Pastoral imperatives for a just and caring ministry (PE nr 1090 – 2018/04)

We tend to oppose Pastoral Charity over and against Pastoral Justice, in the name of Mercy but they are two sides of the same coin: the pastoral care of the People of God. To reflect about Pastoral Justice, requires firstly that we come to a common definition of what we understand by Pastoral Justice.

Pastoral could be understood, as the care, nurturing and education of the faith of the Christian People, but also to those who are affected by the missionary activities of the Church. It also needs to be rooted in the understanding of human realities. Therefore, the Pastoral activity of the Catholic Church is rooted in its part-taking of a common human journey. We ought to value the life of each one as our own. Moreover, our humanity shares a common home, the earth, thus we are also called to care for our common home, and this requires the involvement of the whole human community. Beyond an ecological and biophysical imperative, there also exists a faith imperative, which is answering God’s call.

The second term of our expression is Justice. We understand that we are all interconnected human beings, but also disciples of Jesus. However, this bond, which binds us together, needs to be protected from any attempt to break it, or to pervert it to the service of the few or of the self. This would be detrimental to our living together. Thus, Justice means firstly to protect that bond, by protecting and respecting one another’s integrity. This has serious consequences regarding our behaviour and in the way we treat others, especially those to whom we are going to minister. Justice requires integrity in the search of the common good, which is the service of the person, under the eyes of God in our common home, opposing any structures which exploit people, especially the sexual exploitation of people. Finally, Justice is also understood as an imperative of formation. It requires that we take time to educate ourselves about the society in which we live, its institutions, policies, and practices. We also need to develop the skills of social analysis in order to understand the impact that social structures have on others, especially those whose voice cannot be heard because they lack access to power in society or in the church.


So, returning to our two definitions, we can see that all people, answering God’s call, and who receive a mandate from the Church to exercise a mission in its name, must carry it out in a just way, which respects the integrity and boundaries of each one. It means that even if there can be a real pleasure in doing the Lord’s work, the search for that pleasure should not be the primary driving motivation of the pastoral worker. This implies that pastoral workers should never demand personal gratification from the people they are caring for pastorally. They should not try to gain personal advancement of their financial situation; neither should they look for sexual gratification from those in their care.  

Psychotherapists have an old axiom for working ethically: Never borrow money from clients, never have sex with clients, never lie to or cheat clients. This is a good summary that can also be applied to pastoral workers: Never borrow money from your parishioners, never have sex with them, never lie to them or cheat them.  

Thus, to exercise one’s pastoral ministry requires that we develop the virtues of Chastity and Fidelity.  

The word Chaste is coming from the Latin castus, which means ‘pure’. The contrary of castus, is incastus which is translated into English as incestuous. It is interesting to note that to act in a way that is not chaste in our pastoral relationships is to act incestuously. To act unjustly with parishioners, or any faithful of the Lord, is to be an incestuous pastoral worker. This is a very strong expression, but it conveys very clearly the experience that many faithful have had of being abused by a minister or a pastoral worker. For instance, many victims of sexual abuse committed by a priest, talk about it as spiritual incest. Because priests, and by extension pastoral workers, are supposed to participate in God’s continuous creative caring and loving action in their pastoral activities, there is a spiritual filial bond that develops naturally between the pastor and the members of his flock. This also creates a de facto power imbalance.  To protect the dignity and integrity of the person cared for, ethical behaviours need to be practised and promoted by the ministers and pastoral workers. Let us remember that priests are very often called ‘Father’, despite Jesus’s interdiction to do so (Matthew 23, 8–9) and some would answer people by calling them ‘my child’, thus any attempt to act in a self-serving way would be incestuous. The Tradition of the Church is very aware of this problem and sanctioned such behaviours throughout history.

Justice governs the general relationships that a minister has with the community. It seeks to nurture and protect the complex interconnections that exist between us. As a virtue, pastoral justice defines our ministerial role as being willing to set aside our own self-interest in order to give more preference to the good of the community and to provide the community with the resources and services that are proper to our ministerial role, even if doing so costs us some personal risk or sacrifice. Sexual conduct in a pastoral relationship, however, violates our professional role by taking advantage of the vulnerability of others by using them to satisfy our own needs for intimacy, affection, acceptance, or pleasure.

But very importantly, Justice in pastoral activities means not only to act justly and respectfully but also to engage in reparation and when possible in reconciliation. When boundaries have been trespassed, when feelings have been trampled, when trust has been breached, when sexual abuse happened, either at the individual level or the community level reparation, healing and possibly reconciliation must be pursued.


Two important dimensions of our life must be nurtured to live a just ministry, they are chastity and fidelity. These lead to integrity and justice in life.


Let it be crystal clear, Chastity is not only about ‘sex’, it is foremost about ‘relationship’. This should not be confused with continence which is a requirement of canon law for all priests and religious of the Roman Catholic Church (CIC 277, 672).

Chastity mean developing a healthy way of relating to others that respects and protects the fundamental differences of life, men and women, adults and minors, parents and children.

Therefore, to be chaste is to respect the other’s intimacy, and not try to impose oneself on another person’s journey to sexual and affective maturity.

As Xavier Thevenot wrote, “to be chaste is to renounce the incestuous illusion that the world is without shortcomings, and to repudiate the idea of all-powerfulness. It welcomes one’s fragility and brokenness. It is only in acceptance of oneself as a broken being that we can protect others from our own brokenness. This helps us to identify our needs and to discover where and with whom those needs can be satisfied with legitimacy and ethically. Is chaste a person who, under the recognised action of the Holy Spirit, tries to live one’s sexuality in a way to build relationships to things and to people, recognising the fundamental differences.” (Xavier Thevenot, unpublished conference).


Another important virtue to develop to live a just ministry is the virtue of fidelity.

Contrary to friendship which implies a reciprocal nourishment of all parties’ needs for intimacy and love, pastoral relationships are unidirectional, it is up to the pastors to care for their parishioners, though somehow parishioners ought to care for their pastors too. But pastors are the primary carers, because power and authority are vested in them, thus fidelity to just relationships is demanded of them as are the commitments they made to serve others. It requires from them fidelity to just relationships, but also to the commitment they made to serve others. For us missionaries we can find this commitment in our oath.

The question behind the notion of fidelity to one’s promise is also a question of integrity. To breach that commitment is to say that our words have no power and have no meaning and anything we might subsequently say has lost the part of the truth it was meant to convey. Moreover, it makes us an obstacle between God and his people.

So, if our language and the words we are saying lose their value of fidelity to the Spirit, we have nothing to contribute to the Church’s Mission in Africa and wherever our charism may be needed. When we fail to be faithful to the promises we made in our oath, we are no longer men of our words, but become liars. When we break the words of our promise, we break ourselves, and become an obstacle between God and his people. However, the Good News is that if we come to God with a broken heart, he will save us with his mercy. Nonetheless, this does not prevent us from taking responsibility, showing accountability, and making reparation. As Pope Benedict XVI rightly puts it: “Pardon does not replace Justice.”  Seeking forgiveness without justice is to plant the seed of further injustices and does not attempt to repair the damage done.

So together we can try to answer the Lord’s invitation (Mat 6, 33): “But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” We will then be signs of joyful hope as Pope Francis invites us to be in his last Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate: “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence. The call to holiness is present in various ways from the very first pages of the Bible. We see it expressed in the Lord’s words to Abraham: “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1).”

Stéphane Joulain

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