Canon Law - What Does Canon Law Say about the Quality of Sponsored Works?

March-April 2007


Fr. Morrisey is professor of canon law, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Ontario.

Eleventh in a Series on Canon Law

A clear distinction is to be made between "Catholic works" and the "works of Catholics." The former are undertaken "in the name of the Church" (canon 116), with all the guarantees of the church behind them. On the other hand, works of Catholics are undertakings of Catholics that might have an ecclesial relationship or might be totally secular in their nature.

Six Conditions
For a work to be carried out in the name of the church, six conditions must be met.

  • Spiritual Purpose The work must have a spiritual purpose (see canon 114). Such a purpose can be either a work of piety, a work of the apostolate, or a work of charity. Canon 676 speaks of lay institutes participating in the pastoral mission of the church through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It is not difficult to see how the health care mission fits these categories.
  • Answer to a Need A work carried out in the name of the church must answer a need. Canon 114 even speaks of a "genuinely useful purpose" (when dealing with juridic persons). It may be that some Catholic institutions in the past were established not because there was a real apostolic need but, rather, to "fly the flag" because other groups were carrying out a similar mission in the same geographic area. Fortunately, in many places, the time for such undue rivalry and competition has passed.
  • Sufficient Means The undertaking must have sufficient means to achieve its purposes (see canons 114, sections 3 and 610). We all know that, in many circumstances, some works were simply unable to prosper because they lacked funding. On the other hand, we are all well aware of the many instances in which foundresses of religious institutes made do with almost nothing and, through faith, nevertheless enabled the works to flourish. The necessary means are not limited to financial assets; a spirit of faith and a willingness to work diligently are also part of the necessary means.
  • A Certain Perpetuity Works carried out in the name of the church are expected to have a certain perpetuity. We are not involved in fly-by-night operations. It takes a long time to nurture a bud so that it becomes a tree in full bloom.
  • Stewardship Canon 116 refers to tasks or missions that have been "entrusted" to those who are to carry out a work. Those who have been thus "entrusted" are to carry out their tasks as good stewards, caring for the work and its assets (see canon 1284, section 1).
  • Quality A sixth and most important characteristic is mentioned in canon 806. Although this canon does not apply directly to health care institutions — indeed, there is no mention of such institutions in the Code of Canon Law — it applies to educational activities in the church, and, by analogy (in accordance with canon 19) could — and perhaps should — be applied to our various hospitals and related institutions.

High Quality Is Essential
With appropriate adjustments, we could say that canon 806 notes that those in charge of a Catholic health care work are to ensure, under the supervision of the bishop, that the care provided by it is, in its standards, at least as outstanding as that provided by other similar institutions in the region. In other words, if the name of the church is to be attached to a specific undertaking, the work must be one of high quality.

Indeed, if an activity is not of the highest quality, serious questions should be asked about whether or not it should continue. There is no place for second-rate activities. This does not mean that activities have to involve the latest technological instruments and facilities. It does mean, however, that the apostolate carried out must be of fine quality.

In many areas, ensuring high quality calls for special preparation. Just as a person who intends to practice medicine must first be trained and licensed for it, so, too, should people in charge of mission and related areas be duly prepared. It is difficult to improvise in such situations.

Today, ethics, with its various dimensions, is an area whose practitioners are likely to need significant preparation. As health care becomes increasingly complicated and expensive, providers will inevitably tend to focus on its financial aspects. In such an environment, it will not always be easy to make high-quality ethical decisions. A good ethical decision is not necessarily the strictest one possible. Rather, it is one that takes into account all of the factors that are operative in the situation.

The six conditions discussed here, drawn from various part of the code, can serve as guidelines for those who are carrying out their mission in the name of the church. This mission is not just a personal activity. Rather, it is part of a much larger plan, one that will eventually lead those sharing in it to the fullness of life in faith and in joy.


Copyright © 2007 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Canon Law - What Does Canon Law Say about the Quality of Sponsored Works

Copyright © 2007 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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