The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the 12 hospitals of the Brothers of Charity in Belgium can no longer be considered Catholic. The CDF took an important stance. At the same time, the ruling sets a precedent we should not underestimate.
Here are the facts. The organization Brothers of Charity, a not-for-profit association, manages the hospitals of the religious congregation Brothers of Charity in Belgium. Back in 2017, the organization established some guidelines for the hospitals, which include the possibility of performing euthanasia under certain conditions. The religious congregation strongly opposes the instructions. Br. René Stockman, the general superior, appealed to the Holy See.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Congregation of the Brothers of Charity, and the Organization Brothers of Charity had a long dialogue. The organization refused to change the guidelines: they are convinced they acted according to the law, and also allowing an approach that would at least open the possibility of a discussion on the matter with the patients, they say.
On the other hand, the Congregation refuses to accept even the mere idea that euthanasia can be performed in their hospitals. The Brothers of Charity were founded in the 19th century as a congregation of brothers (not priests) that commit themselves to professional health care for the public, with a particular focus on the mentally ill. Performing euthanasia, then, is not just against Catholic principles. It is against the foundational principles of the Congregation itself.
During these three years, Br. Stockman has been reconfirmed at the helm of the religious Congregation. There is, however, no possibility of resolving the unpleasant situation in its hospitals.
In Belgium, religious orders have to establish not-for-profit associations or associations under civil law to manage their assets and properties. The organization Brothers of Charity manages the hospitals. The presence of religious brothers on the board is minimal: there are just four religious brothers out of 15 members.
The Brothers of Charity Association instead owns the buildings of the hospitals. Moreover, the assets of the congregation are entrusted to a private foundation that is linked to the Brothers of Charity.
Since they have no control of the board of the organization, the Brothers of Charity cannot have a direct influence on the hospitals’ decisions, nor can they merely take the management away from the Organization and establish a new organization. They hoped that the Holy See’s intervention was going to solve the issue.
After three years of discussions, it was evident that there was no possibility to close the gap between the organization and the religious congregation. It was inevitable, then, that the hospitals of the Brothers of Charity in Belgium would no longer be considered Catholic. The Brothers of Charity decided to leave the management of the hospitals. They still have to assess how they will do that.
The Organization Brothers of Charity is not willing to change its name and considers the buildings of the hospitals as alienated and not any longer the property of the Congregation. There is the possibility of a purely cosmetic recourse: the hospitals will not be described as Catholic-inspired hospitals, but Christian-inspired hospitals.
The fact that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not even challenge the problem of the denomination of the hospitals leaves the Brothers of Charity alone in having to address some vital issues.
The decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also creates a dangerous precedent. Religious congregations that own hospitals in Belgium are all experiencing the same situation. The CDF took no action, but ruling that the hospitals could not be considered Catholic. The Brothers of Charity then left the hospitals. It could be the same for other religious congregations, for the same reason, and in the same way.
The Catholic Church, then, risks losing her inestimable heritage: caring for the people.
However, this issue is not just about Belgium. States are increasingly pressing Church institutions to adapt to new laws, even when they give rise to deep moral problems. The right to objection of conscience is still guaranteed, but very much under attack. Almost all the EU states admit abortion under certain conditions. Euthanasia is allowed in Belgium and the Netherlands, but legislative pressure to introduce it in other jurisdictions is very strong.
If the Catholic institutions are in the minority in the very same boards that manage their structures, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith limits itself to strip off the adjective Catholic, what should Catholic institutions do?
There is a “Pontifical Commission for the activities in the health sectors of public juridical persons in the Church.” The Holy See established the Commission in 2015. Msgr. Luigi Mistò, currently secretary of the Secretariat for the Economy, is the chairman of the commission. The commission has the task of checking if the Catholic health facilities are faithful to their original charism.
No news on the activities of the commission has come out so far. The commission was mostly born as a response to financial scandals of some hospitals belonging to religious congregations. The rescript that established the commission underscored that the primary goal of the commission was to “contribute to the most effective management of the activities and the preservation of patrimony, keeping and promoting the charism of the founders.”
What happens, then, when the charism of the founders is betrayed in areas other than on economic-financial issues? And who takes care of the religious congregations that are not recognized in their states and that have to use civil law structures to operate?
The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s decision on the Brothers of Charity hospitals in Belgium leaves these issues open. These issues show that the doctrine of the Church must be defended not only with good works but also with a robust legal framework, to protect it from any drift.
The persecution of the Church and its doctrine takes place subtly. This make it impossible for the Church to act. If the Church actions are hardly of relevance, the Church itself is considered irrelevant.
The Brothers of Charity’s case is thought-provoking also because of the silence of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference. The statement of the bishops arrived late and called for “further dialogue,” an odd call since the CDF had stated that dialogue had produced no results in three years. The bishops, in general, seem to be more concerned about keeping the dialogue open and accepting compromises than to operate according to the truth they preach.
For all of these reasons, we should not underestimate the case of the Brothers of Charity in Belgium. The case opens a broader discussion. The Church will not close this case by merely appealing to the Catholic label. There is a need for global guidelines for Catholic institutions that have to face this, a robust legal-diplomatic framework, and a real will to defend the institutions connected to the Church.
It could be a revolution. Not acting, on the other hand, might certify the current irrelevance of the Church.