Fall/winter 2009

identity questions









It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and already Nancy Voitus, executive director of the Catholic Charities Regional Agency in Youngstown, Ohio, looks like she’s put in a full day. It’s an unusual day for the organization. Most of the staff is at an all-day training session. There’s nobody in the modest and usually overflowing waiting room. But the phones pretty much never stop ringing, and everyone on the skeleton crew—from Voitus to the bookkeeper—is answering them. The agency provides a number of vital services to the community from pregnancy and family support services to senior support and counseling, but emergency assistance and housing counseling programs seem to be the busiest and most requested programs lately. That’s directly related, Voitus feels, to the economy. People are having trouble making ends meet because of what’s happening with jobs, foreclosures and rising costs. A lot of those people have jobs, too, she says. This morning, for instance, one of the calls was from a woman who missed work for two weeks because of illness. Her bimonthly paycheck was only for three days’ work and she doesn’t have enough to pay the electric bill due Friday.

“And it’s not just that there’s an electric bill they need help with,” says Rachel Hrbolich, associate director of social services for the Diocese of Youngstown Catholic Charities. “You start to peel back the layers and see they need help with food and, oh, they don’t have any diapers for the baby. You start to realize that the need is a lot greater than what’s presented a lot of times on the phone.” That’s the theme these days, Voitus adds, over and over. And then what happens next month when the electric bill comes again?


The first thing that anyone working in Catholic Charities will tell you is this: If you’ve seen one Catholic Charities, you’ve seen, well, one Catholic Charities. Then they’ll chuckle. It’s an insider thing, something they appreciate about themselves. And indeed, the singularity of each of the 173 Catholic Charities organizations nationwide is part of what makes them effective. They’re able to operate nimbly to meet local needs, supported but not dictated to or micromanaged by Catholic Charities USA. When you add up what they’ve accomplished, it’s pretty remarkable. Last year, Catholic Charities provided services for 7.8 million people. Save the federal government, Catholic Charities is the largest social service network in the country.

Yet for all their differences in the mix of programs they offer to meet the needs of their communities, Catholic Charities agencies share some practical and philosophical challenges. For one, they’re trying to meet a burgeoning need with resources that can’t keep pace. For another, they operate under two sets of laws—civic and canonical. Sometimes they must walk away from government sources of funding when there are stipulations attached that go against church teaching, such as licensing that requires an adoption agency to provide services to same-sex couples.

But the deeper conundrum lies in how to maintain a Catholic identity in an increasingly secular age. Historically, Catholic charitable organizations were centered in the parish and led by priests, nuns and brothers whose rigorous understanding of theology guided their endeavors. Today, these agencies usually operate at the larger diocesan level. And it is increasingly likely that the director is a layperson with professional credentials in social work and organizational management but with less exposure to Catholic Social Teaching.

“What makes Catholic Charities Catholic? What is its quintessential nature? What keeps that DNA alive?” Dean Carolyn Woo asked at a From Mission to Service workshop session this past March. In 2006, Notre Dame, under the auspices of the Mendoza College of Business, launched this two-part program to address the integration of the Catholic character of Catholic Charities and the best organizational practices.

This year, representatives from Youngstown Catholic Charities participated, including Hrbolich and Executive Director Brian Corbin. For them, the question of what comprises the Catholic nature of their agencies is not the least bit rhetorical. They have the battle scars to prove it.

Catholic identity was exactly what the northeast Ohio diocese was trying to renew 10 years ago when it restructured Youngstown Catholic Charities from a federation of independent nonprofits to a system of autonomous but related corporations with the bishop placed more explicitly, not only as the canonical leader, but as the civil head. The restructuring came at a price. Reorganization was met with resistance at two of the agencies in the six-county Youngstown diocese.

The majority of board members at one agency, for instance, was not Catholic. “They just saw the good work that they were doing, and said, ‘What difference does it make if it’s Catholic? What does the bishop have to do with what we do?’” says Hrbolich. “When you have people who don’t understand the Catholic faith making decisions for your board, identity gets pushed, pushed, pushed all the way to the back.”

HopeHere’s what Catholic identity in Catholic Charities is not: It’s not about proselytizing. Pope Benedict XVI addressed that issue specifically in his 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. “Those who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others,” he writes. “They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak.”

The Catholic identity is also not about ministering only to Catholics in need. The majority of the people served by Youngstown Catholic Charities, for instance, are non-Catholics, Corbin and Hrbolich say. “We don’t serve because they are Catholic,” Corbin says. “We serve because we are Catholic.”

Catholic identity in Catholic Charities is animated by the social vision of Catholicism, which brings the work to life at a deeper level. “At the heart of the Catholic social vision are two great snapshots from the Scriptures—the Hebrew prophets and the Good Samaritan,” Father Bryan Hehir explained in his presentation on the first day of the From Mission to Service session. Hehir is a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and also serves as the president and treasurer of Catholic Charities in Boston. “The prophets said that the quality of faith is dependent on the character of justice in the land,” he said. “And they said, ‘We will teach you how to judge. How do the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens fare among us?’ These are the three most vulnerable groups in society. You can ask this question in every age.”

“The Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel,” Hehir continued, “always has a certain kind of irony. Samaritans were a hated group. The message is, ‘Look outside. God’s vision is wider than yours.’ The Good Samaritan has an eye for the edge of the circle of life. I think we can honor all the pluralism of our society and not lose a sense of where we come from.”

In Youngstown, two agencies weren’t persuaded that Catholic identity was crucial to the services they offered. They opted to separate from Catholic Charities and operate as community agencies, and the diocese had to rebuild the Catholic Charities in those counties from scratch. “We’ve since done everything to keep Catholic identity right in front of us,” says Hrbolich. The understanding that they are a Catholic organization, first and foremost, she says, gives focus and clarity, even to the many mem bers of the agencies’ staffs who are not Catholic.

“There is nothing wrong with a community agency, but that’s not what Catholic Charities is,” says Corbin. Every Monday morning, he sends out a “mission meditation” to the Catholic Charities leadership staff, which contains reflections on the past weekend’s Scripture readings and connects the readings to the work of Catholic Charities. Elements of Catholic identity are also woven into the content at staff in-service sessions. In the past, Hrbolich says, they’ve taken the value of hospitality and talked about what it means for a Catholic organization to show hospitality. “This is done through Scripture references,” she says, “as well as a discussion of values and why hospitality makes a difference to our clients and makes us different than other helpful organizations.”

“We are in the community doing the work of the church, and it’s a very different way of structuring your perspective,” says Corbin.

Back to the issue of next month’s electric bill. Several years ago, Catholic Charities USA decided it needed to spur a conversation in the country about why it is there are so many good social services agencies doing such great work, but not finding great ways to bring people out of poverty. As part of the effort, it adopted the goal of reducing poverty in the United States by half by 2020.

Catholic Charities Youngstown is now looking at its programs through that prism. It’s led them to close some programs, and also to develop some innovative ones. “There is a Federal Reserve Bank report that basically says all of the financial literacy classes in the world have not added a dust of help. It’s scary,” says Corbin. “They say that you need financial coaching—a long-term asset management coach just like wealthy people who go to KeyBank or National City Bank have a coach. It’s the same concept, but with people who understand the low-income world. I have to bring this up to our directors.”

They’ve also tapped into a program called the Ohio Benefit Bank—an online program that searches a database for federal and state benefits that a client might be eligible for but is not receiving. The state estimates there are about 150,000 residents who might be eligible for $6,000 more a year. “That could make a huge difference to someone who is living at a marginal level,” Corbin says.

 “We have been talking about emergency assistance for as long as I’ve been here,” Hrbolich adds. “And we know that the band-aid approach doesn’t work. There has to be something else for those people that we really feel have a chance of breaking out of this. But it’s hard when you have limited resources and a limited staff to do a lot of this. It’s a real different time for us now. Everything’s changing. The status quo has hit the wall; everything is up for grabs now. It’s exciting, too, because a lot is possible. More than ever, we have the opportunity to make things happen and really make change.”


Back in March, the conference room had more than its share of wisdom floating around, including these two closing thoughts. “We will not be surprised if we are still doing this work when Jesus arrives,” said Father Bryan Hehir. “Hope is what keeps you going. It’s what you use on days when the tide is not going with you.” Later, each agency presented a snapshot analysis of its program portfolio. To one group, Dean Carolyn Woo had this response. “There is an Asian saying, ‘Go slow to go fast.’ But in my old age,” she added, tongue in cheek, “I believe you cannot wait to have all the answers before you move.”

—Sally Ann Flecker is a freelance writer and editor who is a former editor-in-chief of Pitt Magazine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mission-based Leadership and Organization Development

is a two-part program designed expressly for Catholic Charities to build the effectiveness of its leaders and organizations. Participating Catholic Charities agencies send three to five participants to the program, including a board member and the chief officer.

Immersion sessions are held in both the fall and spring at the Mendoza College of Business on the Notre Dame campus for a total of five days. Between sessions, participating Catholic Charities teams address a specific organizational issue through an action learning project, employing the frames of mission-based leadership and organizational development.

All costs for the program, other than travel and lodging expenses, are underwritten by the University of Notre Dame. Instruction is provided pro-bono by Notre Dame faculty in business and theology, leaders of the Congregation of Holy Cross, as well as other national leaders.

Select Program Topics:

  • Values-Based Decision Making
  • The Legacy of Catholic Social Justice
  • Portfolio Decision Making
  • Mission to Performance
  • Panel Discussion: Ask a Moral Theologian
  • Integral Leadership
  • Mission-based Development





© 2008 University of Notre Dame • Last Updated: January 13, 2009