July 29, 2005


Lay leaders of Catholic organizations

Does it matter that most Catholic organizations these days are operated by lay men and women? Does that fact somehow make them less Catholic?

There was a time when all Catholic colleges and universities, hospitals, elementary and high schools, Catholic Charities, and similar organizations were headed by priests, brothers or women religious. That was back when priests and women religious were plentiful, but also a time when they were likely to be the only Catholics with the educational backgrounds that those positions required. Not any more.

To be sure, priests or sisters still head some Catholic colleges or universities. Here in Indiana, St. Joseph Sister Joan Lescinski is president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and Holy Cross Father John Jenkins assumed the presidency of the University of Notre Dame earlier this summer. But these are the exceptions. Most Catholic organizations are now headed by lay people.

Some people see this as a symptom of a declining Catholic identity and worry that Catholic institutions won’t survive as distinctly Catholic.

In the July 18-25 issue of America magazine, John O. Mudd worried that too many lay directors of Catholic institutions are “mission illiterate.” Mudd is chair of the board of trustees of Ascension Health, the nation’s largest Catholic health care system. It operates St. Vincent Health in Indianapolis with the Daughters of Charity.

We agree with Mudd that lay leaders of Catholic organizations “cannot think of ourselves solely as leading businesses, while leaving to sisters and priests the mission dimension of our work. We too must become effective mission leaders.”

There was a time when almost all Catholic newspapers and magazines were edited by priests or religious. But that hasn’t been true for decades. For about 50 years, the presidency of the Catholic Press Association of the United States traditionally alternated between a priest and a layman, but the last priest to be president of the association was Father John Catoir in 1990.

Today there are very few priests still editing Catholic newspapers, but there is no evidence that lay editors are any less mission-oriented than were priests. The same should be true of other lay leaders of Catholic organizations.

Mudd wrote in America, “Succeeding in mission and identity remains a challenge in Catholic health care as the sisters, who previously embodied Catholic identity by their very presence, become less and less visible.” He said that he knows from his behavior that he is comfortable talking about financial and operational performance, but becomes tongue-tied when asked to assess the mission effectiveness of ministries or the quality of spiritual care.

We agree with him that, if this is true, he must change his thinking and behavior. “Speaking about mission and values with clarity and conviction is as essential a part of our leadership responsibilities as speaking about operations and finance,” he wrote. “The entire work must be viewed through the lens of mission, not just some aspects of it, like pastoral care in hospitals or campus ministry in universities.”

It has been our experience that most effective lay leaders of Catholic organizations—Daniel J. Elsener, president of Marian College in Indianapolis, immediately comes to mind—have been just as concerned about how to maintain and further the Catholic identity of their institutions as were the priests or religious who formerly occupied their positions.

While the number of priests and religious has declined, the number of dedicated and highly educated lay men and women has skyrocketed. They are doing nothing more or less than exercising the vocation to which they have been called.

As the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People of the Second Vatican Council said, the lay apostolate “is exercised when the laity endeavor to have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order, going about it in a way that bears clear witness to Christ and helps forward the salvation of men.”

This is the age of the laity, far different from the days when only priests, brothers and sisters were educated enough to lead Catholic organizations. Lay leaders can be, and must be, just as dedicated to furthering the ministry of their organizations.  

— John F. Fink  


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