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Ecclesial Ethics – A Way Forward?

The question of ecclesial ethics (by which I mean ‘professional Church ethics’)[1] has been on the agenda of theological ethicists for some time.[2] The idea of ‘ecclesial ethics’, triggers responses that vary between enthusiasm, curiosity and support on the one hand and scepticism and opposition on the other. In my experience, enthusiasm, curiosity and support seem to be predominant. Broadly speaking, the enthusiasts are keen that we (i.e. all of us who care for a better functioning church) seize the opportunity of a current crisis in the Church and see ecclesial ethics as a means for addressing it. They suggest that ecclesial ethics should be mainstream (not just a subject for experts such as moral theologians). They stress the importance of learning from a secular field of professional ethics. The sceptics are weary of a too close connection with professional ethics. They  argue that we have enough resources in the Catholic tradition such as Catholic Social Teaching (CST) or canon law to guide our moral behaviour. In their view, there is no need for yet another set of instructions. All we need is to implement the instructions we already have.

What would it be like to treat the existing Church’s teaching as a mirror and see whether our practices are reflected in it? For example, the Church in many countries opposes Sunday trading yet workers in Catholic bookshops, cafes, pilgrim centres are busy working on Sundays. The Church has much to say on the care for natural environment, yet formulation and implementation of green policies is not a conventional practice in the Church. The CST-mirror is likely to reveal discrepancies and shortcomings. It is likely to disclose a failure to practice what we teach.

Why is it difficult to create a better moral climate within the Church? There is a simple and a complex answer to this question. First, the resources (verbal or written moral instructions) don’t automatically translate into morally right behaviours.  Neither moral instructions nor any version of ecclesial ethics will mechanically make us a better Church. More than instruction is needed. Secondly (and this is the complex answer), I am not convinced that the ways the resources are presented and communicated are conducive to improving the moral condition of the Church. Overcoming divisions, cultivating right relationships, helping individuals to grow, enhancing communal practices and articulating moral guidance requires some rethinking. It seems that the instructions on moral matters are either too detailed (statements and preaching are too long) or not detailed enough (there is too much abstraction and not enough engagement with lived experience) or the detail is in the wrong place (for example, a preoccupation with physical acts in some areas of the Church’s teaching neglects other morally relevant aspects of the acting person’s moral reality).

This is not to dismiss the Catholic tradition of moral thinking. On the contrary, it is to draw from it and continue to enrich it. The moral tradition has always been a living (dynamic) thing. By ‘tradition’, I mean the official Church statements as well as the work of theologians, pastoral leaders and ordinary men and women. In order to become a more participatory church (Pope Francis’ invitation) we need to engage with our moral tradition in a new way. We probably need to learn to think more outside the box and find better ways of listening to our own experience as well as to the experience of others. And, we need to acquire skills for handling disagreements (something we are not very good at in our Church). These last three points (more listening, thinking outside the box, and better handling of disagreements) are shared by both the enthusiasts and the sceptics.

There is one other point made by the sceptics that is worth mentioning. It is not the opposition to ecclesial ethics per se but the anxiety that ecclesial ethics would not make any difference – in the same way that business ethics doesn’t make much difference to the way businesses operate. I think this is a legitimate worry. The sceptics want to avoid a creation of another body of instructions that would be prescriptive, formalistic, based on the language of codes and limited to producing documents which will exist in filing cabinets or on computer drives. While it is true that business schools have courses on business ethics, business companies and their employees do not always know the demands of business ethics and do not live up to them. The financial crisis in 2008 was a consequence of such failures. What the sceptics don’t seem to notice is that there are companies who have used the financial and subsequent crises positively. There is a growing number of businesses and organisations that are more articulate about the moral values and who care more deeply about the common good.  In the UK, an organisation called Blueprint for Better Business through their educational and consultancy service to businesses fosters this positive change. Their work is framed around five principles of a purpose driven business: (1) has a purpose which delivers long-term sustainable performance; (2) honest and fair with customers and suppliers; (3) a good citizen; (4) a responsible and responsive employer; (5) a guardian for future generations. What would it be like to apply these principles to organisations within the Church?

Some of the most useful resources related to business ethics are provided by the London based Institute of Business Ethics. It defines business ethics as the ‘application of ethical values to business behaviour’; as ‘relevant both to the conduct of individuals and to the conduct of the organisation as a whole’; ‘it applies to any and all aspects of business conduct, from boardroom strategies and how companies treat their employees and suppliers to sales techniques and accounting practices’.  They also state that ‘ethics goes beyond the legal requirements for a company’. Finally, they identify the purpose of their organisation which is to ‘demystify the topic of business ethics and to make it practical and tangible’; their approach is ‘practical rather than an academic or philosophical’ so that the employees of business organisations are able to ‘do the right thing’.

If we were to follow a similar agenda, what would ecclesial ethics be like? What would the application of ethical values to church bodies and organisations mean in practice? What would making ecclesial ethics relevant to both the conduct of individuals and the conduct of the whole Church involve? How could we make ecclesial ethics applicable to any and all aspects of ecclesial conduct from ‘boardroom’ strategies (Vatican, Bishops Conferences, Dioceses, Deaneries, Parishes, etc) to processes and practices at all levels (appointments of bishops, parish priests, catechists, leaders, etc).  What would the exact purpose, terms of reference, and ways of developing ecclesial ethics be? What would it mean to empower all members of the Church to ‘do the right thing’?  This paper will not engage directly with these questions. While they will be in the background of this reflection, the focus will be on the necessity and urgency of ecclesial ethics and on the core issues it should consider.

Nearly fifteen years ago James Keenan in his ‘Notes on Moral Theology: Ethics and the Crisis in the Church’ named those who were ‘promoting instruction on “ethics in the Church” for seminaries and divinity schools’ (Kevin Kelly, Richard Gula and Norbert Rigali) as ‘trailblazers’. Keenan also observed that ‘despite their efforts, most Roman Catholic clergy and bishops still receive little if any professional ethical training’.[3]  Keenan implied that the focus of moral education in the seminaries is on how to instruct others and not on how to make oneself morally accountable. It is probably right to claim that in many cases a priest might know more on how to instruct a married couple about birth control than understand what it means to act in the best interest of his congregation, how to avoid conflict-of-interests, what confidentiality demands of him, what it means to be a good steward of resources (people, time, money and natural environment) or what honest and proactive communication involves.

Keenan’s diagnosis is that ‘the crisis in the Church results not only from abusive priests, clericalism, and inept administrative structures that exclude the laity and ignore accountability, but also from the lack of critical course work that addresses the canonical and professional ethical formation of church ministers’.[4] In other words, according to Keenan, it is both the various dysfunctions and ‘inept’ structures that exclude people as well as a lack of a proper (professional) training that have contributed to the current crisis in the Church.

It is worth pointing out that introducing professional ethics to a number of fields has helped in improving standards of behaviour in these fields.  One good example is engineering ethics. The Royal Academy of Engineering website offers a helpful insight how the formulation, teaching, implementation of ethical practice work in the context of engineering. Another example is the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Its code (in terms of the content) offers a dynamic guidance on how individuals within the Corporation should relate to each other, to the stake holders and to the employer. I am neither endorsing this code nor suggesting that BBC practices are morally perfect (they are not). I am making a case that engaging people in moral thinking about their work, professional practice, purpose of this practice, etc. are conducive to building a more ethical environment.

A number of theological ethicists have already engaged with professional ethics. One of the key publications is Church Ethics and Organizational Context: Learning from the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, edited by Jean M. Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale, and James F. Keenan (Sheed & Ward, 2005). The volume provides useful insights on how to engage with professional ethics.  James Keenan and Joseph Kotva in their edited volume Practice What You Preach:  Virtues, Ethics, and Power in the Lives of Pastoral Ministers and Their Congregations (Sheed & Ward, 1999) consider specific ecclesial professional issues such as accountability, empowerment of leaders, formation of pastors, resolving power struggles between clergy and other pastoral issues. A volume of essays, edited by Stephen Pope, Common Calling: The Laity and Governance of the Catholic Church (Georgetown University Press, 2004) considers the common calling that the laity share equally with the clergy in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly dignity of Christ. This is just a sample of resources that can inform theoretical grounding of ecclesial ethics.

In my view we shouldn’t be afraid to draw from the field of professional ethics. To draw from it doesn’t mean to copy it.  We can start by noting the root of the term ‘professional’. It has a religious connotation. To ‘profess’ is to make a public declaration like a vow on entering a religious order. At its core there is a commitment to serve for a good end (the common good). Listing values, moral standards and principles that we agree on as guiding our roles in the Church could be a creative, meaningful and ‘bonding’ (in our polarised Church) exercise.  Professional ethicists comment that coming together in order to agree on the standards and norms for guiding the delivery of services is often a very positive experience. It usually improves practice. The standards agreed are morally binding to ‘professed’ members of the profession and they are subject to external scrutiny. There is much that we-the-Church, ministering in a variety of our roles and states, could learn from mainstream professional ethics. The following broad areas could benefit from it:  (1) governance and decision making (agreeing who decision-makers are, who they should be in the future and how they should make decisions); (2) feedback on performance, evaluation of practices – an organization that does not have a mechanism for engaging meaningfully with different members and that is hostile to any critical feedback is not going to succeed in the long run. There has to be space for constructive criticism, done out of love for and in communion with the Church – engaging with such processes is a sign of moral maturity and a display of care; (3) Human Resources issues (employment and volunteering; wages; investments; administration); (4) moral education and formation of leaders (ministers, pastoral assistants, catechists, etc).

A well formulated ecclesial ethics could help us to bridge several existing gaps: a gap between canon law and moral theology; a gap between conservatives and liberals (holders of both labels care about a better functioning Church); a gap between the black and white approaches to moral matters. Ecclesial ethics could be a space in which we learn to improvise (including improvising on our Catholic tradition), we need to feel more comfortable with grey areas and ambiguities, with things which we can’t resolve. We need better listening skills and ways of encountering each other in a new way. We have to learn how to handle disagreements and to understand how a mature church is not afraid of plurality of views and practices. Ecclesial ethics could be a platform for exploring these ideas and for addressing matters that are at the core of the Church’s current struggle. Amongst these matters are clericalism (according to Pope Francis, clericalism is the core problem which makes our church dysfunctional) and associated with it attitudes of entitlement and secrecy as well as avoidance of transparency and accountability. Ecclesial ethics could be a forum for agreeing about the norms and processes that would help our church to become more inclusive (especially, lay people in positions of responsibility and leadership). Ecclesial ethics could offer a framework for tackling the systemic dysfunctions and guarding the implementation of a more balanced style of governance at different levels of the Church that is hierarchical. It could highlight areas of good practices, find ways of promoting and awarding good leaders-ministers. It could help to develop such practices and processes as appraisal of ministry and training in ethical practice.

We have already identified the necessity of a (different) moral education in the Church. But, the general level of theological, historical, spiritual understanding of a complex ecclesial history, theology, Biblical studies within our Church is poor. These areas need improvement too. Ecclesial ethics is not going to advance knowledge in the above fields and will not address other weaknesses in the Church, but it can name these weaknesses.

I see ecclesial ethics as a starting point (not the last word). It is a way of addressing our Church’s critical situation; a means towards the renewal of the Church; a tool for examining attitudes and structures; a space for learning to improvise; a platform for exploring new ways of being the Church; a forum for agreeing about standards and norms; and a framework for implementing what is agreed. By avoiding engaging with controversial and sticky points (at least initially), putting the internal divisions aside and focusing first on structures, functions, representations, gifts, duties and responsibilities of the Church members, ecclesial ethics can be a refreshing wave in the current moral climate. It can potentially bring a positive change and help us build a more inclusive culture.

In the background of this reflection, there has been a conviction that without ‘something’ new and open, something that will help us reimagine the way we relate to each other within our Church, the root of the current crisis will not go away. Without sounding too pessimistic, if a positive action is not taken soon, the already existing polarisation within the Church is likely to increase. The diminishing numbers of practicing Catholics in many countries (a phenomenon at least partly related to the loss of credibility in the Church) is also likely to continue. I have been endorsing ecclesial ethics as a way out of this crisis and as an urgent action point for our Church. However, I do not aim to suggest that ecclesial ethics is the only answer to our ecclesial problems. It is the answer I see; there are probably many others that that I cannot see.  The purpose of this reflection is to ignite a conversation. Given that ethics encourages us to ask such questions as what is fair, what promotes a genuine moral growth and what hinders it, it is worth starting with ethics. Ethics teaches us to distinguish between morality and moralising or constructive judgement and judgmentalism. The renewal of our Church without addressing these and similar issues would be hard if not impossible. Ethics helps to understand that the only way to be good is to be good; one can’t fake it.

So, is ecclesial ethics a way forward? For me, it is. Without it, it will be quite difficult to improve practice and undertake an ecclesial moral inventory. To make ecclesial ethics meaningful it would probably need to be considered in conversations with other disciplines, primarily theology (including spirituality) but also psychology, anthropology and philosophy. In the end our ecclesial reality will be as good as moral thinking and behaving are. Building a moral community out of a bruised church is not going to be easy and there is no guarantee that ecclesial ethics would work. Growing up in the wounded church requires strength and courage; we enjoy being taken care of by our Mother Church but, as many of us know, there is time when aged mothers need care.  Thankfully, we are not alone in this task. There is much help and goodness available to us, many resources to draw from and many areas of good practice to guide us.  The rest is in God’s hands.


[1] My approach to ecclesial ethics differs from that of for example Samuel Wells. In his ‘Improvisation and Ecclesial Ethics’ (The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Edited by George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, 2014) Wells divides Christian ethics into three strands: universal (ethics for anyone), subversive (ethics for the excluded), and ecclesial (ethics for the church). I like Wells’ use of ‘theatrical improvisation’ as a way of resolving tensions in ecclesial ethics.

[2] This is an updated version of a paper presented under the same title at a meeting of the Association of Teachers of Moral Theology (UK), 13 May 2019.

[3] James F. Keenan, Notes on Moral Theology: Ethics and the Crisis in the Church. Theological Studies. 2005(66), 117-136, p. 135.

[4] Keenan, p. 136.