Bishops promote ongoing dialogue with health ministry

February 15, 2012


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Catholic bishops joined Catholic health care leaders in frank, structured conversations here during a program that also featured theologians and experts in Catholic canon law. The program, sponsored by CHA and titled "In Communio: Carrying Out the Work of the Church Today," was aimed at improving communication, deepening understanding and strengthening ties among church and health care leaders.

In an unusual arrangement, mission leaders of Catholic health care systems and Catholic health care sponsors participated jointly in a special program for two days of the four-day meeting in mid-January. Sponsors had invited system chief executives, and several participated in the meetings.

Dialogue was the focus of the joint sessions — its role in internal and external church communications, according to groundwork laid by the Second Vatican Council, and the need to create structures for dialogue between church and health care leaders. Such structures, speakers said, will better enable Catholic health care to flourish as a ministry of the church in the complex economic environment in which it operates today.

Three bishops were featured on the program: Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., a keynote speaker; Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky.; and Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla. Bishop Lynch is a CHA board member.

In one of the sessions, all three bishops appeared on a panel with Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, president and chief executive officer of CHA.

Inviting conversation
Theologian Bradford E. Hinze, a theology professor at Fordham University, set the tone for the joint session by tracing dramatic shifts in relationships between Catholic clergy and laity since the Second Vatican Council. Whereas previously the church had been noted for its top-down governance, the council introduced "a collaborative approach" involving bishops, priests, religious and laity in "every aspect of the church's life and mission," Hinze said.

Hinze said a culture of dialogue engaging all players and aimed at serving the common good is a critical need in today's health care milieu, one in which medical matters are increasingly complex and Catholic hospitals are engaging in new partnerships and joint ventures.

Just as the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services derived from dialogical processes among bishops, Catholic health care providers, and sponsoring men and women religious, there is now a need for similar processes in local and regional health care environments, he said. Necessary key components, he added, include individual skills, group processes and guiding documents. Catholic health care is positioned to pave the way "for the exercise of Catholic faith in a pluralistic environment," he said.

Inviting opposing opinions
Bishop Kicanas underscored many of Hinze's points in his own keynote address, the full text of which will be published in the March-April edition of CHA's journal, Health Progress. "Dialogue between Catholic health care leaders themselves, and certainly with bishops" should be characterized "not by distrust, competitiveness and uncivil discourse," the bishop said, "but by honesty, speaking the truth with love, and the recognition of others' competencies." He urged development of structures to facilitate critically needed dialogue at many levels of the church.

"It is incumbent" on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops "through its committees to organize ongoing structured dialogues" with theologians, university and college presidents, members of the media and health care professionals and mission leaders, Bishop Kicanas said. "Those with differing viewpoints should be invited, not excluded."

In praising the role of a "devil's advocate," he noted that unless differing views are expressed, poor conclusions and decisions based on "groupthink" are more likely to result. In order to exercise his teaching role responsibly, "a bishop needs to hear many voices," he said.

"Conflict is inevitable," he said, "but conflict can be effectively managed within a strong relationship built on trust."

Bishop Kicanas noted that dialogue between bishops and health care executives had led to good results in the past — formation of a bishops' committee on health care matters, for instance, and collaboration on a document titled "The Pastoral Role of the Diocesan Bishop in Catholic Health Care Ministry." However, he lamented, such productive exchanges "happen far too infrequently and in an ad hoc manner, oftentimes with only a small group of representatives." Regular structures for dialogue would ensure greater collaboration, he said.

In an earlier panel, Hinze described Catholic health care leaders as "embodiments of Vatican II … who have done the hard work of implementing it."

In response to questions about efforts by some Catholics to roll back Vatican II reforms, Hinze said, Catholics today are subject to "a cacophony," of voices in "this in-between time" — a time of "waiting for the spirit to set the stage" for the council's next phase.

Relating to bishops
Four panelists with various roles in Catholic health care discussed the "lived experience" of relationships between bishops and Catholic health care leaders, offering their views on why communications with bishops sometimes break down.

"Sometimes they think of our Catholic institutions as parishes and are reluctant to recognize the expertise" that Catholic health care leaders have, said Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA, a canon lawyer.

Philip Boyle, vice president of mission and ethics for Catholic Health East in Newtown Square, Pa., said he believes "bishops underestimate the enormous resources and efforts within Catholic health care" in theological and spiritual formation of the laity. "We are doing adult formation" in order to move Catholic health care forward "as an apostolate of the church," he said.

Other panelists were Sr. Karin Dufault, SP, provincial superior of Sisters of Providence, founding sponsors of Providence Health & Services of Renton, Wash., and Kevin Lofton, president and chief executive of Catholic Health Initiatives of Englewood, Colo.

During the panel discussion with Sr. Carol, Bishop Lynch noted that relationships between bishops and Catholic health care leaders are "back on track" nationally following some highly publicized fissures in 2010. However, Archbishop Kurtz said relationships on "the grassroots level" may be less consistently stable. "That's an opportunity" for improvement, he said.

In another panel, Archbishop Kurtz joined two CHI executives to reflect on the strong ties resulting from recent efforts to forge a three-way partnership with Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare of Louisville, Ky.; Saint Joseph Health System of Lexington, Ky., and the public University of Louisville Hospital. CHI is the parent of Saint Joseph and cosponsor of Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's. Although Archbishop Kurtz had approved the merger, it was ultimately rejected by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear on grounds it would violate principles of church-state separation, among other reasons. Saint Joseph merged with Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's on Jan. 1 to form a new system called KentuckyOne Health.

Archbishop Kurtz said he deeply appreciated being invited into the discussions early and had learned a lot in the process. "Although in-depth dialogues are burdensome, they build a mutual relationship, and I hope a loving relationship, in the name of Christ," he said.

During the mission leader and sponsor meetings, participants had opportunities to provide input related to the work of CHA's membership task force. The task force is studying what changes, if any, should be made to the membership categories and membership criteria contained in the CHA bylaws in order to recognize new models of health care. The task force will present its findings to the CHA board, which in turn will bring a proposal to the full membership at the Catholic Health Assembly in June.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.