffering; providing quality and inclusive healthcare and education; and supporting sustainable livelihoods.

The report notes the Catholic Church has a global presence, with around 1.2 billion adherents, and a diocesan and parish structures give the Church a national and local presence in nearly every country and community around the globe.

“The Church also includes the local congregations and religious orders, development

organizations and service organizations, base communities and solidarity groups. Each of these can play a specific role in development and emergency response. Development and humanitarian professionals will encounter these different faces or expressions of the Church in distinct ways and it is important to understand how they work, the added value they bring and the best ways to build effective partnerships,” the report says.

In addition, the CAFOD said these diverse groups in the Church are united by a “vision of development.”

“The vision of development is for the whole person and all people, rooted in the inherent dignity of all people as being made in the image and likeness of God, having equal value and worth. It is a vision of a world transformed to reflect the Kingdom of God, where all people, communities and the earth may flourish and where all people and institutions work for the common good. It is both individual and collective, personal and structural,” the report explains.

Gordon said this vision is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Colliding with the coronavirus is a crisis of hunger, ongoing conflict and displacement, climate change and economies on the verge of collapse, threatening years of development gain for communities who have worked to transform their lives, and now find themselves extremely vulnerable and fearful,” he said.

“There is good news, the Church sits on all these frontlines and will remain long after the international community move on, supporting communities to recover, and rebuilding lives and livelihoods,” Gordon said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome