Because many forces of the globalisation accentuate the economic and ideological divisions, our world is in need of translation, between the local and the global, between religions and civil society and across borders.

I. A World in Need of Translation

                Despite the deepening ties and structures that connect people across borders in our world today, profound inequalities continue to divide the human family. Globalization, as many have recognized, seems to have two sides. On the one hand, the post-Westphalian model of absolute state sovereignty has collapsed in light of global financial interdependence, new communication technologies, global cultural connections, and common threats posed by pandemic diseases, transnational terrorism, and climate change. For better and for worse, governments have ceded aspects of sovereignty to a number of actors including more than 230 state-sponsored intergovernmental organizations, transnational policy networks such as the Group of 20 Finance Ministers, and powerful transnational corporations such as ExonMobile. 

At the same time, many of the forces that build global connections also serve to accentuate and deepen economic and ideological divisions. These massive inequalities at the national and global levels, as the 2010 and 2011 United Nations Human Development Reports highlight, seriously threaten the health and wellbeing of the poor and the global common good.


Thankfully, intergovernmental organizations, global policy networks and transnational corporations are not the only actors in the global public square. International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements are playing an increasingly important role within global civil society as mediators of the global common good.  While they lack the coercive power of states and the resources of corporations, NGOs wield what Joseph Nye has famously identified as “soft power.”

During the later half of the twentieth century, the presence and activity of international NGOs grew significantly. According to the Yearbook of International Organizations published by the Union of International Associations, the number of active international NGOs grew from 832 in 1951 to 12,130 in 1983. After a period of rapid growth in the 1990s and 2000s, there are presently over 23,905 international NGOs.

For over fifty years, an important point of reference for many NGOs has been the formal recognition granted to them by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).  This recognition offers organizations some legitimacy and enables them to participate in global governance. NGOs with this and similar accreditations with intergovernmental agencies, for example, are entitled to present oral and written statements at official meetings and are generally involved in other forms of partnerships.  Since 1990, the number of NGOs formally engaging the intergovernmental system through ECOSOC has risen sharply from 395 in 1991 to well over 3,000 today.

Among these actors, Catholic NGOs are among the most active and effective mediators in working for the global common good. Presently, over one hundred such organizations maintain a formal relationship with the United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies. From their specific charisms, missions, and experiences, these transnational organizations are engaged in a variety of social actions including advocacy, policy analysis, formation, and program implementation. Some, like Franciscans International, are leading voices for justice in the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Commission for Social Development. Others, like Jesuit Refugee Services, work with the intergovernmental institutions in implementing local humanitarian, educational and development projects.  Still others have used their relationship with structures of global governance as a way of empowering and engaging their members, especially those whose voices are often excluded from decision-making structures.

Beyond these formal relationships, Catholic NGOs respond to transnational challenges in more creative ways. They mobilize their members through campaigns and have been among the driving forces behind alternative civil society networks such as the World Social Forum. They have also played key roles in developing issue-based networks to address pressing global issues such as trafficking of women, youth, and development

While these NGOs share a number of common concerns stemming from a shared Catholic-Christian identity, there is a great diversity among them in terms of style, structure, and advocacy priorities. The first Catholic NGOs to engage the structures of global governance are the international Catholic organizations (ICOs), large meta-organizations (e.g., federations, unions) of national lay organizations such as the International Federation of Catholic Universities and the International Coordination of Young Catholic Workers. In 1927, eleven of these organizations created the Conference of ICOs to help support early Catholic advocacy efforts with the League of Nations. After World War II, the ICOs were among the first NGOs to work with the UN and international Catholic centers were established in Paris, New York, and Geneva.  At the time of the dissolution of the Conference in 2008, 39 organizations were formally recognized as ICOs. Closely related to the ICOs, a dozen Catholic development agencies such as Catholic Relief Services and Trocaire have been helping to shape global governance directly as NGOs and through their umbrella networks of CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis.

Beginning in the early 1990s, religious congregations and communities of vowed priests, sisters and brothers began to formally engage intergovernmental structures as NGOs. The renewed post-conciliar concerns for justice and peace, has inspired over 50 congregations to seek formal relationships with the UN. While some religious congregations obtain status as NGOs in their own right, such as the Maryknoll Sisters, others engage the international system through one of their specific ministries or an NGOs established for the specific purpose, such as Jesuit Refugee Service. 

More recently, a few NGOs sponsored by the new ecclesial movements, such as New Humanity (Focolare) and Association de Volontaires pour le Service International (Communion and Liberation) have developed a formal relationships with the United Nations and other intergovernmental structures.

In all, over 120 Catholic organizations have formalized relationships with the United Nations. Together with the many other internationally active NGOs who do not have any formalized recognition, they serve as mediators or translators in three important ways. 

II. Translating Between the Local and the Global

                First, these organizations help to mediate between the local and the global. Addressing NGOs on his first visit to the United Nations in 1979, Pope John Paul II stressed the importance of this role: No organization, however, not even the United Nations or any of its specialized agencies, can alone solve the global problems which are constantly brought to its attention, if its concerns are not shared by all the people. It is then the privileged task of the non-governmental organizations to help bring these concerns into the communities and the homes of the people, and to bring back to the established agencies the priorities and aspirations of the people, so that all the solutions and projects which are envisaged may be truly geared to the needs of the human person.

                NGOs have contributed much to deliberations and decisions on important international issues. They have, for example, contributed greatly to the development of the UN Human Rights system. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the recognition of the right to conscientious objection, the establishment of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the creation of special procedure mechanisms all owe a great deal to the advocacy work of NGOs, including a handful of Catholic NGOs. 

This contribution, however, as Pope John Paul II suggests, can only be truly effective if it is grounded on the experiences of the local communities. In this way, NGOs often serve “as alternative sources of information,” bringing the perspective of people, especially those whose voices are not heard, to global public attention.  This has been particularly powerful on questions of human rights abuses where NGOs have brought worldwide attention to specific violations committed by or with the support of a state. Catholic NGOs, for example, played an important role in raising international attention to the disappearances in Argentina and other parts of Latin America in the 1970s. In speaking out on the issue and bringing relatives of the disappeared to the UN, Pax Romana (ICMICA-IMCS) in collaboration with other human rights NGOs eventually succeeded in lobbying for a special body to investigate the abuses. 

In general, Catholic NGOs have been very attentive to pope’s challenge and most understand themselves as playing a twofold role. On the one hand, they see themselves bringing local experiences to the attention of intergovernmental organizations. On the other, they see themselves as bringing information about global issues to the local level through campaigns, formation programs and educational material.  Indeed, some of the most successful efforts spearheaded by Catholic NGOs, such as the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns, coordinated both grassroots mobilization (from below) with targeted international lobbying efforts (from above).

                In order to capture the role played by NGOs, several frameworks have been proposed. Thomas Weiss has described them as the “third UN.”  In his book, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, John Paul Lederach offers a helpful framework that captures well this mediating role. Looking primarily at national peacebuilding effort, Lederach identifies three levels of leadership within a population divided by conflict: top, middle range, and grassroots.

Lederach illustrates this framework by arranging the three levels into a three-tired pyramid, with the grassroots serving as the base and the top-level as its apex. This image shows how the grassroots level “encompasses the largest number of people,” while the top-level leadership consists of only a small number of leaders.  Given their different characteristics, each level calls for a different strategy of political engagement, or more specifically for Lederach’s focus, a different approach to peacebuilding.

By their very nature, top-level leaders, he argues, are often “locked into” the public positions that they have taken and, as a result, it is difficult for them to compromise.  While they are often more flexible and vulnerable to changes, those at the grassroots, by contrast, often lack influence on key decisions made at the top.

Occupying the central place in his pyramid, middle-range actors play a crucial role in conflict transformation as mediators between the base and the apex. For Lederach, this level includes highly respected individuals as well as important networks and NGOs. Unlike the top-level leadership, this middle-range is more easily able to compromise and find creative solutions. While this level is more directly connected to the local population than the top tier, it has greater resources and contacts than local communities alone. Such middle-range actors thus have the potential to effect change at the top while also empowering and engaging individuals at the grassroots.

Although Lederach is primarily concerned with facilitating peace in post-conflict societies, this framework constructively illustrates the mediating role and potential of transnational NGOs. Like the middle range actors in this pyramid, many international advocacy NGOs function precisely as middle-range actors as they seek to serve as creative “bridges” between local communities and high-level political decision made at the inter-governmental centers.

III. Translating Across Borders

A second translating function offered by Catholic NGOs is the ability to connect people across borders. One of the greatest ideas offered by the Catholic Church to the promotion of the global common good is its universal or cosmopolitan vision. This vision, while valuing particularity and difference, celebrates the profound unity and interdependence of the whole human community.

With this universal vision, it is should not be surprising that the first proposals for the creation of intergovernmental structures emerged from Catholic thinkers in the 17th Century. More recently, Catholic intellectuals and political leaders such as Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi, and Jacques Maritain—all involved in Catholic NGOs—made significant contributions to the formation of the European Union and UN. 

In several places the Second Vatican Council recognizes the need for individual Catholics to unite “their forces” in working to transform and make more just “the institutions and conditions of the world.” (Lumen Gentium, 36). Citing an address of Pius XII to the NGO Pax Romana in 1957 on the theme of global governance, The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity encourages the laity to participate and support “private or public works of charity and social assistance movements, including international schemes” (8). Gaudium et Spes no. 90, however, is most explicit in its support for the work of Catholic NGOs in “assisting the community of nations on the way to peace” and the “instilling of a feeling of universality, which is certainly appropriate for Catholics, and to the formation of truly worldwide solidarity and responsibility.”

IV. Translating Religious Ideas into Civil Society

                A third function of international NGOs is the role of translating religious ideas into social policy. In addition to institutions and transnational communal sentiments, J. Bryan Hehir, points to religious actors as offering ideas to civil society.  These ideas and ethical visions inspire and move people in both public and private ways

Despite the dire predictions offered by proponents of the secularization thesis, religious actors have not faded away, nor have they accepted a role only limited to the private sphere. Since the 1980s, they have surprised many observers in their continued attempts to “go public” with their faith as José Casanova, Kristin Heyer, R. Scott Appleby and others have shown.   

In their recent book God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah explore some of the ways in which religious ideas impact global politics. Building on Samuel Huntington’s work, the authors analyze the role of religion in the promotion of democracy over the past forty years. Like Huntington, the three authors identify the Catholic Church as playing a major role in the promotion of democracy and human rights, from the struggle against oppressive communism in Poland to the promotion of democracy in Brazil. While they affirm the presence of prodemocratic forces in most religions, they particularly highlight the transformative role of Catholic organizations in the emergence of democratic governments over the past four decades:

In three-quarters of the cases where religious actors played a role in democratization—36 of 48 countries—at least one of the prodemocratic religious actors was Catholic. In 18 of 48 cases, the only religious actors that played a leading or supporting democratizing role were Catholic actors. 

V. Theological and Ethical Questions

Given their active role in global civil society, what can me make of these organizations theologically and ethically? In considering the mediating function of Catholic NGOs, three sets of questions emerge that are worth mentioning briefly. A first set of questions relates to their ecclesial status. In their actions for the promotion of the global common good, do these organizations act as church? In other words, do they participate in the church’s mission in their actions and advocacy work as NGOs? On the surface, one might think it clear that self-identified Catholic NGOs participate in the mission of the church. However, a close reading of recent Catholic social teaching reveals a different answer. While Paul VI and the 1971 Synod of Bishops expressly identify communal action for justice as being part of the church’s mission, Pope Benedict XVI offers a somewhat different approach. 

1 Although the pope has supported Catholic NGOs through the creation of the Vatican-sponsored Forum of Catholic NGOs, some of his writings deemphasize the ecclesial status of communal action for justice. In Deus Caritas Est, for example, the pope stresses that it is the role of the lay faithful as citizens and not as church, who “are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity” . In his audience with the leadership of over 80 Catholic NGOs at the first meeting of the Forum, the pope quoted himself on this point.

In Caritas in Veritate, the pope presents a different perspective. Still cautious of ascribing a political role to the church, Benedict XVI builds heavily on the teaching of Paul VI in affirming that work for justice, peace, and development are indeed part of evangelization: “Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace, and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person”  . This integral perspective of mission helps Catholic NGOs to situate their actions for justice in the broader mission of the church. However, in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Africae Munus (2011), Pope Benedict XVI again insists that it is the role of the state, civil society, and individual citizens—not the church—to work for justice. Instead, the role of the church, including its justice and peace commissions, is indirect, through what he describes as the formation of  “upright consciences” . More attention, it seems, is needed to clarify the relationship between the social action of Catholic communities and the church’s mission in the world.

2 A second set of questions relates to pneumatology. What might the experiences of these movements tell us about the presence and actions of the Holy Spirit in the world? Given that these organizations work to address what Catholic social teaching has recognized as structural sin, might there be a corresponding analogy of social or structural grace at work in these organizations? In other words, since many Catholic groups explicitly root their actives as NGOs in their organizational charisms, might we even consider them as playing a sacramental role in mediating grace (charism) in the world?

3 A final set of questions has to do with NGO ethics. If these organizations share in the church’s mission and meditate grace—even if only analogically—what does this mean for the ethical operation of these organizations? As with other NGOs, Catholic NGOs need to be attentive to issues of power, participation, transparency, and accountability. As Christian organizations, they have the added responsibility of making sure that their structures exist to serve their mission/charism and not the other way around. Furthermore, increasing pressure from donors and intergovernmental partners for NGOs to prove their relevancy has made cooperation among NGOs more challenging. Sadly, for Catholic NGOs, this last point is difficult in light of polarizations within the church. Deeper relationships among Catholic NGOs, and between them and the wider church—including bishops and theologians—would go a long way in helping them to address ethical questions in a spirit of communion and shared mission.


In the context of globalization, various transnational actors are playing influential roles in shaping global public life. NGOs, including Catholic and other faith-based organizations play an important role as translators between the local and global, between the religious and secular, and across borders. As global actors with ethical visions they help to challenge those in positions of power to hear the voices of the marginalized and work for the global common good.

Unfortunately, many—especially the ICOs—lack the financial support necessary to live up their potential. This has become increasingly urgent given the financial crisis in Europe. At the end of Gaudium et Spes, the council not only recognized the value of these organizations but also called for an increase in financial support for their work. Fifty years after Vatican II, it is time we find ways to support these NGOs because without them, we will no longer have the benefit of their mediating role.