01: There has been much written on the loss of identity of religious colleges and strategies to revive their purpose and missions. In her new book From Piety to Professionalism–and Back? (Lexington Books, $27.95), sociologist Patricia Wittberg looks at the matter of the religious identity of colleges and other organizations from a different angle.
She finds that the secularization of hospitals, schools and social services has also had a momentous impact on the mission societies, religious orders and denominations that have sponsored such efforts. Wittberg focuses on Christian women’s service organizations, such as Catholic religious orders and Protestant deaconess societies, and notes how their charitable and educational activities had strongly served both their own organizations and their wider denominations.
Wittberg finds that as denominations loosened and often cut the ties between these orders and mission societies and their sponsored institutions (as, for instance, when religious hospitals became independent), there has emerged an overall weakening of identity, bringing in fewer recruits and lowering morale and a sense of purpose among the remaining members of these groups.
The loss of these institutions disables a denomination’s identity and influence, diminishing the institutional weight of churches to address social issues in the public square (particularly for the women who led and comprised most of these organizations). Wittberg makes an interesting link between this trend and growing societal secularization, and concludes with advice on how religious institutions may reverse this drift.