Catholic professionals respond to 'Renewed Mission'

Loss of Church’s ministries would be a boon for secularization

Respectfully disagreeing with the distinguished authors of this essay, one of whom is a respected colleague, it would be the greatest victory for the forces of secularization and marginalization of religious witness if they actually managed to destroy the large institutional ministries of the Catholic Church by persuading Catholics that it is futile to try to support them, renew them and, in some cases, reform them. Indeed, the essence of institutional ministry is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI insisted, “helping people to appreciate the importance of sharing, respect and love in the spirit of the Gospel of Christ.” But this is exactly what these institutions do — even if with varying degrees of perfection and imperfection.

Imagine what the sex abuse crisis in the Church would have looked like without the counterbalancing witness of these institutions in the minds of Catholics themselves, not to mention secular critics. Time and again, appeal was made to the social witness of the Church in its commitment to these very ministries of serving the poor, of health care and education, certainly not as negating ecclesial misgovernance and criminal abuse, but as lights shining in the Catholic imagination, offsetting the damage to the Catholic psyche caused by scandal.

In fact, the virulence that seems aimed at these ministries by certain federal funding agencies can only be explained because they are in fact effective carriers of a religious vision, a vision that belies the claim of secular government to be the sole or even best source of social good. This religious vision gives rise to a level of caring that both by anecdote and by documentation has been shown to exceed that of secular services, for example, in services to immigrant children, in adoptions, in inner city education and in international aid.

I am proud to choose hospitals that as a matter of policy refuse to kill people. What is amazing is that there still are some — and they are all Catholic! I feel proud when Catholic schools, against the odds, remain open in inner cities and provide an unsurpassed education to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I felt proud travelling abroad in a remote area where CRS was the sole provider of assistance, and the Church the only credible institution. And, without prejudice to the wonderful smaller Catholic colleges mentioned in the article, they are not equipped to generate credible high level graduate programming that in some disciplines, such as theology, actually preserve the intellectual credibility of the discipline in a hostile intellectual environment.

I sympathize with the authors’ frustration: In many cases, renewal is necessary and perhaps there are institutions too far secularized to be recovered. But we cannot let ourselves be mesmerized by the message of futility coming from secular aggressiveness. Let’s recruit those lay volunteers to grow up, stop expecting the religious to bear all our burdens and pour themselves into Catholic schools, hospitals and social services. Let’s find ways to make it attractive. Undertaken with the exact evangelizing vigor recommended by the authors, these ministries would themselves have new life, new personalism, new accountability and even more effective witness. 

John C. Cavadini is director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame 

Older institutions still serve a vital purpose for Church’s future


“A renewed mission” frames a radically new future for U.S. Church institutions. It is a classically liberal piece outlining a break from the old and setting out a new design for a smaller, more limited Church. My response is classically conservative, welcoming new institutions — often new media ventures or small colleges — but cautioning that old institutions need not be destroyed and still serve a vital purpose to the Church’s future.

The article claims that for many decades it has been “impossible” for Catholic social service institutions from colleges to hospitals to charities to “survive without government grants or subsidized patronage in the form of student loans, Medicare, or Medicaid.” I think this statement may reflect more the authors’ concerns about government spending, rather than the Church’s mission. All of the institutions addressed in this piece could survive without government money. They would do less, but most were alive and thriving well before the government sought partnerships in faith-based programs or recognized these institutions as being worthy of investment.

Pope Francis has called on all Catholics to do more in helping the poor as well as initiate a new, broader evangelization. Many non-Catholics come in meaningful contact with the Church when seeking care at a Catholic hospital, attending a Catholic school or being helped by a Catholic charity.

I can think of no better way to accomplish what Pope Francis has called on us to do than to seek an era of “Big Church.”

This does not mean it needs to be a part of “Big Government,” but we should be doing all we can through every institution we have. To the degree that governments seek to invest in these institutions because they have shown they can serve a need is a sign of success.

It is also the case that the future of the institutional Church is not in our hands. Their fate lies with each bishop. Only he can decide which are “authentically Catholic.”

An atheist monument was recently unveiled in Florida with the inscription, “An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church.” The beauty of the Catholic Church is that it can do both. I’ve never noticed any hospitals built by atheists. The Church is operating 5,435 Catholic hospitals around the world. Just a fraction of them are in the United States. The others are doing a lot of good without any Medicaid. 

Mark M. Gray, Ph.D. is a political scientist and senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.  

Extending the love of God makes institutions Catholic


By the second paragraph of the essay, where the authors cited “mission fatigue” of the Church’s institutional ministries and their inability to sustain a vibrant Catholic character, I was unable to connect this sweeping claim with my experiences of the Church. Through the years I have interacted with many organizations and their leaders in Catholic higher education, Catholic Charities, Catholic health systems, Catholic campus ministry, Catholic foundations, Catholic press, Catholic diocesan ministries, religious orders, missionary societies, Catholic fraternal groups who are vigorously living out the Gospel call and bearing witness to their Catholic faith. 

The authors are right on the challenges, but dismissive on the vitality, contribution and commitment of many of these institutions, and on how the Church has never had an easy time with the societies it serves and transforms. Beyond the cultural and political headwinds noted, there are even worse burdens, such as the thousands of Christians killed every year for their faith and the people who put themselves in harm’s way to serve them and others. Yet the Church, through the collective work and advocacy of its institutions, is not throwing in the towel.  

What makes Catholic institutions Catholic is not the source of the funding, the religion of the people it serves or even the religion of the majority of the people who work in these institutions.  There are, of course, acceptable and unacceptable conditions or associations on which we draw the line. What makes our ministries Catholic is the love of God that we extend to all on the basis of need, not creed. We do so by trying to see God in the face of everyone we encounter and particularly those who are poor, trusting in his power (not ours), and remembering that we are participating in God’s miracles and his grace permeates all. The challenges we face are large and hard, but the Church’s ministries were never easy: They often started with little resources and implanted themselves in hostile cultures. Yes, many are tired, but not tired out.

The Church’s ministries have developed into a rich community of many different types of organizations. Thank God we have start-ups with different priorities, models and passion. But the patrimony we have received from the ministries built up over centuries and decades cannot be dismissed for their size, burdens or engagement with culture. Indeed, the latter is necessary if we are to inform, inspire and infuse popular culture with the message and the lived reality of the love of Christ. 

We must be humble, not afraid to learn and to transform ourselves to be of service to God and his people in a changing world where some parts are good and some parts are not. 

As daunting as this can be, we have the gifts of the Church’s intellectual, wisdom and spiritual traditions and the Holy Spirit to guide us on a journey where the paths are not laid out. We do not need to seek shelter in the past.  

Carolyn Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.