A Weekend With The Social Workers

It was my privilege to spend four days in June with an inspiring group of dedicated professionals at the annual meeting of the Catholic Social Workers National Association. CSWNA is four years old and its board and many of its members met at Ave Maria University in Florida to share experiences, gain in knowledge, pray together, and encourage each other. The social work field is a tough one on many fronts and this small but visionary association renewed its commitment at the annual conference to fuse professional calling with Catholic wisdom. And blessed was I, without any social work background, to have witnessed up close a revolution-in-the-making.

My ticket to the experience was a presentation I gave to the group on the issue of marriage and its legal definition. I had run across the organization's website earlier this year and saw a call for papers for the annual meeting, titled "Serving with Love and Fidelity to God's Law." The Holy Spirit prompted me to submit a proposal.

It occurred to me when I first viewed the website that social workers are on the frontlines of so many of today's social policy debates. Catholic social workers, given their training, compassion, and faith, thus can play a vital part in bringing about cultural renewal. I wanted to share some thoughts on the legal, moral and spiritual aspects of the marriage debate, and to tell the group about how essential to the Church their role appeared to me to be.

Well, it did not take long for me to discover during the weekend that for this audience my message about the importance of their mission was not new. My observations just confirmed what already had been in the minds and hearts of those attending.

CSWNA was started on bent knees. Current President and co-founder Kathleen Neher told me that the idea for creating the organization came in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. In a "small-world" moment, I learned she often prayed at a perpetual adoration chapel that, it turns out, my wife Elaine and I frequented at Saint Michael's parish when we lived on the west side of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Prayer remains integral to the group's vision of faithful service. Its mission "is to promote the implementation of Catholic social teachings in social work practice as we support competent professional social workers living out their baptismal call by being the hands and feet of Christ."

Difficulties complicate the task. In the scheduled talks and in the chatter between sessions I heard about the profound challenges faced by Catholics in the social work field. The profession is dedicated to addressing the needs of often desperate clients. The resulting urgency exerts tremendous demands on any social worker's psychological and emotional resources. But those social workers who seek to abide by Catholic teaching may also encounter even more trying pressures, generated not from their clients so much as from their professional peers.

I heard more than a few attendees remark about how it was so life-giving to have the opportunity at the Ave Maria conference to express one's faith-related convictions without fear of retaliation or reprisal. Many of the official positions of the National Social Workers Association (NSWA), such as those addressing abortion and same-sex marriage, contradict Catholic teaching and disagree with the Church's moral vision of the person.

Attendees also shared that in too many of the profession's workplaces, conformity to the official line is expected and conscientious objections are not welcome. In many of these same environments, religion is viewed mistakenly as an enemy of tolerance and reason.

Even more troubling to the attendees than all this, however, is the resistance on the part of some other Catholic social workers, and also even within the social work departments of Catholic colleges, to joining or promoting a new group dedicated to affirming Church teaching within the social work context.

Despite these challenges, progress was reported. I listened to stories about sometimes heroic efforts, often quiet and always respectful, to stand up to the politically-correct aspects of the social work profession. I was impressed by the insistence of those who stressed that being a faithful Catholic was essential to being a good social worker, and who then pointed to specific instances in their work where this was demonstrated. I marveled at the mentoring that took place, where veterans encouraged rookies and where rookies, in their energy and drive, revived veterans. The conference was a place of hope and a sign of bigger things to come.

It will not be easy for CSWNA to change the dynamic. The social work establishment is like IBM, and CSWNA is like Apple Computers, where the larger, older enterprise feels threatened by the diminutive neophyte and wants to squelch it. But what the neophyte offered in the computer context was nimble innovation and, in the long run, Apple revolutionized the computer industry in a manner that helped save IBM.

That is what the Catholic vision of the person, as applied by Catholic social workers faithful to that vision, can do for the social work profession. CSWNA's approach is an innovation that, I'm convinced, will revolutionize and save the social work profession.

Those interested in learning more about and joining CSWNA can access the organization's website at http://www.cswna.org.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

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