Ministry and Meaning: A Religious History of Catholic Health Care in the United States

By Sister Mary Denis Maher | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Ministry and Meaning: A Religious History of Catholic Health Care in the United States


Sister Mary Denis Maher, The Catholic Historical Review


Ministry and Meaning: A Religious History of Catholic Health Care in the United States. By Christopher J. Kauffman. (New York: Crossroad. 1995. Pp. xiv, 354. $29.95.) To sketch the historical development of Catholic hospitals and to explore and analyze the religious dimension of the Catholic nursing experience is Christopher Kauffman's stated purpose in this timely, comprehensive history of Catholic health care.

Kauffman, author of other institutional histories, lays out the basic structure, theoretical contexts, and framing questions in the introduction. He notes that while Catholic schools and parishes have a public presence, only Catholic hospitals have a public place, because the services offered were always to a wide range of people, the staff was not primarily Catholic, and there were more relations with government, insurance companies, etc. Kauffman weaves the Gospel imperative of ministry to the sick and suffering with the complexities of Catholic health care institutions in a pluralistic society. Ultimately, he concludes that in this process Catholic caregivers have "mediated Catholicism with distinction and creativity."

Part One,"Formation of Catholic Identities," covers the European traditions of Catholic health care, the Maryland experience, epidemics, Catholic benevolence, Civil War nursing, and the frontier experience. Though this ground has been covered before, Kauffman provides a good synthesis of earlier research, but also specifically provides a perspective which emphasizes the religious understanding of illness and the motivations of the nursing ministry.

Part Two, though chronologically covering 1890 to 1948, focuses on the converging of medical, religious, and ethnic subcultures, the influence of national structures and hospital standardization, and the ideology of Catholic hospitals, nurses, and doctors, especially as it was manifested in a growing period of modernization and professionalism. Of particular interest is the chapter showing attitudes toward illness and the popular devotions that surrounded those attitudes. Kauffman points out that this devotionalism helped to create and support a community of religious meaning for both the caregiver and the care receiver. Part Three highlights transitions in church, society, and health care from 1948 to 1965; religious renewal and emerging lay ministry; and a final chapter on current crises and the renewed emphasis on mission. …

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