VATICAN CITY ––Since its release Dec. 1, Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter on the “service of charity” has provoked widespread speculation on how it might affect Catholic charitable agencies in their fundraising, hiring and selection of projects.

popePope Benedict XVI uses a cane as he arrives to lead his general audience in front of the main square in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, Aug. 29. The 85-year-old pontiff began using a cane publicly for the first time in March of this year. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)The letter directs bishops to strengthen agencies’ religious identity and ensure that their activities conform to church teaching, in order to prevent a Catholic charity from becoming “just another form of social service.”

According to the cardinal who leads the church’s largest confederation of relief, development and social service agencies, the apostolic letter is also an important message to him and his brother bishops.

By legally requiring bishops to oversee charitable works in their dioceses, the document “implicates the role of the bishop in social action,” said Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, president of Caritas Internationalis.

“Many, many times we have heard (bishops) saying, ‘Oh, no, my task is evangelization,'” the cardinal said. “In some places they thought (charity) was only the work of laypeople.”

In truth, the cardinal said, such service is incumbent on “every single baptized person. No one is permitted to delegate to others what is a duty of faith. And the duty of faith is to put your faith in practice through charity.”

“Evangelization is incomplete without human promotion,” the cardinal said, citing Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi.” And he noted that the October 2012 Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization affirmed that the “diakonia (service) of faith passes through the diakonia of charity.”

The obligation to perform works of charity cuts across class divides, Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga said, reciting the adage that “nobody is so poor that he has nothing to share, and nobody is so rich that he had nothing to receive.”

Caritas Internationalis, an umbrella group of 164 agencies, including Catholic Relief Services in the U.S., observes this principle in its own fundraising, the cardinal said, noting that affiliates in poor countries are contributors as well as beneficiaries. Following the Haitian earthquake of 2011, he said, some of the nearly $500 million raised for relief and rebuilding there came from the cardinal’s own country of Honduras.

Caritas and other Catholic agencies rely above all on the donations of “simple people,” he said, and take relatively little from governments or other large institutions. For instance, he said, although Catholic charities care for 27 percent of patients with AIDS or HIV around the world, they have received only 2 percent of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The cardinal said this financing model will facilitate compliance with one oft-noted rule in the new apostolic letter, which forbids Catholic charities to “receive financial support from groups or institutions that pursue ends contrary to the church’s teaching,” or to “accept contributions for initiatives whose ends, or the means used to pursue them, are not in conformity with the church’s teaching.”

Such measures to preserve the distinctive religious identity of Catholic agencies are essential to their integrity and vitality, he said.

“We are not acting as another NGO,” he said. “We are motivated by faith. We are doing what we do because we are believers.”

Yet the cardinal stressed that the main purpose of the apostolic letter, as of papal documents in general, is not remedial but inspirational.

“Of course when there are mistakes it is necessary to correct them, but the first approach is always to encourage and support the good that is being done,” he said.

In a similar spirit, Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga downplayed news reports explaining the Vatican’s increased control over Caritas Internationalis, under rules issued in May 2012, as an effort to defend the confederation’s Catholic identity. He called the organization’s new statues, which were the result of a five-year process, a “step forward.”

“We are not used to looking for dangers or negative aspects,” he said. “We know that the Holy Spirit is guiding the church and guiding history, and we try to answer.”