National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

Unified voices to argue Catholic case

'New Covenant' brings together parishes, social services, health care


Disney may have overtaken Manhattan’s Time Square, but there’s still a gritty edge across the East River in downtown Brooklyn. Where sits, when he’s at home, Bishop Joe Sullivan, long time head of the Brooklyn diocese’s Catholic Charities and Brooklyn auxiliary.

Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan
-- CNS/Catholic Charities of Brooklyn/Queens

In his non-stop Brooklyn-accented delivery, Sullivan described the local formulation of a collaborative plan the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have grandly dubbed “New Covenant.”

The intent, nationwide, is to bring together at the local level Catholic parishes, social services and the church’s giant health care ministry -- its hundreds of hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities. The aim, said Sullivan, is to foster local Catholic health services collaboration and to publicize locally Catholic agencies’ “good works.”

Sullivan admitted some of this is pure image building: “There’s a lot of dynamism in the local church. Good stuff happens,” he said. “Let the media know all the good stuff that is happening.”

The end goal is to create a stronger Catholic voice, locally, regionally and nationally, to argue the Catholic case for increased health care and social services before local government, state legislatures and in Washington.

Further, in a United States headed in the opposite direction, New Covenant is an attempt to thrust Catholic concepts of social justice deeper into the national dialogue. Catholic health and social service institutions are well aware there’s a strong opposition to some underlying Cath-olic ethical stances. Catholic institutions receiving federal and state monies have “conscience clause” waivers (NCR, June 20) exempting them from certain contraceptive service provisions. New Cove-nant, if it works, may be a counterweight to that opposition.

The New Covenant approach has already been test-piloted in a number of dioceses, including Orange County, Calif., Wichita, Kan., and St. Petersburg, Fla. (see related story). While acknowledging that New Covenant to date is a miniscule presence, Sullivan dreams the concept will be embraced by his fellow bishops as a local church norm, a point he made clear in his New Covenant presentation to bishops at their June meeting.

“This is not a project for a year. This is the life of the church,” he says. “You collaborate because you want to solve problems. The problems are so complex they require more than one skill.”

New Covenant is part of a several-layered situation. Catholic hospitals have almost always been operated apart from diocesan structures, he said, and a call for cooperation means breaking down decades of suspicion and neglect. The collaboration comes out of the dynamic as religious communities of sisters confronted their dwindling numbers and began to bring in lay leadership for their institutions. They initiated programs to ensure that the Catholic health care vision, particularly support for the church’s moral teachings and a tradition of treating the poor, could be maintained.

Sullivan credits Charity Sr. Maryanna Coyle and Mercy Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, both from Cincinnati, with steering the New Covenant agenda. The coalition knits together bishops like Sullivan, Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, and other heavy-duty leaders of church institutions into a working partnership that has taken since the 1980s to develop.

The partnership has developed enough that the test piloted projects are supplemented with documentation and CD-Roms available via

National church leadership is on board, says Sullivan. Whether middle-level managers and those in the pews, particularly big donors to Catholic causes, will embrace the new vision, is, he admitted, an open question. “There’s always institutional inertia to combat,” he said. Plus developing a culture of talking straight to one another won’t be easy: Social workers, parish clergy and medical personnel inhabit very different worlds.

The past few years have not been kind to bishops, said Sullivan. “The albatross of the sex abuse scandal” hangs over the bishops and the wider church; his fellow bishops are increasingly dispirited and distracted, and have difficulty coming together on common projects. Many feel chained to their desks. Bishops’ gatherings intended to spark discussion about national initiatives and provide bishops with peer support have instead, he said, become clogged with reports and long meetings. There is little time to develop the kind of relationships that make for creative pastoral and social approaches. Sullivan said they need a pastoral spark.

Some bishops see New Covenant as another excuse for yet another report. But Sullivan sees it as a way to bring together the church’s pastoral, health care and social ministries to work on wide community concerns that can galvanize and highlight positive contributions of the Catholic community in the United States.

As Sullivan pushes the point that “the church needs this effort more than ever,” the bishop, ordained in 1956, sits beneath a portrait of the pope alongside which is the team picture of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.

That’s the team whose fans -- among them a young Sullivan -- were usually forced to concede “wait-till-next-year” as World Series defeats piled one upon another. But in New Covenant’s case, said Sullivan, the church can’t afford to wait till next year. Now is the time.

Peter Feuerherd is an East Coast-based Catholic journalist.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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