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