Manners over Morals?

When Cardinal Gottfried Danneels died earlier this year, many of the death notices and articles focused on a particularly dark spot on the Belgian prelate’s record: an audio recording of the cardinal apparently attempting to dissuade a young man from reporting to the police that his uncle, a bishop, had sexually abused him.

Though many bishops have been revealed as complicit in cover-ups, Cardinal Danneels’ case was particularly egregious in that he was condemned by an undeniable record of his own words. The scandal led to his disgrace under Pope Benedict XVI. He suddenly and strangely found a new prominence under Pope Francis – even appearing on the loggia of St. Peter’s with the pope the evening he was elected – but that is not the subject of this column.

One post-mortem write-up took a curious approach. Writing on the website Crux in an article titled “Beyond politics and scandal, late Belgian cardinal was a gentleman,” John A. Allen Jr. praised Daneels’ “calm, his self-deprecating sense of humor, and his keen intellect.” Allen painted Danneels as a “leading light of the European episcopacy,” citing Danneels’ facility with languages, his ability to diffuse tense situations with humor, and his patience with Allen’s questions as evidence that Danneels was a “gentleman.” What Allen chose to emphasize was not that Cardinal Danneels silenced a victim of sexual abuse, but that he smiled and told good jokes.

While Allen did not entirely refrain from mentioning Danneels’ scandalous behavior, he seemed to wave it away by noting that Pope Francis praised Danneels in a condolence telegram, and concluded, “no human being is ever the sum of just their worst moments.”

Now, this is true to a certain extent. None of us, to be sure, would like to be defined by our darkest deeds. But then, there are cases when we do just that. War criminals aren’t usually praised for their organizational skills, and serial killers aren’t regarded as admirable for their cleverness. They are remembered as killers.

Yet they are not all viewed the same, are they? Consider the way Charles Manson and Ted Bundy are typically portrayed in media. Manson was a simple psychopath. Yet Bundy, despite committing numerous truly depraved acts, is depicted almost romantically: the handsome stranger who lures women into his trap. Why? Because Bundy combed his hair. Because Bundy dressed fashionably. Because Bundy had manners.

It would be a stretch, of course, to categorize misbehaving bishops or bishops who have covered up misbehavior along with serial killers. Yet their crimes and misdeeds were the sort that made Jesus speak of millstones around necks.

It was precisely a minimization of this horror that has been such a strong contributing factor to the scandal. For a long time, abusing a child was seen as only a sin, rarely a crime, a moral slip that could be amended with Confession and counseling, and moving the priest away from the “troublesome” situation. After all, we shouldn’t judge Father too harshly – he’s such a nice fellow overall, you know.

Cardinal Danneels is not the only senior prelate to receive favorable media treatment due to his “gentlemanly” comportment. The Cardinal Emeritus of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, spent decades shuffling abuser priests, and notoriously obfuscated before law enforcement officials. Documentation showed he specifically ordered that abuser priests not be sent to therapists who would be “legally obligated to report their crimes.”

Yet despite receiving a rebuke from the current archbishop of Los Angeles, Mahony regularly appears at major church events and even had the temerity to address the annual USCCB meeting last November on the subject of episcopal negligence. (Video available by clicking here.)

The problem comes down to this: there are some people, even at the highest levels of the Church, who seem to value manners over morals. This mentality seems to have seeped into various nooks and crannies of the hierarchy.

We see it in those who would prefer we not hear about sin or other controversial topics from the pulpit, because, well, it’s not polite to point out the faults of others, is it?

We see it among those who think the divorced-and-remarried should be admitted to the Sacraments, because they’re mimicking respectable practices and “not skulking off to a hotel.”

We see it among those who think bishops should get a pass on scandalous behavior because they smile, tell jokes, and bring in a lot of money for charity, or because they hold the “right” positions on the political issues.

In other words, this – among other reasons – explains how a figure like McCarrick survived as long as he did.
In a way, it is nothing more than the reappearance of Sophistry, the ancient enemy of Socrates (and truth), which taught students to pretend to have virtue as a way to win friends and influence people (to use the modern phrase) rather than to truly seek wisdom and strive for real moral character. It is seeking the good life without goodness.

In ecclesial terms, it is the appearance of holiness without the substance. This is not a question or right and left, liberal and conservative. It applies as much to bishops who make a show of their orthodoxy and liturgical taste as to those who become known for their “pastoral sensitivity” and conspicuous “mercy” on certain issues.

Both sides have been found to have put the Church’s reputation – or, more likely, their own – before the safety of children and the care of souls.

Nicholas Senz is the Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX, where lives with his wife and two children. He holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His website is