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Practical wisdom and a mission of mercy

Institutional change is part of the life of the Church. In recent decades, this has meant many dioceses making hard decisions about parish life and ministry in the face of declining numbers of clergy.

But the drop in vocations has also hit many religious orders hard — especially those which founded whole institutions and networks in education and healthcare. And the bigger the order’s institutional footprint, the more deliberate its leaders must be in handing over their institute’s legacy — an often delicate task.

Mercy School of Nursing students walk to graduation in 1946
Credit: Mercy College.

The  Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, is one of the most important orders in the history of the U.S., and in the discipline of nursing - and the sisters are facing exactly these issues.

To discuss the character, history, and future of the institute’s works, Charlie Camosy talked with Bo Bonner, senior advisor for mission initiatives and director of the Center for Human Flourishing at Mercy College in Des Moines, Iowa, at which Camosy is a research fellow.

Bonner is the Gerber Visiting Fellow of Catholic Studies at Newman University and has taught in humanities departments at multiple universities, published articles for Church Life Journal, and is the co-host of “The UnCommon Good” on Iowa Catholic Radio.

Can you tell us a bit about the founding and history of the Mercy College of Health Sciences? I'm particularly interested in the motivation of the Sisters of Mercy.

Our history begins with the Sisters of Mercy making their way to Des Moines in the 1890s. When they arrived, they grew quickly as they lived out the spirit of their charism through their healing ministry, much as they had done everywhere they went since the order was founded by Mother Catherine McAuley in 1831.

After founding a house of mercy and a hospital, the Mercy Des Moines School of Nursing was formed in 1899, with the inaugural class graduating in 1901. Ever since, the sisters and the laity to whom they have passed their legacy have been animated by the hope of incarnating the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in central Iowa through educating generations of nurses and health professionals.

The modern order, and organizations like the Conference for Mercy Higher Education, have great resources to expound on the sisters’ profound impact on health care and education. But, to my mind, the fact that everywhere they go the sisters devote themselves to both endeavors shows a commitment not only to those in need, but that these twin concerns cannot be ultimately separated. Fundamental to a Mercy outlook on life is the integrated way in which we must consider human health.

You helped me a lot with my new book on nursing bioethics for Christians.

Among the interesting things I learned from my research was that Catholic women religious — not Florence Nightingale — are basically responsible for inventing what we've come to understand as contemporary nursing.

What should this historical fact mean for thinking about the profession today?

Taking any sort of stance that would seem to reduce in stature a figure as beloved as Florence Nightingale is risky, so I will appeal to artwork contemporary to the time to hopefully complicate a standard picture.

In Jerry Barrett’s famous painting “The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari,” Florence jumps immediately to the eye due to the light which is concentrated on her. But if one looks two figures to her right, who do we see, but a Sister of Mercy! The Reverend Mother Mary Clare Moore joins Nightingale’s retinue, seemingly waiting in her shadow.

In reality, the two were colleagues who greatly esteemed one another, as the thorough book by Mary Sullivan outlining their friendship demonstrates. But as the story of modern nursing has been told, Nightingale rightly receives a spotlight in that narrative, while the foundational work of the sisters, like Mother Moore, often remains hidden in the background.

This is the case with how the sisters directly helped Nightingale’s cause during the Crimean War, and with the lessons learned by the first generation of sisters alongside Mother McAuley during the Cholera Epidemic of 1832, both of which go largely ignored.

Indeed, I would argue that even in contemporary theories of nursing, the foundational model of Careful Nursing, developed by the sisters and expounded by scholars like Therese Connell Meehan, remains too often overlooked.

I was fortunate to meet people like my friend Julie Weldon upon starting at Mercy College who pointed me toward this history, otherwise I would have never known about any of it. It is important for modern medicine to take pause from its impulses toward technocratic efficiency, and ponder retrieving more human-centered methods like Careful Nursing.

It is difficult to think about, but it is a truth which must be faced: the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas are dying out.

How can institutions like yours — including your new Center for Human Flourishing — keep their mission and identity alive?

The sisters should be lauded for how they have faced this issue of declining numbers head on in many ways — I can speak most readily to the example of the Conference of Mercy Higher Education in my role as senior advisor for mission initiatives, where I interact with them most frequently.

The very foundation of that organization is due to the recognition of this reality, and their recent efforts to sustain the heritage and identity of the sisters in their full and affiliate members speaks to this realism.

But, of course, if there is a sense that a torch is being passed, there is a fundamental question of who it is being passed to, and what are those recipients of such a powerful charism going to do once the custody of that light is placed in their hands?

Beyond keeping the lamps trimmed and burning at the many colleges, hospital systems, and ministries started by the sisters, the question of how this legacy grows should be front and center in the mind of anyone who feels Providence has called them to help in this moment of transformation.

I felt called to do something here at Mercy College that attends to this legacy and heritage, not merely as a museum of what the sisters did, but in a way that acknowledges that the sisters, from Mother Catherine onward, are still with us, both through the saints of that order continually interceding for us, and through their spirit animating our response to contemporary issues.

With all that in mind, the history, distinctive charism, and spirit of the sisters, we developed the Center for Human Flourishing. Its mission “aims to advance human flourishing through the study, pursuit, and production of practical wisdom in order to achieve sensible, real-world outcomes which promote the dignity, integrity, self-determination, and personal growth for the individuals and communities we serve.”

You see, universities and colleges do at least two things: educate students, and produce knowledge. The best do so in concert with their mission and heritage. The sisters, by always emphasizing healthcare and education, are deeply concerned precisely with an integral vision of human flourishing.

This term is gaining traction in many places, but what was striking to me is that the National League for Nursing lists human flourishing as an outcome, and in a climate where people are clamoring for “holistic” approaches to health, human flourishing both speaks to the long Catholic intellectual tradition regarding the integrated conception of the human person as a unity between spirit and matter, all while putting that tradition in terms non-Christians find approachable.

So, our center attends to these matters in what we call “a middle voice,” bringing scholars like yourself to apply their expertise from their fields of study in ways that will make an impact on the reality of human flourishing in our communities. The hope is to bring practical wisdom to vexing questions, all in a middle voice the public can digest and respond to.

Can you say more about “practical wisdom” and articulating a “middle voice”?

In some ways, matters concerning practical wisdom in philosophy and theology have been central to the various projects I have had the privilege of working on my entire career.

Aristotle famously speaks of “five virtues'' or modes (I say this knowing it will make some scholars cringe!) by which human beings think.

To summarize the matter far too succinctly, certain modes are often associated with the “Ivory Tower” vision of a University: wisdom, metaphysical truths, and science, while in the day to day world, much of the knowledge we encounter would be considered technical knowledge, or craft. So the stereotype would be that the egg heads in universities have their heads in the clouds, producing knowledge that never quite touches the ground. Meanwhile, the craftsmen and technicians busy themselves on the steps and procedures that make things work without too much consideration for how things work overall.

This chasm between what people do on the ground and how people think conceptually has real world implications, not only in educational theory generally, but specifically in educating healthcare professionals, as I have had the opportunity to explore with our colleague Dr. Kristin Collier.

But this is where practical wisdom, what Aristotle called phronesis, comes into play. Practical wisdom attends to this gap, wedding the conceptual insights of the so-called “higher” forms of knowledge with down-to-earth techniques, placing the practical at the service of the theoretical, and vice-versa.

Aristotle would never put it this way, but I think Christians can see here that practical wisdom is precisely incarnational, where the more spiritual realities of the intellect take on flesh in order to live and breathe in the common world. And because practical wisdom is a medium by which these two realities interact, it must take on a “middle voice” between the theoretical talk of the ivory tower and the brass tacks of the practical.

Too often, it seems to me, in matters involving the Church we either have “catechetical” level instruction for the faithful, or we jump straight up to theoretical considerations that would require advanced degrees to understand fully. I sense a yearning for issues to be addressed in this “middle voice,” where we assume a basic familiarity of the faith, but ask deeper questions about how to put that knowledge on the path toward the goals theoretical knowledge sits before us.

This, for instance, is what we have hoped to do with our radio show on Iowa Catholic Radio that we podcast, The UnCommon Good, where we have a dialogue about the truths regarding Catholic Social Teaching, but explore the implications of those truths for our listeners. Your most recent episode with us on the show demonstrates this very well!

Where can people go to dive into these ideas more deeply?

Of course the first place they should start is on our website, and as you are our inaugural research fellow, they should stop what they are doing and listen to your fantastic talk: Pandemic Failures in Elder Care. It serves as a baseline for the type of issues to which we hope the Center speaks.

The last two plus years have shown us a critical disconnect between what we would hope for our elderly and what actually happened on the ground during the pandemic. Indeed, the conflict between differing theoretical outlooks on what it means to flourish at the end of one’s life, both individually and as a community, was laid bare.

But of course, tending to only technical aspects of caring for the elderly won’t solve these issues, nor will conceptual arguments do anyone any good if they are divorced from the communities experiencing these hardships on the ground.

How will we wed our resistance to a throw away culture in regard to the elderly to our conceptual commitments to what a good life looks like? We had the opportunity to contemplate these topics in our center’s podcast, What Is Flourishing? But one of the most exciting developments is the community of people already interacting with the center here in Des Moines, brainstorming ways to answer the challenges your talk introduced.

Hopefully in the near future, the center will be able to link to the grassroots apostolates that emerge from scholars like you bringing your practical wisdom to bear on circumstances on the ground, and our communities realizing they have it within their means to do something about human flourishing.

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