Confusion of Tongues: Language of Sin vs Bureaucracy

To religious minds, the language of sin, its vocabulary and syntax, cuts closer to the heart of things than its secular replacement: the language of bureaucracy. In a religious lexicon, the word sin describes violation of the inalienable rights of the God Who commands. Bureauspeak, by contrast, is a secular rhetorical practice adept at describing violations of standard procedure. Or, if you prefer, offenses against decorum. The sinner says, “Cleanse Thou me from secret faults.” The bureau-rhetor says whatever is needed to minimize negative reaction to slippage among personnel or, perhaps, one’s own. A sinner bends double in shame and remorse; a functionary covers his flank.


Blank Space (1960). Caricature of a bureaucrat by Kukrynski, a group of three Soviet artists.


It is the duty of every public relations department to handle a corporate mishap. One measure of the distance between the hierarchical Church as a visible expression of the entire Body of the faithful and the Church-as-Bureaucracy, is resort to the jargon of crisis management when reality is better honored by the language of penance. Echoing Babel, the expedient is a linguistic signal of fragmentation within the Church of its own mission. What is required of a priest before all else is aspiration to holiness. It is a quality hard-won, a state of soul outside the range of a bureaucratic lexicon, beyond any stock of morphemes. Used in relation to priestly behavior, bureaucratese raises antennas.

One telling illustration of officialdom’s slithering argot was September’s announcement by Jesuit provincial John Cecero, S.J., that Robert VerEecke, S.J., had been removed from ministry as pastor at Manhattan’s Church of St. Francis Xavier for “boundary violations” with an adult parishioner. True to the instincts of a corporate crisis manager, Fr. Cecero omitted the sex of the parishioner: male.

Crisis Management or Gospel Truth?

Put plainly, Fr. Bob had made a pass at a man in his congregation. But plain speaking is awkward; it tends to disturb. Damage control, by contrast, is all finesse. As the devil cites Scripture for his purposes, so the bureaucrat mines Merriam-Webster for morally neutral, disengaged phrasing that reduces a sexual advance by a priest to a mere lapse of manners.

A weasel phrase, boundary violation. If I grab a sip from your glass at table, that is a boundary violation. If I reach over to straighten your tie without asking, that is another one. So is patting your knee (We’re not close friends, you and I.) or parking on your grass. Compiling a roster of boundary violations would make a good parlor game. Very few of them, if any, would merit sacramental confession. Boundaries differ from commandments. Ultimately provisional, boundaries are negotiated and set by man, subject to shifting cultural and political determinations. Subjectivities set to work on them. They accommodate the times and evolve, much like election districts.

Fr. Cecero stated that Fr. VerEecke acknowledged “a lack of good judgment in his behavior.” A glittering red herring, that! The wording distracts attention from any implication of wrongdoing. Fr. Bob, a vowed celibate, admits to no sin against chastity or charity. Regret for poor judgment applies nicely to infringement of a workplace code of conduct, an impropriety or blunder of some sort. But it is immaterial to a priest suborning a forbidden sexual relationship with a congregant.

With the sex of the complainant initially omitted, some wondered if a woman had been involved. Odds against that possibility were high for anyone familiar with the culture of St. Xavier’s. Self-identified as a “prophetic community,” the parish is a designated sanctuary where “the alienated and the marginalized find a home.” A pious boast prominent on the parish website, the phrase signals the parish’s taste for conventional progressive porridge, particularly the God-given radiance of sexual fluidity. Gay Star News reported:

St. Francis Xavier Church is a pro-LGBTI parish, hosting regular meetings for LGBTIs. It also draped a rainbow flag on the altar steps after the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Furthermore, they usually march in the NYC Pride parade.

Fr. Bob VerEecke, who earned the title of ‘dancing priest’, was really popular in the congregation for his engaging liturgical dances.

Just Careless

It was acting pastor, Daniel Corrou, S.J., who later confirmed what had already been guessed: that the allegations of “unwanted and inappropriate conversation and attention of a sexual nature” were directed toward a grown male. Given the rainbow-besotted ethos of St. Xavier’s—and archdiocesan acquaintance with it—Fr. Bob had simply grown careless. He picked the wrong man.


Francesco Salviati. Three Male Nudes (16th C).


And his timing was off. Had the dancing priest waited a bit longer, inhibiting barriers would eventually come down. Goal posts are already on the move. And have been for some time, as described in Passionate Uncertainty, a case study of Jesuit identity published sixteen years ago:

Jesuits and, even more so, former Jesuits have come to view chastity and sexual orientation, like matters of sexual identity generally, not as fixed categories but as attitudes and activities on a spectrum. The landmarks of purity and certainty are recognized as historical constructs.

In light of St. Xavier’s distinction as an ardent gay-affirming parish,  removing Fr. Bob from ministry was as much a organizational move as an act of censure. It was a stay against scandal. Still, it is good to know that public embarrassment retains something of its traditional sting.


Shortly after this commentary was posted, a priest responded with this:

I can confidently say I have never absolved anyone from a boundary violation or from merely bad judgement, though I may have on occasion explained the difference to a penitent.  It must have been quite a struggle for Fr. Cecero (not Cicero, he of the “O Tempora! O Mores!” theme.).  The gay community celebrates all that is “transgressive” and he wouldn’t want to offend his little flock.

St. Xavier—that fire-breather—would have handed them their heads. Not for attaching scandal to a parish that bears his name; but for attaching it to the Church that bears His name.  He wasn’t squeamish at all about violating boundaries, but his were the cultural/national impediments to the Gospel, and not the laws of God.

Only one demurral. Most likely, Fr. Cecero’s wording was aimed primarily at short circuiting any doubts among parishioners about the hallowed status of LBGTQI-ers. They are cherished as victims, a marginalized community. And here is one of their own—Fr. Bob—splashing mud on the narrative.