Russell Shaw Identity

Recent, apparently unrelated developments point to a stepped-up effort by the  bishops to bolster the Catholic identity of Catholic higher education and Catholic health care in America. Along with many other people, I wish the bishops well in this enterprise, but I can’t help noticing that the new initiatives come mighty late.

Expressing concern about “the ability of our institutions to carry out their mission in conformity with our faith,” Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York cited “increasing political and social pressures that are trying to force the Church to compromise her principles.” Archbishop Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was speaking specifically of Catholic hospitals, but the much the same concerns apply to Catholic colleges and universities.

Start with them. Last month USCCB announced plans for a 10-year review of the bishops’ policy document on the Catholic identity of Church-related institutions of higher learning. Worked out in collaboration with university representatives, the scheme calls for bishops to meet one-on-one in the months ahead with the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities in their dioceses.

The bishops will discuss the results at their general meeting next November, and the findings will then be presented to Archbishop Dolan for whatever action he may care to take.

It would be hard to quarrel with sitting down and talking. “Dialogue between bishop and president provides an important means to foster a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles, chairman of the USCCB education committee. No doubt.

But recall that it was in 1990—21 years ago, that is—that Pope John Paul II issued guidelines on the Catholic identity of colleges and universities in a document called Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). It took a full 10 years for the American bishops to come up with an acceptable document on applying the Pope’s principles in the United States. Meanwhile the Catholic identity of many of these schools—though not all—continued its long decline. Can that process be reversed now?

And then there are the hospitals. USCCB on Jan. 31 released an exchange of letters between Archbishop Dolan and Sister Carol Keehan, D.C., president of the Catholic Health Association. The centerpiece was Sister Keehan’s affirmation that “an individual bishop in his diocese is the authoritative interpreter” of Catholic health care ethics.

Good for Sister Keehan. But the real news may be that her statement was considered news.

In part, the background here concerns an ugly controversy in Phoenix pitting a Catholic hospital against the local bishop over whether a procedure the hospital approved was or wasn’t a direct abortion forbidden by Catholic moral teaching. The upshot was the excommunication of the hospital’s top nun-administrator and a decision by the bishop that the hospital itself was no longer a truly Catholic institution.

Note, too, that months earlier the Catholic Health Association split with the bishops over the issue of abortion in President Obama’s health care plan. It was credited with an important role in getting the legislation passed.

Although they differ in many ways, the basic situations of Catholic hospitals and Catholic colleges and universities are much the same. The factors at work to push these institutions ever farther from the Church include money, ideology, and pressure to conform to secular standards of performance that are more or less in conflict with the Church’s values.

If new efforts are now envisaged to address these problems, that’s all to the good. But as I said—it’s late, mighty late.

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