Ecclesial Ethics: What Can We Learn from the Early Church?

Francine Cardman
Weston Jesuit School of Theology

Date: February 24, 2005


Event Recap

On February 24th, Francine Cardman, theology professor from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, spoke to an audience of Boston College faculty and students on the topic “Ecclesial Ethics: What Can We Learn From the Early Church?” Cardman noted that within recent studies of the early church, there is an increasing awareness of how social, religious and political issues play out in the evolution of faith and doctrine. This same approach, she believes, makes the historical study of the early church informative of the ethical issues that the contemporary church faces today.

Her presentation centered on three texts from the second century of the early Christian Church and how they raised discussions about issues of money, ministry and community. In the early church, the ministry was largely made up of itinerant preachers and prophets with a local ministry only beginning to emerge. Because these itinerant ministers depended for their support upon the local community, there was much discussion in these texts about guarding against those false preachers and prophets who might exploit the community for profit. The more general issue raised was how to guard against the abuse of the community’s resources by the ministry. Embedded in this discussion were also larger questions of how to allocate the community’s resources among its various obligations, which included supporting the ministry, widows, and the poor.

This historical perspective, Cardman argues, illustrates how conflicts between the ministry and the community over their mutual obligations and responsibilities to one another are nothing new in the history of organized religion and the Catholic Church. Rather, these ethical questions and conflicts were the place and means by which emerging ethical norms were raised, debated, and institutionalized. Therefore, the lesson for today is that we should not be afraid of these conflicts for they act as a way of clarifying our mutual responsibilities to one another if discussed openly and communally. It helps us see that conflict between community and ministry is both an inherent part of the relationship and also a part of the process that creates morals and meanings for the Church. Conversely, if those conflicts are covered up and stifled, we lose the benefits of those important insights into our collective moral meaning.