Catholic Mission in a Pluralistic, High-Tech World

On February 14, Catholic University will host a “Colloquium on Catholic HealthCare: Learning from the Past, Planning the Future.” As a visiting fellow at CUA’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, I have been involved in some of the planning discussions for the event. NCR’s health care correspondent Alice Popovici will be covering the event, which is great because I do not know a lot about healthcare and Alice does. But, in the planning meetings, I have realized that the Colloquium is not just about health care. The themes to be discussed, especially that of maintaining our Gospel mission in a modern, pluralistic society, touch on issues that face many ministries in the Church today from higher education to social service providers to the decisions individual Catholics must make about how to witness to their faith.

“If you look at Dr. Mann Wall’s work [Dr. Barbra Mann Wall of the University of Pennsylvania is one of the presenters], the Church got involved in health care not because it was interested in the technology of health care per se. It was, and is, a way to engage the community,” said Dr. Mary Paterson of CUA’s Nursing School, and one of the organizers. Dr. Paterson’s enthusiasm and passion for the topic is palpable. “That is the conversation we need to have. We have to remember why we got into this in the first place and see if we can revitalize that mission in this high-tech world.”

Paterson worries that too often, the Church’s ministries get typecast in their encounters with the world – and allow themselves to be typecast. “Anytime you find yourself saying “No” more than “Yes” you have to step back. That is not what the Church is about.” Paterson worries that the increasing technological advances will continue to raise challenging ethical questions and that it is all too easy to focus on them narrowly, important though they are. She recalls the now famous case at St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix that led to the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride and Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s decision to deny the hospital its Catholic status. “It troubles me when the moral and intellectual power of the bishops is directed to situations like the Phoenix case, a tragedy in every way. But we have community tragedies every day with people unable to access basic health care.”

Father Timothy Godfrey, S.J., another one of the organizers, told me that he sees three positive developments in health care that have obvious relevance for other areas of Catholic cultural engagement. Godfrey notes Catholic health care provider are “rediscovering [their] mission. It began by meeting community needs--perhaps we must return to that in developing new and creative ways of serving a community's health needs.” Second, he notes that any system will never be perfect, that some people will always fall outside its parameters and that the Church must reach out to those who are marginalized. Godfrey recalled that the Affordable Care Act does not provide for health insurance for undocumented immigrants, and that this is an area where the Church must focus.

The third, and to my mind most interesting, positive development Godfrey comments upon is the increasing role of the laity in carrying out the Church’s mission. “The
shift to lay oversight may just be the ongoing grace flowing out of Vatican II where laymen and women are now carrying on this ministry that was once the mission of ‘the sisters,’” he says. “They are now living out their baptismal call to ministry by reshaping and taking ownership of it--it truly is a ministry of ‘the Church’. However it will—and must--look different than the way the nuns expressed it. What it will be is yet to be seen, but clearly there are good Catholics (and non-Catholics) who are interested in preserving this sense of outreach and mission to those who are most vulnerable.”

The event will also be one of the first times a group of Catholic scholars gathers to discuss the Church’s mission in the world since the HHS decision not to expand the conscience mandate. Dr. Paterson wondered if we are asking the right, the more fundamental questions, on that issue. “At the most absurd level, why are so many people consumed with the need for contraception? Because people are in dire economic straights…It is a human tragedy when women view pregnancy as a financial problem.” She thinks the Church is “partly to blame for the way discussion has gone in policy circles” on this and other controversial matters. “The sisters were always pretty clear why they were there – mission. We lost some of that. And, while hospitals must always consider their margins, mission not margin has to determine the future.”

The colloquium promises to be a fascinating day, and will include roundtable discussions to really delve into the issues raised by the presenters. I encourage not only those involved in health care, but those charged with assessing and promoting the Catholic identity and mission at any institution to consider attending. You can find out more and register for the event by clicking here. As Father Godfrey pointed out, for all the difficulties, much of this discussion has to do with the grace that flows from Vatican II as well as the Church’s fidelity to Christ’s mandate to care for the sick, instruct the ignorant, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and feed the hungry. We Catholics, as Catholics, go into the world because Christ came into the world. It wasn’t easy for him and it isn’t always easy for us. But, it is the path of grace.

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