Attendees listen as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks June 9 during the Catholic Health Association's annual assembly in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In a recent Commonweal article, my Dominican brother Michael Sweeney presented an excellent overview of the “paradigmatic clericalism” that has marked Catholicism since at least the Council of Trent. This has persisted despite the theological shift that took place at Vatican II, which included such landmark developments as the emergence of “lay ecclesial ministry” and the creation of the permanent diaconate. While these were important steps forward, much of the council’s promise to empower the laity remains unrealized. There are other post-conciliar developments, however, that may prove to be far more significant in declericalizing the church.

Perhaps the most consequential of these is the emergence of “public juridic persons” as a way to maintain the mission and identity of Catholic institutions. Public juridic persons in themselves are not new. Every church entity that has official canonical status—diocese, religious order, parish—is a juridic person. Historically, most juridic persons that were established by law were religious orders. They were founded primarily for the sanctification of their members, even if they eventually undertook various ministries.

Today’s new juridic persons, however, are founded primarily for the sake of ministry. They are the official link between a particular ministry—a health system or a university, for example—and the church, just as religious communities were in the past. That is why they are sometimes called MJPs—ministerial juridic persons—to distinguish them from the kind that aim primarily to promote a way of life and the search for holiness.

These new MJPs are distinctive in a number of ways. For instance, they are not advisory and their authority is not delegated by a bishop or a religious community. Most are “of pontifical right”: they are established by the Holy See and have real canonical responsibility for the church’s largest ministerial commitments. They sponsor hospitals, schools, and social agencies in dozens of dioceses and in some cases even across international borders. While on the local level they are under the “vigilance” of the local bishop and are accountable to him for fidelity to Catholic doctrine, ultimately, they are accountable directly to the Holy See. They consist largely of lay people and, if current trends in the number of clergy and religious persist, they will eventually consist entirely of lay people.         

Granting canonical authority for a ministry of the church to a group of lay people is a very significant development; as far as I can tell, it is unprecedented in the history of the church. Yet these MJPs are virtually unknown to Catholic laypeople and priests and not well understood by most bishops.

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Take the example of the first ministerial juridic person for health care: the Catholic Health Care Federation in Denver, approved in 1991. It is the ecclesial sponsor of Catholic Health Initiatives (now, after a merger with Dignity Health, CommonSpirit) which was founded by several health systems and religious institutes in 1996. The development of Catholic Health Care Federation followed the pattern that became standard for the creation of most MJPs: first there were hospitals sponsored by individual communities, then there were systems that were sponsored jointly by a number of communities and, finally, there was an MJP to which the communities relinquished (“alienated”) their ministries. Catholic Health Care Federation was first, but many other MJPs followed; today there are at least thirty worldwide, eighteen of which are in the United States (the others are in Australia, Canada, and Ireland).

The development of these new MJPs is a kind of church reform—not the kind of reform resulting from corruption or scandal, but the kind that comes from the need for adaptation to changing circumstances; in this case, the increased awareness of the baptismal dignity of all the faithful, and the diminished presence of the founding communities. The stakes are high: our institutional commitments will only survive as ministries if we are successful in developing the MJP as a sponsorship model.      

In his 1950 book True and False Reform in the Church, the Dominican theologian Yves Congar maintained that authentic church reform usually begins on the margins and is gradually incorporated into the heart of the church. That is true, he says, for every religious order. Congar notes, “In the Catholic Church that is so vigorously hierarchical, not one single religious order has ever been created by the central power. All such initiatives come from the periphery.” This is true of the new MJPs, too. Rome did not decide to create a new structure to sponsor these institutions. Rather, the initiative came from the original religious sponsors of the hospitals that eventually became the Catholic Health Care Federation. They made innovative use of existing canon law; their idea was approved by the church and has been replicated many times since, effectively incorporating it into the life of the church.

Until recently most MJPs in the United States were created to sponsor health care, but that is beginning to change. A few MJPs sponsor both health care and education, and some sponsor social services as well. There are plans for new MJPs that will sponsor only educational institutions at the secondary and university levels. Forming MJPs for higher education is a challenge because many Catholic universities were alienated—perhaps improperly—to lay boards before anyone envisioned the MJP model as a way to preserve an institution’s relationship to the church in the absence of a sponsoring religious community. It remains to be seen whether these institutions will remain Catholic “in spirit,” or with the permission of the local bishop, or if they will seek some kind of official sponsorship with a new MJP.

I have been involved in the evolution of the Cristo Rey Institute, an MJP created to support the Cristo Rey Network of secondary schools. This MJP was approved last year to sponsor new schools for which there is no traditional religious sponsor available. It was a historic moment when we went to Miami to ask Archbishop Wenski for permission to establish a Cristo Rey High School. There we were, a priest, a religious sister, and three lay people, carrying our brand new authorization from Rome, asking the archbishop if we, as an MJP, could minister in his diocese. To my knowledge, it was the first time an MJP of pontifical right that was not a religious order had ever asked to establish a secondary school. At some point in the future, the groups seeking such permission will likely be all laypeople.


Who pays for the poor? Who addresses social and economic conditions that lead to disparities in health and health care?

These new MJPs are not just canonical innovations. They are examples of a prophetic movement initiated by the Holy Spirit to ensure the church’s vitality in a time of change. What is required for them to fulfill that promise?

Spiritual formation. I have already indicated that these MJPs are not created primarily for personal sanctification. But they are ministries, and like any other ministry, they require gifts, charisms, authorization, and formation to prepare them for their role. Religious communities provided years of spiritual formation for members. What kind of formation will members of these new entities require? The Catholic Health Association runs a formation program for health-care sponsors, but it does not have the capacity to meet the growing need, especially as MJPs expand beyond health care. These formation programs must include prayer, spiritual practices, spiritual direction, discernment, and deepening of vocational awareness. The development of new spiritual practices, especially if they reflect a particular charism or spirit, will be one of the most interesting outcomes of the MJP model.

Theological fluency. Conversations about a new MJP often start by seeking canonical counsel. This is putting the cart before the horse. Canon law is the how, so canonical considerations only come into play after the mission and purpose are clear. Exploration of a new MJP should start with theological reflection, because theology includes the why. Sponsors don’t need graduate degrees in theology, but they do need a clear understanding of Scripture (and how Catholics interpret it), Christology, ministry, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology if they are to function effectively. This notion of sacramentality is particularly important. MJPs must assure that the ministries they sponsor are visible, tangible, and effective signs of the presence of Christ in the world. Rediscovering this sacramental dimension of our institutional ministries will be a gift to the entire church.

Communal exercise of authority. The sponsor only exercises its authority as a group, so it must find a way to make decisions collectively. I was once on a retreat with a newly created sponsor. I asked the group what they thought they could bring to the church. One of them responded, “Maybe a new model for the exercise of authority?” Yes! In a church where authority is often exercised unilaterally and hierarchically, these new canonical entities can put another way into practice. The hierarchy has its own prophetic function—one of order and continuity. MJPs exercise a prophetic function regarding the innovation and disruption the church needs as well. As Congar says, we need “the principle of continuity or form coming from the hierarchy, on the one hand, and a principle of movement or unexpectedness, even, coming from those inspired to act on the frontiers.”

Ecclesial prudence. In the past when there were problems with a school or hospital sponsored by a religious order, the bishop called the major superior (as a former provincial, I received a few of those calls myself). In the case of MJPs, the ultimate authority is not father provincial or mother superior, but the chair of the MJP. It is to that person, often a lay person, that the bishops will go to demand accountability. The MJP will have to acquire a kind of prudential skill that enables them to be faithful to their charism and mission, maintaining consistency across a large network of ministries while also being sensitive to the needs of the local church and demonstrating respectful obedience to the local ordinary. This is a tension familiar to all religious communities.

Public preaching. Please allow me to indulge my Dominican instincts here. New juridic persons are founded as ministries of the church, but they also have a role to play in the public sphere. They must be faithful to the church, but educational, social, and health-care services are also “external ministries” open to the public. They receive federal or state funding and must be attentive to public-policy matters. MJPs need to be a voice in the public debate about education, social services, and access to health care. Who pays for the poor? Who addresses social and economic conditions that lead to disparities in health and health care? How do we influence society and promote the common good so that it is a reflection of the Reign of God? This requires a kind of advocacy that I like to call “public preaching.” It is not pulpit preaching aimed at the sanctification of the faithful, but rather public witness and testimony that makes a plausible case for Gospel values that are also inherently human values.

In his excellent retrieval of the traditional notion of the priestly, prophetic, and royal aspects of baptism, The Priesthood of the Faithful, Paul Philibert says, “The church’s fundamental mission is not the administration of ecclesiastical institutions and the celebration of sacraments by the hierarchy for the faithful. Rather it is the proclamation of the kingdom of God in both word and action by the whole people of God for the whole of humanity and the whole of the cosmos.” Our new MJPs and the institutions they sponsor are perfect examples of how that can happen.

Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP is currently Senior Director of Theology and Sponsorship for the Catholic Health Association in St. Louis. He previously served as provincial of the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great in Chicago, and as president of Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

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