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2016 Bernardin Conference
In the World and in the Church: The Identity of Catholic Institutions

15th Annual Conference  |  September 30-October 2, 2016  |  Techny, Illinois

Conference Purpose:

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Catholic Church in the United States is its remarkable network of educational, health care and social service institutions.  The origin of these institutions is found in the Church’s responsibility to proclaim and carry forth the mission of Jesus Christ through what are now known as its ministries of education, health care and social service.  For an immigrant church, often times the first attention to these ministries was on its own. But from the beginning these ministries were not purely parochial. In many ways these ministries also reached out to address the needs of fellow citizens.

While these ministries involved one on one contact, the Catholic instinct to give institutional expression to the carrying forth of its mission also was present.  Across the land Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable institutions were founded.  Much of the financial support for these realities came from the Catholic community.  But as other citizens experienced the good that these institutions provided for the community at large, the base of other than Catholic support grew.

As the size of the Catholic community in the United States grew, so too did its institutions.  This was particularly true after the Second World War with the arrival of the baby boomer generation and the move of many Catholics to the suburbs.  It was in this period that these institutions came to increasingly rely on various forms of government assistance.  They also were impacted by the monumental changes associated with the Second Vatican Council.  The leadership of these institutions more often than not became the responsibility of lay people who were not necessarily Catholic.  And in many instances those served by these ministries were as pluralistic the nation itself.

Today this vibrant network of Catholic institutions, while quite aware of and committed to their identity as an ecclesial ministry, also find themselves embedded in the public square providing much needed services that advance the commonweal of the nation.  This reality of being both ecclesial and in the public square can bring competing if not conflicting expectations.  How to navigate this complexity has become an increasingly sensitive topic. 

The reality of this conflict is not new and was addressed by the Fordham University Sesquicentennial Project.  At a 1991 conference that was part of that Project Cardinal Bernardin, founder of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, gave an address entitled “Catholic Identity: Resolving Conflicting Expectations.”  In that address he said:

Catholic higher education, health care institutions and social services face a common dilemma. The bishop and the diocese, at times, may consider them too secular, too influenced by government, too involved with business concepts. The public, on the other hand, often considers them too religious, too sectarian. As a result, they find themselves sandwiched between the Church and the public, trying to please both groups.  (II.168)

As in other areas of church life, while the topic might remain the same, the discussion is much more intense.  There seems to be more polarization and less agreement.  As a result the topic of In the World and in the Church: The Identity of Catholic Institutions is an apt topic for the 2016 Catholic Common Ground Bernardin Conference.

Hoped for Outcomes:

The 2016 Bernardin Conference will bring together leaders from the ministries of education, health care, social and international services as well as other ecclesial leaders to dialogue on this important topic.  The dialogue will seek to:

  • Come to agreement on the exact nature of the tension
  • Explore the theological and magisterial principles that should frame the discussion
  • Engage in prayerful dialogue about the  participants’ perspectives
  • Expand the field of common ground on the topic
  • Explore the significance of that common ground for the pastoral life of the church

Participant Recommended Readings:

2016 Catholic Common Ground Initiative Bernardin Conference Keynote Lecture:

About the Conference and Speaker:  From September 30-October 2, 2016, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative of the The Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union held its biannual Bernardin Conference at Techny Towers Conference & Retreat Center (Techny, Illinois).  The conference focused on the entitled topic, "In the World and in the Church:  The Identity of Catholic Institutions," wherein nearly 35 participants from Catholic Health Care, Social Services, and Education came together to discuss the present and future of this particular subject.  On September 30, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government  and the Archdiocese of Boston's Secretariat for Health Care and Social Services gave the opening keynote lecture, "Catholic Insitutions and Identity:  Some History and Some New Questions."

About the Lecture:  The national outreach of the Catholic Church has been focused on reaching a larger audience ever since the Church entered the United States' sphere of influence.  Moving from an attitude of Christian normalcy in terms of the offering of goods and services in the American landscape, the Church has now become more focused on wider outreach to all peoples, nationalities, religions, and language groups.  Using two documents from the Second Vatican Council and the approaches of two recent pontiffs, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir weaves, exquisitely, the framework of Catholic identity in American culture today with the particular institutions that provide such a vibrant, inclusive, and prophetic model to all who serve and are served by the Church.

Click here to view the video of the 2016 Bernardin Conference Keynote Lecture.