Week 6: Would you recommend funding Mercy House?

  • Sr. Miriam Duggan stands amid students at the primary school named for her in Kampala, Uganda.
Age Level
Undergraduate College

Several of my students are accounting and economics majors. I’ve also spoken with several seniors in my class who are looking forward to positions at consulting and accounting firms in Boston and other big cities after graduation. A few even have real-world experience with non-profit accounting, including volunteer work with local charities. I was glad for my students’ wealth of experience in these fields during our discussion about China Scherz’s book, Having People, Having Heart.

One of Scherz’s basic claims is that the rise of an “ethics of audit” has marginalized Catholic social service providers in the global non-profit funding marketplace. We read two chapters about a group of Catholic Franciscan nuns with whom Scherz lived during her fieldwork. The nuns run a residential home, called Mercy House, which serves orphans, elderly refugees and migrants, and children and young adults with disabilities. According to Scherz, these nuns embrace an “ethics of virtue,” which is incompatible with the regnant ethics of audit. The latter is used by “sustainable development” charities like an organization Scherz dubs, Hope Child. Hope Child provides trainings and other educational programs that are designed as long-term cures for rural Ugandan communities. Trainings are supposed to better serve such communities these programs “help people help themselves.” This approach is backed up by auditing and accounting systems designed to help sustainable development organizations prove the effectiveness of their programs. The international funding organizations that donate to Hope Child increasingly require this kind of proof.

My students found it easy to understand this approach to providing social services. They repeated a phrase during class which they had clearly heard before: “It’s better to cure the disease than treat the symptoms.” One of my students had had experience advising a local NGO about their accounting practices as part of her coursework in a Holy Cross class. This student evaluated the NGO and offered an evaluation of the effectiveness of its work. The assignment called for an evaluation that would serve as a funding recommendation to a potential support foundation. I asked her whether she would have recommended Mercy House, based on Scherz’s description, for funding. Her response was honest, “No.” But, to her credit, she seemed chagrined to have drawn this conclusion. And when I asked she said she could see why Mercy House operated in the way that it did; she could see the logic behind its practices.

It was challenging for others to articulate how the “ethic of virtue” could be compelling for the nuns of Mercy House. That is, they did not have as easy a time coming up with a short catchphrase that conveyed the rationality behind Mercy House’s work. In retrospect, I realize that Scherz does provide such a phrase, at the end of one of her chapters discussing the Franciscan Sisters: “Instead, they see themselves working to better love their neighbor and, through these actions, loving God…” (133). The nuns judge their work in terms of loving God and loving their neighbor, not results or effectiveness. This idea is, of course, biblical and is known as the “Great Commandment” (Mark 12:30-31; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27). If I were to teach this unit again, I would highlight the biblical text and use it as a summary statement in contrast to the “cure/treat” phrase that so easily came to my students’ minds.

Our discussion was also hampered by my choice to assign only those chapters that focused on the nuns and their work. This limited the class conversation because so much of Scherz’s argument depends on contrasting Ugandan NGOs’ “ethics of virtue” against the “ethics of audit.” Without a detailed knowledge of the ethics of audit and sustainable development organizations’ work, beyond what we learned from reading the book’s introduction, we did not have information to critically assess this juxtaposition.

Still, this book provided a nice counterpoint to John Burdick’s Blessed Anastacia. We were able to use this book to answer the question, What comes to mind when [the Ugandan Catholic nuns] think about “the globe?” John Burdick’s friend Frei David, the liberation activist, thought hopefully of revolution. He thought of the Inculturated Mass, too, as a means to achieve this goal. In contrast, Scherz paints a far less rosy picture of what Ugandan Catholics think about the globe. For Scherz, they primarily think about international funding organizations and the way these groups have come to embrace the “ethics of audit.” They do not hope for revolution; they despair about whether they will be able to meet the needs of the people in their care if Mercy House’s funders decide to pull their support.