Ethics & Public Policy Center

“Boundary violations”?

Published in The Catholic Difference on January 22, 2003


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Ten months ago, as the Catholic Crisis of 2002 was reaching white heat, a major archdiocese published a pamphlet for all its employees entitled “Respecting Boundaries.” I don’t doubt the good intentions that motivated the pamphlet. I have the gravest doubts about the approach suggested by the title.

“Boundary” language comes from the world of the professions. Teachers aren’t supposed to have sex with students. Doctors aren’t supposed to have sex with patients, nor lawyers with clients. All well and good. But as one sharp-eyed friend noted, “in the professions, ‘boundaries’ in regard to sex are like grazing rights among ranchers – you can’t do it here, with these types of individuals, but you can do it there, with others.”

What’s blatantly, obviously missing from the language of “boundaries” is the notion that some things just aren’t to be done, period. “Boundary” language tells a doctor, lawyer, or teacher that sexual relations with patients, clients, or students are professionally and legally  taboo; “boundary” language doesn’t say that sexual relations with people to whom we haven’t made promises – sexual relations outside the bond of marriage – are wrong. It shouldn’t be surprising that the professional standards committees of the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Education Association are more concerned with propriety and legality than with virtue. But the Catholic Church?

The recent widespread use of “boundary” language in Catholic circles tells us just how powerfully the Church has been effected – perhaps better, corrupted – by the therapeutic culture of modern American society. When psychological categories trump moral theology in describing wicked acts (when, for example, the homosexual molestation of a fifteen year old boy is described as “fixated ephebophilia” rather than grave sin), something is awry. When the Church and its ordained leaders no longer speak our native language of sin and forgiveness, good and evil, grace and redemption, something is clearly awry. And that, I suggest, is what is happening when bishops and pastors talk endlessly about “boundaries” and infrequently, if ever, about chastity.

The chastity that all Catholics are called to live involves a lot more than respecting “boundaries.” Chastity is a sign of the Kingdom come among us and a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom to come. Chastity involves ongoing conversion to Christ. Chastity is about loving, not using, others. And chastity is a challenge, for chastity involves living the Law of the Gift written on the human heart and confirmed by the paschal mystery of Christ – the truth that, as Vatican II put it, “man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself”.

That text, from section 24 of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, has been one of the two most cited conciliar texts in the vast magisterium of Pope John Paul II – a literary product that now fills well over a dozen linear feet of shelf space. In all that writing and preaching, I venture to guess that you’ll never find the notion of “boundaries” as it’s used in American professional circles. What you will find, time and again, is the Christian conviction that human beings are capable of moral grandeur and should never settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral greatness of which we’re capable.

Why? Because we have been made in the image of God. Because “you are not your own; you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6.20), the blood of Christ. Because “we ourselves…have the first fruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8.23) and, because of that sanctification, can be ever so much more than we imagine. We don’t have to imitate the world’s categories or the world’s language – we have our own story and it has its own vocabulary.

Authentic Catholic reform requires many things: revised standards for the selection of bishops, further reform of seminaries, a renewal of priestly asceticism, lay witness in the world. But we Catholics also need to wash our mouths out. Psychobabble is killing us. The Long Lent of 2002 will continue far into 2003 and beyond if the Church doesn’t reclaim its own proper language and start talking about chastity as the integrity of love, rather than about “boundary issues.”

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Comments are closed.