A Moral Framework
It happens in all corners of human life. A practice or endeavor starts up, gains momentum and evolves into an unquestioned feature of the social landscape. This familiar process of routinization displays certain advantages. It allows society to turn its attention to more pressing business, under the assumption that if settled institutions are not broken, they require no fixing. The problem is that self-regulation is rarely sustainable. Taking anything for granted for too long invites corruption and corrosion. When the inevitable crisis arises, it is time for hard thinking and quick action.
Christian ministry provides a particularly poignant case study in this life cycle of social institutions. Even in contexts where ministers appear to deserve unquestioned trust, scandal is just one betrayal away. When abuses involving sex, money and power grow to systemic proportions, thoroughgoing reforms emerge as the only remedy to set things right.
The latest book by Richard Gula, S.S., proposes just the type of reforms we need in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandals. Drawing upon decades of experience teaching ethics at the Franciscan School of Theology of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., Gula addresses sensitive issues of equal relevance for both ordained and lay ecclesial ministry.
The advice offered is anything but a generic call for better behavior and more consistent attention to moral responsibilities in ministry. Gula makes a strong case for a specific program of improvement, one revolving around the adoption of expanded standardized and explicit codes of ethics for ministers, both clerics and laity.
The key term in this regard is the professionalization of ministry. Any proposal to accomplish this goal meets with predictable opposition on the grounds that qualitative differences exist between ministry and the usual endeavors identified as professions, such as law and medicine. Gula readily acknowledges the distinctive nature of ministry as rooted in a holistic, vocational response to God’s initiative and displaying spiritual, indeed transcendent dimensions. He argues that despite such inevitable tensions, resisting such features of professional life as institutionalized codes of conduct will only retard the trust upon which responsible ministry depends.
If ministers are to assume a fully professional identity, changes will have to unfold on two levels. The more obvious is the package of external reforms, including structures to ensure ministerial accountability and uniform standards to protect values such as confidentiality in ministerial relationships. Gula suggests a range of practices, such as peer review and uniform disciplinary procedures and sanctions for controlling deviant behavior. It should be possible to build on existing platforms like the competency-based model of the “National Certification Standards for Lay Ecclesial Ministry.” Dioceses will have to cede some of the autonomy they enjoy (even under the Dallas charter) in order to implement national standards and codes of behavior, especially governing priests and deacons. But whatever price is paid will pale in comparison to what is accomplished in strengthening justice in ministry and restoring trust in the church.
The second set of changes involves the attitude of ministers across the entire range of church-based services and activities. Gula’s book proceeds explicitly from the framework of virtue ethics, emphasizing the role of pivotal personal qualities (humility, generosity, compassion and gratitude, among others) as key to ministry. The character, emotional maturity, pastoral imagination and motivation of the minister are indispensible elements in any consideration of ministerial ethics. Maintaining a sharp Christocentric focus that holds up Jesus as a model of inclusive love and liberating power, Gula supplies rich analysis of relevant sources in Scripture and theology that both support and challenge all who minister. In an era of slumping morale in lay and ordained ministry alike, the encouragement offered in these pages will be much appreciated.
The final chapters of this volume cover topics that are probably on the minds of even a casual observer of ministry today: the dynamics of power in parish ministry, violations of fiduciary boundaries in ministry and clericalism in the organizational culture of the Roman Catholic Church. Gula deals frankly with the dangers of sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment and offers practical guidelines on such topics as the seal of confession, the significance of cybersex and the appropriateness of touch in public and private ministerial settings.
Some readers will quibble with the fine points of Gula’s analysis or his specific recommendations on pastoral practice, but no one would deny that this is a most readable and appealing book. Its clarity and depth make it eminently suitable for a wide range of courses in theological education and ministerial formation. Especially helpful is Gula’s technique of opening each chapter with a vividly drawn vignette of a conflict in ministerial practice, and shaping that chapter so that the text sheds light on resources and approaches that resolve that case study.
In these sketches and indeed throughout this splendid book, Gula displays a most judicious balance between sober realism and positive hopefulness. While there are no quick and easy solutions to the present crisis in ministry, progress is possible and indeed quite likely, provided that Christian communities marshal the good will, moral character and hard work necessary to ensure a just ministry for the future.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “A Moral Framework,” in the August 16, 2010, issue.