Why ‘policies and procedures’ won’t resolve the bishops’ problems

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 31, 2018

The push has already begun for a new set of “policies and procedures” from the US bishops’ conference, to prevent a repetition of the McCarrick scandal. You might call this the damage-control approach: an anodyne alternative to the painful necessities that would come with genuine reform.

What’s wrong with policies and procedures? In the abstract, nothing, of course. But in context… Well, our own ‘Diogenes’ explained in the following post, which originally appeared here 13 years ago, in response to an earlier set of proposed policies. If anything, his argument is more relevant today:


The USCCB has sent the bishops a draft Charter for review and comment. A copy has been acquired (as they say) by Off The Record. Check out the paragraph below:

6a. While the priestly commitment to the virtue of chastity and the gift of celibacy is well known, there will be clear and well-publicized diocesan/eparchial standards of ministerial behavior and appropriate boundaries for clergy and for any other church personnel in positions of trust who have regular contact...

Put aside the question of what it might mean to “commit” to a virtue or a gift, and take note of the general thrust. Is this the language of men who see mortal sins of unchastity as intrinsically evil? Phil Lawler proposed the following parallel:

Suppose you’re a layman, hired by a mid-sized corporation, and you find a passage in the employee manual to this effect: “We know you guys all love your wives (yadda yadda), but here are the standards of behavior for when you take your secretary out to lunch.”

Point taken. Such a policy would be an exercise in cynicism. Take it a step further: if a husband commits adultery, his wife’s outrage comes not from his “crossing boundaries”—it’s not a question of poor judgment—it comes from the fact that he betrayed her. She doesn’t reproach him for contravening standards; it’s his heart that’s wrong. Were he to excuse his adultery by speaking of it as “misconduct,” she would brain him, rightly.

In a public organization like a business or a law firm, where no shared morality is presumed, the vocabulary of “misconduct” and “inappropriate behavior” may be a necessary expedient. But what does it say about ecclesiastics who adopt the jargon of “boundaries” in addressing sins of sexual impurity (not to mention seduction and predation)?

On one hand, no blame attaches to the person who stays just inside a boundary (in the case of running backs and tennis players, it’s meritorious to operate close to the edge). In terms of sexual boundaries, however, anyone who lingers at the border does so because his heart is already on the other side. Even if he succeeds in not crossing, he is committing adultery (et cetera) in his heart.

On the other hand, though a child might profitably use boundaries as provisional guides to decency, they exist in order to be replaced by true understanding. Only a moral imbecile would continue to use a boundary to guide his conduct in preference to a moral norm—and that because he was incapable of comprehending the human good that the moral norm enshrines. You swat Shaggy with a rolled-up newspaper when he comes into your bedroom because you don’t expect a dog to grasp the principle in virtue of which the bedroom is off-limits. He’s not up to blame, so you give him boundary-inhibitions instead.

So why, in speaking of Catholic clergy, does the USCCB fall back on the cant of “appropriate boundaries”?—language not only unsuited to the circumstances but frankly bizarre in conjunction with the words “priestly commitment to the virtue of chastity.” Only one answer makes sense: that in their heart of hearts, the authors—though shocked by the swatting they got for clergy abuse—cannot themselves grasp or articulate the reason why they took a newspaper across the snout.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Aug. 06, 2018 7:20 AM ET USA

    The members of the Church hierarchy who knowingly promoted/protected Cardinal McCarrick must be identified and removed. Until then, reform efforts are merely political maneuvering designed to facilitate a return to business as usual. In other words, as long as the Cardinal McCarrick enablers remain in the shadows, we will know that the Bishops have no intention of repairing AND atoning for the damage they have done to Christ's Church. May God please help us.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 31, 2018 8:03 PM ET USA

    Excellent observations. This bureaucratic newspeak is also present in the Vatican's 2005 "Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies" which uses multiple times the phrase "deep-seated homosexual tendencies." My question was, is then a candidate with borderline regular (vs. "deep-seated") homosexual tendencies acceptable? And, what about a candidate to priesthood with deep-seated heterosexual tendencies?