Over the past several years, virtually every kind of Catholic institution has come under threat. To name just a few of many possible examples: Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to either place children with same-sex couples or close; Catholic grade and high schools have faced protests and some lawsuits for firing teachers who were living in clear violation of the Church’s sexual teachings; Catholic charities and universities have been engaged in a legal battle over the HHS contraceptive mandate; most recently, the ACLU has started pushing lawsuits to force Catholic hospitals to provide abortion and contraceptive procedures that go against Catholic teachings.

But why are there so many Catholic institutions in America in the first place? How were they founded, and how have they changed over time?

America’s Catholic institutional ministries – those we still have (such as schools, colleges, hospitals, charities) as well as those which have disappeared (orphanages, industrial schools, homes for expecting mothers – mostly came into being out of necessity.  This “necessity” was of two kinds.

One kind was simply factual: there was a need among Catholics for education or for custodial care of abandoned children (in fact, the majority of “orphans” in Catholic institutions had at least one living parent), and the Church stepped forward to meet it because no one else was present, willing, and able.

The other kind of “necessity” was pastoral: available institutions presented unacceptable risks to the faith because they were, or were tantamount to, Protestant.  In the mid- to late-nineteenth century this latter type of “necessity” often extended to public institutions, especially to grade schools and other institutions (orphanages, for example) which had custody of children.   The Church then was so keenly concerned to preserve and transmit the faith intact to young people, and so concerned about the designs of many Protestants upon the faith of Catholic children, that Catholics undertook to construct parallel school and charities systems so that Catholic children would not be proselytized by Protestants, or at least deprived of the positive benefits of being reared and educated in a Catholic environment.

(Hospitals were a different case, for then they were then more like hospices than what we now know as acute care facilities, and the central pastoral concern there was, obviously, to spiritually assist in a Catholic manner persons facing terminal illness and death.)

Evidence of suspected Protestant designs is easy to come by.  It should be kept in mind, though, that they stemmed as much from a very dim view of Catholicism (as superstitious, corrupt, benighted) as it did from a very evangelical possession of Protestant beliefs.  Among the most probative evidence would be those many instances where Catholics fought hard to garner equal opportunity to minister to their own in public settings, such as prisons or the military.  In these contexts and up into the twentieth century, the Church was often denied the kind of access to Catholic inmates that Protestant ministers enjoyed when tending to their flock. Similarly, it was often a struggle to secure Catholic chaplaincy positions in the military proportionate to the number of Catholics in the ranks.  And at the turn of the century, the United States phased out funding for Catholic missions on the Indian reservations, notwithstanding (indeed, perhaps because of) the undeniable effectiveness of those missions.

This keen and admirable (even of at times a bit overdone) pastoral concern was evident in the hierarchy up to and through the 1950s, and even with regard to college students.   There was a lively debate among the bishops early in the twentieth century about the pastoral wisdom of establishing what we call “Newman Centers” at non-Catholic colleges.  More than a few bishops opposed the idea, on the view that doing so would only encourage Catholics to attend these colleges, which was itself a choice mightily to be discouraged.

After WW II, when Catholics among the “greatest generation” could and did use the GI Bill to attend college in unprecedented numbers, many new Catholic colleges were founded so that the returning GIs would not have to attend non-Catholic institutions, some of which were indeed still unwelcoming of Catholics.  Of course, all through this century or so (from 1850 to 1950) it was a principle of Catholic pastoral care, often articulated by the Pontiff himself, to discourage fraternal and religious “mixing” of Catholics and non-Catholics, a concern rooted in a sound worry about promoting indifferentism, but (again) very often overdone.  And it was often overdone at least partly because of the clericalism of the hierarchy, in the specific sense that pastors did not think that the laity possessed the intellectually discriminating grasp of the faith and the spiritual maturity which would have protected them against indifferentism.  Perhaps so, to a great extent, but that has to partly do with the pervasive clericalism which infected the Church throughout this era.

This effort was nothing short of heroic.  There are countless stories of saintly dedication to the spiritual welfare of Catholics under very trying conditions.   And the laity made incredible sacrifices for the faith and would have given their lives for it, as so many did for their country during these years.

About this nearly incredible story, which amounts to the saga of how a whole Catholic sub-culture was envisioned and then built, I would add that, notwithstanding the deserved admiration which we feel towards those who made it happen, they responded creatively and faithfully to the circumstances in which they found themselves.  So should we.

Just some examples of the contingency of selection and survival of Catholic institutional ministries: Fewer than one-third of the 194 Catholic colleges founded in the U.S. before 1900 survived into the 1950s. There are about 222 of them now listed in the Kennedy Directory, and most of them are scarcely recognizably Catholic.   Many Catholic colleges came into being as places for the sponsoring religious orders to educate their own novices or seminarians. This was especially the pattern for women’s colleges, as religious superiors undertook to educate legions of teaching Sisters. From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, local bishops typically did not permit Sisters to attend non-Catholic institutions, and discouraged and occasionally forbade men to do so. Even in 1940, one of every five graduates of Catholic women’s colleges was a nun at graduation, a proportion that did not decline until the collapse of vocations in the 1960s. Lay Catholics were often admitted to these colleges initially to help pay the bills.

Our circumstances are radically different than theirs.  Our national culture is, like theirs, inhospitable to Catholic faith.  But two of the many radical differences are these: first, in days gone by, there were enough faithful Catholics around to staff these arrays of institutional ministries, and so many of these faithful were professed religious; second, now the government and its frequently pernicious understanding of many important moral norms (about the family, life, healthcare, sexual activity, etc.), and its almost total lack of understanding of what a Catholic institutional apostolate is, has its coercive tentacles all over these institutional ministries.

These two facts alone suggest very, very strongly that a thorough reconsideration of the whole Catholic institutional ministry scene is overdue.  And desperately needed.

You said that Catholic schools and hospitals were founded partly as a reaction against the anti-Catholicism of mainstream American culture, but that culture also seemed more or less willing to let Catholics run their own institutions. Sure, there were laws like the Blaine amendments to prevent funding from going to Catholic schools, but have Catholics in America faced this sort of conform-or-close pressure before?

Yes, Catholic institutions were left alone to operate as according to their own lights.  This was a great benefit to the Church’s ministries.  But it did not owe to any special admiration for Catholic schools, hospitals, etc.  – indeed, far from it -- but rather to the broader truth that this was an era of limited government, minimal regulation, and nascent (or even non-existent) professional guilds with their own sets of standards.  Conflict with the state was very largely limited to contests over public funding, which was a general matter not a possibility for schools, but (again as general matter) an open question for orphanages, foundling hospitals and the like.

There were some “close-or-conform” challenges to institutional ministries in the first half of the twentieth century.  But they were largely, and perhaps entirely, about what whether a Catholic institution would conform to professional and bureaucratic standards of care and operations.  Doing so would of course be an expense, and sometimes was not suited to the charism and resources of the founding congregation (of sisters, usually) when some of these ministries could probably be fairly accused of operating amateurishly, if nonetheless compassionately, and even beautifully.

But as far as I can tell, never before the last few years did a Catholic institutional ministry face a “conform-or-close” challenge instigated by the government over a moral issue.

How can the Church’s institutional ministries respond to these pressures? If the law gives them no way out except to stop providing their service, is it preferable to secularize or to close? How should Catholics within these institutions respond to the threat of secularization? What is the relationship between these threats to Catholic institutions and martyrdom as traditionally understood?

No doubt figuring out whether morality requires a stark and simple refusal to do or to cooperate with evil is harder for an institutional actor than for an individual, because the matter is more complex.  But people in Catholic institutions and Catholic institutions themselves have no more license to do something which morally speaking may never be done – such as  violate any of the exceptionless moral norms against non-marital sex, abortion and all intentional killing, lying, etc. – than does any individual person.  All are called to be faithful to the end.  All called by Jesus to be martyrs.

Catholic institutions are actually called in a heightened way to bear unequivocal witness to the faith and to moral truth.  That is why they exist.  A Catholic hospital or Catholic charity is not called into being just to perform a service in a courteous professional manner.  Anyone could do that and it is good if anyone does it.  But the distinctive reason why a Catholic institution is erected to perform any such service is also an essential reason for its existence.

A Catholic ministry must always bear acute witness to moral truth, and never lead people to act immorally. But keeping the moral law is not enough; otherwise, almost any hospital before around 1965 would have been Catholic. Keeping the commandments is necessary, but not sufficient. Pope Paul VI wrote that “it needs to be remembered that, in transmitting the Gospel, word and witness of life go together.  If the word is contradicted by behavior, its acceptance will be difficult. [But] witness by itself is not enough ‘because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run, if it is not explained, justified—what Peter called “giving a rea- son for the hope that is in you “ (1 Pet 3:15)—and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus.” .

The difference between the Catholic Worker House, for example, and your city’s homeless shelter lay not in the efficiency of their hospitality, or in the greater good cheer with which they deliver it. There is no reason to suppose that one is characteristically superior to the other on either of these metrics. The difference is that Dorothy Day did corporal works of mercy; that is, she provided a bed and a meal to people in order to show Christ to them, and in order to see Christ in them. Mother Teresa and her collaborators performed menial tasks in their hospices, jobs which Americans typically receive about eight dollars an hour to do. The Missionaries of Charity do far more than those underpaid orderlies do. What they do is priceless.

It is important, too, that the matters to which witness is being given be proclaimed as truths, and not as (merely) parochial “can’t helps” or tribal customs or distinguishing characteristics of our religious community. In VS Pope John Paul II described “martyrdom” as an “affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, [which] bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man” [92]. The Church should not sacrifice its hospitals for the sake of its own “identity,” for a group totem, or for a disciplinary rule.

When push comes to shove, it is not only “preferable” to close, it is morally required.

Not all threats to an institution’s Catholic identity come from external legal pressures. For example, a Catholic hospital in the Chicago area was recently sold to the Northwestern University hospital system. How should Catholic employees of such institutions respond?

Catholic employees who are not complicit in any moral wrong could surely continue to work (or for that matter seek out new employment) in a secular environment.   These continuing employees should continue to do a good job, and witness to their faith in doing that as well as in any other way that circumstances permit.  Many employees will prefer, however, the deeper and more perspicuous witness which they can give only in a Catholic context, and they should be encouraged to seek employment there.

And then there are the secular hospitals that are acquired by a Catholic healthcare network and are now accountable to Catholic bioethics standards. Is this situation substantially different from a non-Catholic who willingly takes a position at a Catholic institution? How should Catholics who take on responsibility for a historically secular institution go about implementing Catholic teaching when neither the staff nor the constituents of these institutions are very interested in it or are outright opposed to it? Is acquisition of secular institutions and imposition of Catholic standards without the will or capacity to create a coherently Catholic apostolate in that institution responsible?

Short answer: it is very difficult to see how an institution of any substantial size can be “converted” to Catholicism in anything like a short time.  It cannot be done from the top down, just by putting a new sign out front and re-writing the by-laws and handbook – though that is important to do and a good place to start.  The truth is that it is the Catholic faith of those who work in an institution, and especially their keen desire to do their work as a manifestation of their Catholic faith, is what make sit Catholic.  At least that is one essential element of any Catholic institutional ministry.

Early last year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Catholic universities that tried to invoke a religious liberty argument, specifically the ministerial exception, to prevent their adjunct professors from forming a union. The universities seemed to have trouble showing exactly how these adjuncts were performing the sort of religious function that is necessary for that particular religious liberty exception to apply. There’s also some irony in that these schools are invoking Catholicism—which has over the past century or so taken a rather favorable view of unions—as part of their argument against allowing workers to unionize. What do you think of these cases, where the commitment to their Catholic mission seems to have faded, but the institution wants to keep the “Catholic” label?

Many self-identified Catholic institutions suffer from extreme mission fatigue, as often as not a result of choice more than of circumstances.   Yet these same institutions will wrap themselves in rosaries when it works to their advantage,   It is right for courts to call these institutions to account for the obvious contradictions between what they say and what they do, and between what they appear to be at reunions and all the rest of the time.   For what it is worth I think that workers at Catholic institutions should generally be allowed to unionize.