A publication of Sacred Heart University
Polemic, Patience and Perseverance

Responsibility in Ministry and Vulnerability

In the Middle Ages, the jurist Gratian compiled a compendium of papal decrees and acts of various synods and councils that became the basis for ecclesiastical law, the Condordia discordantium canonum. This influential work fostered an approach to understanding the church and its ministries in terms of power – often to distinguish them from the powers of rival secular authorities. This legalistic approach dominated in Catholic thought into the 20th century when Pope Pius X, borrowing Gratian’s language, described the church as an “unequal society.” He distinguished the hierarchy as those who govern and direct from the “multitude of the faithful” whose only task it was “to allow themselves to be led.”

The Second Vatican Council opted to prioritize a more biblical language, describing the church from the perspective of grace, including the image of the priestly people of God, all of whom share in the divine life through baptism and participate in the Christ’s threefold office as priest, prophet and king. Its teaching underlines the fundamental equality and co-responsibility of all the faithful – lay and ordained – for the life and mission of the church. Vatican II frames the role of ordained ministry as the service of – not power over – the baptized community, emphasizing sacred trust over “sacred power.”

Without losing sight of the equal dignity of all the baptized, the present crisis of the church calls for a deeper understanding of pastoral responsibility. Existing guidelines and canon law have yet to capture the basic inequality and imbalance of power that characterize relationships in the context of pastoral care. Until recently, most efforts to address the crisis of sexual abuse have centered on the abuse of children and “vulnerable persons,” narrowly defined. The cases of Marcial Maciel, Theodore McCarrick and others have brought to light the systemic abuse of young adults within the context of seminaries and religious communities. Pope Francis has admitted publicly the long-supressed reality of the abuse of religious women by priests and bishops. There are surely more cases of the sexual abuse of adults by clergy that have yet to surface.

The new legislation, Vos estis lux mundi, issued on May 7 by Pope Francis, is an important sign of progress. Acknowledging frankly the “physical, psychological and spiritual damage” done to victims and the “harm” that abusive behaviors inflict upon the whole church, Francis has introduced an obligation for all ordained persons and members of religious communities to report promptly any and all abuse and mandated the establishment of appropriate structures and procedures for investigation. This includes a responsibility to report to appropriate civil authorities. Even critics, who lament a lack of clear penalties or the potential for less than transparent procedures, willingly concede that these measures are important steps toward ending a culture of silence, cover-up and impunity.

Francis moves the dial somewhat on the definition of “vulnerable persons.” Until now, a vulnerable adult has been defined as a person “who lacks an adult mental capacity or who, by reason of advanced age, physical illness, mental disorder or disability at the time the alleged abuse occurred, was or might be unable to protect himself or herself from significant harm or exploitation” – essentially, as the equivalent of a minor (CIC c. 99; CCEO c. 909).  All other “misconduct” between members of the clergy and other adults is generally treated as a consensual relationship between equals. In such cases, bad actors are charged with a “delict” against the sixth commandment, which forbids adultery. This arcane language places the focus on the breaking of a clergyman’s promise of celibacy and completely neglects adult victims of the crime of abuse. Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter defines the vulnerable person as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or to otherwise resist the offense.” It describes the act of abuse more broadly as “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or to submit to sexual acts.” This moves us closer to the dynamic of abuse by clergy of those who depend on their judgment and care. Still, it fails to capture fully the essential inequality between pastoral caregivers and their charges – whatever their age.

Any professional caregiver today knows (or ought to know) that it is entirely unethical to transgress the boundaries of sexual intimacy with those entrusted to their care: doctors, nurses, personal care workers, psychologists, counselors, social workers, professors, teachers coaches ... Most are bound by a code of ethics founded on the basic recognition that those entrusted to their care – including adults – are in a position of vulnerability. Given their position of authority and responsibility of care, they ought never to presume to be in a relationship of equals with their patients, counselees, students, athletes. Any transgression of boundaries is experienced by victims as a profound betrayal of trust – a manipulation and exploitation of one person’s vulnerability to satisfy the other’s selfish need.

Is it too much to hope that the law and practice of the church might be further revised to better reflect the fundamental imbalance of power and the burden of trust implied in the call to ministry? A fuller implementation of an ethic of care must be applied to all those in ecclesial ministry – be they ordained, religious or lay pastoral workers. Until this happens, the church will continue to treat the symptoms of a malady without addressing its root cause.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.


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