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.
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.