It is a strange happenstance that many people, whether justified or not, see foreboding clouds looming over Catholic health care, Catholic higher education, and Catholic ecumenism. While some may contend that the problem is within these institutions, others fear that the threat is from the hierarchical church itself. Whatever judgement one makes on this situation, it seems essential, at least to me, that the great value and vital service of these three apostolates ought be encouraged. Whether it is with a child or within a church, acknowledging the good is more powerful than debating deficiencies.
The Catholic hospital. There should be no doubt that Catholic hospitals are at the forefront of those calling for health care reform in the United States. They have consistently witnessed to the fact that health care is not a commodity sold to the highest bidder, but a human service aspiring for accessible and affordable health care to all persons. Our hospitals are advocates for pre-natal healthcare for pregnant women. They insist that the dignity of every human person be at the center of medicare reform. They call for more skilled nursing institutions, home health services and community health programs.
What is more, Catholic hospitals are the most visible and unified institutions that stand in courageous opposition to the culture of death, with its intentional killing of human life, both at its last stages of diminishment and vulnerability and its early fragile beginnings in the womb.
This should be most evident, for example, from the fact that Catholic health care has been under attack by groups hoping to shrink and weaken its presence in American society. Catholics for a Free Choice (a phrase I’ve never quite been able to accept as meaningfully true) has published documents encouraging civil and legal action against Catholic hospitals as hazardous to your health. The National Women’s Law Center, because of the presumed threat to women’s reproductive health services has argued that mergers and affiliations (especially involving Catholic hospitals) be stopped through anti-trust lawsuits.
Catholic health care’s refusal to collaborate with abortion, a commitment that is as unshakable as it is infuriating to pro-choice groups, is really the target. And yet, since it seems that the U.S. government is unlikely to force Catholic hospitals to violate their moral codes and missions over matters of life and death, the more attractive and attainable target is the availability of sterilization for women who, in conscience or for matters of health, request it. If there is no flexibility on this matter, it could well happen that competitive, culturally formative and pro-life Catholic hospitals could cease to exist.
The Catholic university. While I have heard similar reports from various parts of the country, it is unescapably noticeable on my own campus, St. Louis University, that a vital resurgence of faith and service has occurred. Religious practice, personal devotion, private retreats and individual zeal are more evident than they have been over the last 25 years. What is more, I have never seen faculty or graduate students more open to speaking about matters of faith and more eager to integrate ethics as well as religion into their professional lives. This applies surely to people of Islamic and Judaic faith, who are willing to give witness to their journey on the path to God. It applies particularly, however, to various Christian believers. Scores of undergraduate students participate in weekly hours of prayer and praise before the Blessed Sacrament. Christian professors who are not Catholic have expressed profound respect and love, not only for the Catholic tradition, but for the sacraments. In many cases, union in all the essential matters of faith is more vitally embodied than is sometimes found among Catholics who may be Catholic in little more than name. (I remember from my own training a bishop who saw to it that a Protestant professor, who was obviouslyat least to his studentsmore orthodox than a Catholic teacher, was not allowed to teach us theology.)
If this newly found expression of faith, hope and charity is not adequately understood or appreciated in efforts to insure the Catholic nature of the university, it will not be the embers of heresy that are extinguished. It will be the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Ecumenism. Who could have imagined 50 years ago the wonders we have already witnessed? Catholics by and large have not changed in their profession that there is one faith, one Lord and one baptism. If Catholics are truly committed to their faith, it is only because they believe the church embodies and professes, despite its sinfulness, the Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. This faith, however is more effectively communicated in the pattern of the Lord Jesus than in the ways of civil authority. The travels and actions of the pope, whether in Europe, Cuba or the Middle East, in their startling generosity and humility, should remind us of the words of the Lord whose name we bear.
You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10, 41-5).