Trust is key to strong relationships between bishops, health care leaders

July 1, 2017

Editor's Note: This version of this article updates the story that appeared in the July 1, 2017 Catholic Health World.


NEW ORLEANS — About 50 years ago, when John Finan Jr. began his career in health care, hospital governance actually could be fairly "boring." Finan, the president and chief executive of Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, said that decades ago, when hospitals were stand-alone facilities, hospital board meetings were apt to consist of little more than a cursory review of financials.

Not so today. With large, multi-facility systems the norm, the health care payer and technology environment exceedingly complex, and thorny ethical issues involved in care delivery, the leaders who oversee today's health care organizations are called on to establish a depth and breadth of knowledge in a range of health care topics so they can help to ensure the facilities are running effectively and in accordance with their mission. Today's board meetings are anything but cursory.

Members of sponsor boards including public juridic persons also must have a strong grasp of the complexities of health care delivery, as they fulfill their additional and singular responsibility of maintaining the Catholicity of hospitals and systems. They must ensure the ministry operates in fidelity with the Catholic Church and follows The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

John J. Finan Jr.

There is a need for Catholic health care sponsors and leaders to have an ongoing dialogue and right relationship with bishops in dioceses where their systems provide care and services. Such relationships can be difficult to navigate, in particular because both sponsors and bishops are getting used to relatively new governance structures that transfer sponsorship from religious congregations to boards that include laity. At present two private juridic person boards are comprised exclusively of laity.

During a seminar on Catholic health governance before the Catholic Health Assembly here, Finan appeared on a panel with church and health ministry leaders to discuss the challenges bishops and Catholic health care sponsors can have navigating their relationships with each other. Panelists also highlighted the many opportunities for nurturing fruitful bonds between bishops and ministry sponsors.

In addition to Finan, panelists in the session "The Bishop and Catholic Health Care: A Conversation" included Bishop Robert N. Lynch, bishop emeritus of St. Petersburg, Fla.; Mary Lyons, a board member of Providence St. Joseph Health; and Sr. Constance Phelps, community director of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.

It is the norm for Catholic health care facilities to have been founded by congregations of women religious; and it is becoming increasingly common for those congregations to establish canonical structures — often public juridic persons — to allow for their ministries to be carried on under the congregations' charisms, but with greater sponsorship involvement by lay leaders.

Bishop Robert N. Lynch

Bishop Lynch said not only the relatively new sponsor bodies but also the church are "on a learning curve."

Panel moderator Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP, later explained that bishops vary greatly in their understanding of health care and its sponsorship, in their approach to overseeing health care facilities, and in the way in which they exercise their responsibility for health care ministries in their dioceses. Fr. Bouchard is CHA senior director of theology and ethics.

Bishop Lynch told the audience that the newness of interactions between lay sponsors and bishops has made for occasional problematic interactions, but he said he sees a bright hope for improved communications because Pope Francis is modeling how a church leader's affirmation and supportive guidance for lay leadership in church ministries contributes to the vibrancy of those works. Bishop Lynch said the pope has urged reform toward getting greater input from the laity. "He's bucking very strong opposition, but I think this will be a success," and could lead to improved interaction between clergy and laity more broadly in the church, he said.

All panelists said open communication, mutual efforts to educate one another and deep formation work on the part of lay sponsors could go a long way toward strengthening relationships between sponsors and bishops. Helping lay sponsors learn the common language and theological concepts used by clergy is key, said Lyons. Establishing and continually building trust is essential, said Bishop Lynch.

Bishop Lynch spoke fondly of the relationship he maintained for decades with ministry facilities in St. Petersburg while he was bishop of that city. The hospitals "established trust with me and they did not violate it," he said.


Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.