Updated guide illuminates relationship between bishops and health care ministries

February 15, 2021


The scope, makeup and sponsorship of most Catholic health care ministries have changed dramatically over the last two-plus decades. In light of this, the bishops' conference has updated a document originally published in 1997 on the relationship between diocesan bishops and these ministries in their dioceses. The intent is to continue to encourage mutual cooperation and communication.

At a CHA virtual Sponsorship Institute webinar last month, Bishop Kevin Vann, bishop of Orange, California, displays a memento he keeps in his office as a reminder of his long history in Catholic health care. He worked as a medical technologist at what is now HSHS St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Illinois, before leaving to join the priesthood.

CHA is producing an accompanying study guide. The document and study guide will be published on the CHA website, likely in early March.

Published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in mid-January, the second edition of "The Pastoral Role of the Diocesan Bishop in Catholic Health Care Ministry" explains the role and theological grounding of health care in the Catholic Church.

The USCCB document explains that bishops have authority over the health care organizations within their dioceses. They are responsible for safeguarding the integrity of Catholic health care in their respective dioceses, promoting the celebration of sacraments, and ensuring that pastoral care is provided in those facilities.

Fr. Bouchard

Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP, CHA senior director of theology and sponsorship, said the document suggests bishops interpret and promulgate the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services in their dioceses with consistency. "Because the USCCB has no juridic authority over individual bishops, the bishops issue the ERDs as directives and not legislation. The new document suggests that a bishop can strengthen the legal authority of the directives by promulgating them as 'particular law' in his diocese," said Fr. Bouchard. "Making them law does not affect the bishop's right to interpret them, but it does help assure a consistent standard from one diocese to another."

The document calls for ongoing dialogue and collaboration between bishops and the leaders of the Catholic facilities within their dioceses, as well with other Catholic ministries, such as Catholic social services. The document also calls for partnership between bishops and ministry leadership around Catholic health care formation programming, palliative care services and community benefit. It emphasizes the importance of ministry leaders keeping bishops abreast of activity, such as mergers and acquisitions, that affects the composition of the ministry. Bishops should be informed as early as possible of such negotiations, according to the USCCB.

The document lays out some top challenges and opportunities the ministry is facing now.

Sr. Haddad

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer, said, "As the complexities of health care in the United States continue to evolve and as we strive to care for those who are poor and vulnerable, it is vitally important to ensure collaboration between the diocesan bishop and Catholic health leaders."

She said the CHA study guide will be a valuable resource for bishops and health care leaders alike to reflect on their mutual responsibility for Catholic health ministries and explore ways to foster greater collaboration. "The strength and viability of our health ministries depend on it," Sr. Mary said.

Different environment
Fr. Bouchard said that when the bishops' conference published the first edition of the "The Pastoral Role of the Diocesan Bishop in Catholic Health Care Ministry," the vast majority of Catholic health care organizations looked very different than they do now. Ministry systems generally were smaller, less complex in composition and more geographically contained than today's systems, and almost all were sponsored directly by a religious congregation, diocese or other type of religious institute.

In 1996, the year prior to the publication of that first edition, Catholic Health Initiatives established the Catholic Church's first pontifical public juridic person. The creation of the Catholic Health Care Federation PJP allowed for the congregations that had came together to form CHI to be represented on that sponsor board. The model also allowed for greater lay representation on that board.

That sponsorship model since has become the norm for Catholic health systems. Also, it is now typical for Catholic health systems to span multiple states and encompass a much greater variety of clinical and non-clinical business lines. Some have for-profit and non-Catholic subsidiaries.

Fr. Fuller

The complexity and other factors have changed the environment in which bishops oversee the health care facilities within their dioceses, and how they interact with those facilities' leadership, said Fr. Bouchard. The updated document addresses those shifts.

CHA's study guide contains commentary from CHA sponsorship and formation experts. Fr. Bouchard and Bishop Kevin Vann, bishop of Orange, California, introduced the USCCB document and the CHA study guide at CHA's virtual Sponsorship Institute last month. Bishop Vann and Fr. Michael Fuller headed the USCCB committee that updated the document. Fr. Fuller was recently appointed associate general secretary of the USCCB.

Fr. Bouchard is encouraging Catholic health systems and facilities to become familiar with the updated document and perhaps have a dialogue with the bishops who oversee their ministries about the content of the USCCB document and the implications for their facilities. CHA will host a series of educational sessions in the coming months to acquaint ministry leaders and others with these resources.

Bishop Vann

Fr. Bouchard said he thinks the document and commentary "could be an opportunity for our ministry leaders and their bishops to sit down together and discuss how they can improve their collaborative relationship."

Bishop Vann told Sponsorship Institute participants that he's had a career-long affinity for Catholic health care. Before entering the priesthood, he had been a medical technologist at a Catholic facility. He said that in his 15 years as a diocesan bishop, he has experienced firsthand the benefits of being integrally involved with the facilities he oversees. Bishop Vann said he has regular meetings, phone calls and visits with the leaders of the health care facilities in his diocese. He makes pastoral visits to patients and staff, taking time to socialize in hospital cafeterias. He recommends this level of immersion by church ordinaries.

Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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