SPOTLIGHT: Catholic hospital religious - a thing of the past?
Sister Mary Jean Ryan, nun and CEO retires, marking the end of an era in Catholic healthcare.
It's a sign of the times. Sister Mary Jean Ryan, one of the last CEO's in the church from a religious community, has retired from her post as the head of SSM Health Care, a group of charitable Catholic hospitals. In 1970, virtually every Catholic hospital in the United States was overseen by clergy or religious. Today, that number is down to 8.
Sister Mary Jean Ryan of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, is the last nun to serve as CEO of a Catholic hospital in the United States. She retired on August 1st.
Her personal drive to provide quality care to patients throughout the system has earned her the title of, "one of the most powerful people in health care," according to Modern Healthcare Magazine, as well as several prestigious awards and honors. While she continues to write, speak publicly, and to chair several boards of directors, her retirement is a reminder of the growing influence of the laity in the church, as ordered ministries decline.
Nearly every modern Catholic hospital in the nation was established by a religious order. Until the 1970's, those orders maintained a firm grasp on their hospitals, running them as charitable institutions. One in six Americans are treated in these facilities each year, often without the ability to pay.
However, as lay businesspeople take up the mantle of leadership, the question remains if those institutions will continue in their tradition of charity, or if they too will succumb to the seductive prevailing culture of profits that has made multi-millionaires out of hospital executives. In 2008, Catholic hospitals generated revenues of $30 billion dollars, but had expenses of $85 billion which includes nearly $6 billion in charity--a shortfall of $55 billion dollars.
The Catholic tradition of healthcare is long and storied. Dating back to the medieval period, the Church has always provided medical care to those who could least afford it. The earliest hospitals were as much for the sick as they were for the poor and homeless. In America, orders of monks and nuns, often from Europe, founded the first Catholic hospitals.
This tradition continued unabated, until recently, when vocations began their sharp decline in the US. As the decline in vocations continued from the 1960's to the present day, the laity has replaced clergy and members of religious communities at every level. Today, only 8 of the 59 Catholic health care systems are overseen by clergy or members of religious orders.
The mood of the sisters in the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, Sister Mary Jean's order, is understandably downcast, but resigned. In a recent interview, Sister Mary Jean stated, "We can't be maudlin about this, I mean, yes, we are a dying breed. We are disappearing from the face of the earth and all of that. That being said, perhaps this is a moment for people to acknowledge the contribution that has been made by women religious throughout our history in the United States."
Concern however, is directed towards the patients who will invariably receive care in Catholic hospitals. Will the quality of care be the same under lay leadership as it was under ordained leadership? Will the church's emphasis on the sanctity of life always be upheld over profits? Will the hospitals eventually become so secularized as to be "catholic" only in name?
Thus far, the answer has been, yes. Sister Mary Jean Ryan has set an example by turning away doctors and other business arrangements that would not be of benefit to the poor such as those on Medicaid. Charitable care is still given in Catholic hospitals, and abortions are not performed.
Although Sister Mary Jean Ryan will no longer be directing the day-to-day business of SSM Health Care, she will continue to speak and be listened to. She has co-authored two books on the business and ethics healthcare and she continues to travel and give lectures on the importance of providing safe, quality care to all patients. And as long as she continues her tireless work, the tradition of the Church will remain to the benefit of all who are weary and wont of care.
© 2011, Catholic Online. Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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