WILSONVILLE — Embracing ethics leads to joy and greater efficacy for priests, deacons, religious and Catholic lay workers. That's the message about 380 pastoral ministers heard March 30 at a conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of Portland.
Father Ray Carey, a clinical psychologist, told parish employees who packed a ballroom of the Holiday Inn here that ethics can refresh and improve their ministry to God's people.
"If we are thinking well about doing right, we raise the likelihood of giving high quality service to the people we meet," said Father Carey, an Archdiocese of Portland priest who travels around the world to help church workers. "Our God is not a God of contracts. Our God is a God of covenant."
Pastoral ministers, usually based at parishes, offer counseling, lead religious education, visit the sick, give sacramental preparation, form those who will join the church, organize youth groups and aid people who are poor.
As an example of how ethics might affect such ministry, Father Carey cited lay ministers who bring Communion to homebound seniors. If a minister suspects elder abuse, there is nothing clear in canon law or even theology to explain what to do. But ethically, the minister is obligated to report the situation.
In the case of a youth minister shooting pool with his buddies, he is not legally bound to act in a respectable manner, but does have an ethical duty.
The priest urged clergy, religious and laity to know on whose moral authority they act. Parish staff usually are agents of the pastor. Priests tend to be agents of their bishops.
But it gets tricky. In the sacrament of reconciliation, for example, a priest acts as agent of the penitent.
Youth ministers may get the idea that they are also agents of the youth, and Catholic school teachers may think they are working on authority of the parents as well as the principal. But such doubling up risks a rift in integrity and a blurry mission.
"You can't be a dual agent," the priest told the crowd.
On the other side, leaders like principals and priests need to avoid acting like one of the gang with workers or people of the parish, Father Carey explained. That gets ethically confusing and leads to complications that diminish ministry. As an example, he cited young parish priests who let themselves be drawn so deeply into one family's life that the rest of the parishioners wonder if they can possibly receive equal pastoral care.
The same problem arises when pastoral ministers accept major gifts, whether it be a free car or a week at a condo in Hawaii. Father Carey told the group: "You want to go to Maui? Save up."
He reminded the ministers of the power — and need for trustworthiness — that comes with their role.
For any pastoral minister, he said, sexual contact with the one being ministered to is always unethical. Even if the relationship appears to be between consenting adults, the power imbalance in favor of the minister means the so-called consent is an illusion. Father Carey suggested that pastoral ministers avoid hugging the people they are helping.
"The people to whom we minister have a right not to be confused by us," he explained.
Referring to past sexual abuse alleged against priests, Father Carey praised Archbishop John Vlazny for handling local revelations well and reaching out to victims as a way of repairing the hurt and confusion. The scandal in western Oregon could have been much worse without the archbishop's ministry, Father Carey said.
When it comes to confidentiality, pastoral ministers ought not seek more information about people than needed, the priest told the group.
And apart from confession and formal counseling, in which information is privileged, ministers should be careful about promising to keep something confidential. That's because pastors or other authorities may have a need or a right to know about some circumstances, like suspected elder abuse, embezzlement from the collection plate, a youth group member selling drugs or a parishioner making a suicide threat.
"If you don't know about an ethical principle, it's more likely you'll violate it," Father Carey said. He lauded St. Boniface Parish in Sublimity, which has regular discussions on ethics.
During a Mass midway through the conference, Archbishop Vlazny told pastoral ministers that any discussion of ethics would be incomplete without Jesus, who "reached into the inner roots of all laws, of all responsibility." What's more, the archbishop said, Jesus came as an example of responsibility.
The archbishop began the annual pastoral ministry conferences in the year 2000 as a way to focus church workers on their evangelizing mission.
Kathy Yee, pastoral associate at St. Juan Diego Parish in Cedar Mill, said the conference this year reminded her of important principles. Diana Ruiz, minister to Latinos at St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland said it will be helpful to remember that she is an agent of her pastor.
"Just give the people the best you can," Father Carey told the church workers. "Your joy in ministry is going to be in loving them the way the Lord loves them."