Feb 10, 2012
Some years ago, Holy Cross Father James Burtchaell published a seminal book entitled The Dying of the Light. The central thesis of this study was that hundreds of universities that began under religious auspices and for religious purposes—the University of Chicago, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, to name just some of the most prominent—have undergone so thorough an erosion of their original identities that now they are utterly secular in orientation.
A particularly interesting feature of Burtchaell’s book was his analysis of the slow, subtle process by which the change from fervently religious to blandly secular took place: slight changes, little adjustments, tiny concessions barely noticed at the time, but all of them conducing finally toward the inevitable secularization. The Dying of the Light was meant to be a sobering lesson and a wake-up call to many Catholic universities today, which find themselves on a similar path to compromise.
I won’t follow that part of Burtchaell’s argument now (perhaps another time), but I bring up his book because it sheds a good deal of light on an analogous situation today. Decades ago, priests, religious brothers and religious sisters were colorfully visible features of Catholic hospitals, serving as nurses, chaplains, business officers, and chief administrators. With the decline in vocations, this obviously religious leadership largely disappeared, but Catholic values, for the most part, still animated these institutions.
What has begun to concern a number of observers is that, as today’s medical personnel, staffers, and administrators at Catholic hospitals have accommodated themselves more and more to secularist assumptions, even those values are in danger of disappearing. And what exacerbates the situation is that the leaders of many Catholic health-care facilities feel obligated not to overstress their religious distinctiveness, precisely because they are so reliant upon government funding.