Father Roger J. Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.
Before Christmas, Time Magazine named the “Silence Breakers” their 2017 Persons of the Year. Time focused fundamentally on the women who courageously came forward to bring into the light the sordid sexual abuse and harassment they had suffered silently years at the clutches of powerful entertainment and political leaders who, once acclaimed and admired, are now scorned and humiliated as perverts.
“This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight,” Time wrote. “But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist. They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along. They’ve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.”
The sudden fall of so many is yet one more instance of Jesus’ prophetic warning to hypocrites of every age, “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Lk 12:2-3). Eventually the truth comes out. Eventually some form of justice, in this world or the next, comes to those who commit injustice, and to those who endure it.
It’s understandable that when there is so much attention on high-profile testimonies of sexual abuse and harassment that people have endured, many others who have suffered similar violence and indignities will gain the strength to tell their story; similarly, those who have repressed the pain and memories for years cannot help but be reminded of the deep wounds that they’ve long tried to cover over and perhaps finally be ready to seek help to understand, name and be partially healed from what happened.
As they turn to those they trust, many will come to priests for a listening ear, counsel and prayer. Similarly those who have hurt others through sexual abuse and harassment will come in greater numbers to beg forgiveness from God for the terrible harm they’ve done, to one or to hundreds. So priests are often witnesses of aspects of this personal and interpersonal cancer of sexual abuse that don’t make the evening news, chat room or kitchen table.
While much ink has been dedicated to the names of celebrity predators and victims and to the breadth of the plague, analysis of the causes has been shallow to nonexistent. With sexual abuse, the problem is popularly framed as fundamentally a lack of any or of true consent; the link to sexual harassment, though — unwanted advances or degrading comments, glances, or other behavior — points us to a deeper root: a total failure to appreciate the other’s personal dignity, through relating to the other mainly as an object for one’s gratification or consumption.
And where does such sexual objectification of the other originate? It comes from not just the lust of the flesh and the desire for domination that are consequences of original sin. It is abetted, and abetted strongly, by a culture that is increasingly celebrating and enslaved to lust, one that, rather than fighting it, features, foments, and fêtes the sexually-addicted objectification of others. We are reaping what we’re sowing. And when we sow poisonous seeds, we shouldn’t be shocked by a harvest of toxic fruit.
We know that lust and license, perverts and predators, have to some degree always existed. What’s different in the 50 years since the sexual revolution — like we see in the episodic degeneracy of the bacchanalia that preceded the fall of ancient emperors and empires — is that they’re no longer seen as evils to be opposed. Just like sadists can use a situation of war for their bloodlust and get cover for killing innocents, so the sexual revolution has made it possible for predators to carry out their flesh lust. How many more casualties from the sexual revolution do we want to make?
Sexual predators aren’t just those who violate others’ freedom; they’re those who violate others’ dignity. While consent may make exploiting others for sexual gratification legal, it doesn’t make it any less immoral. Those who use prostitutes prey on them and fuel the demand behind the whole sex trafficking scourge. Those who use pornography industry prey in their heart on the women, men or children objectified and victimized, as well as on the consumers who become increasingly interiorly enslaved. Those who use Tinder or otherwise engage in the hookup culture are mutually using each other as objects to satisfy harmonious hedonisms. Now we have the rise of the sexbots — robots resembling movie stars or models, or even children or rape victims — with which the owners can fantasize and masturbate. What habits, we have to ask, are being formed in the hearts of people who make such choices?
For two-plus generations, moreover, in most places, sexual education has not only been woefully inadequate but downright destructive, focused fundamentally on technique and the importance of consent rather than on forming hearts and minds to respect the others’ dignity. It treats sex as a recreational contact sport rather than as a thing of genuine love linked to commitment and to the natural generation of children. The general permissiveness that induces educators to train young kids how to use various forms of contraception — under the pessimistic premise that they could never exercise self-control for the sake of a greater good, like fidelity to a future spouse, or their own dignity and long-term happiness, or even justice to their Creator — teaches them, explicitly or subliminally, that they’re animals without power ultimately to say no to their sexual urges. Once the young have ingested that moral poison, the only means left to restrain future Weinsteins is really the threat of legal punishment, or public shame, or perhaps venereal disease. There’s a better way, which we’ll talk about below.
While multiple causes have contributed to the widespread sexual objectification, coercion, and abuse of women, one that deserves special note this year is contraception. 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the Church’s prescient response, basically, to the invention of the birth control pill. Paul VI recognized that contraception would change the way men looked at women and interacted with them sexually, inside and outside of marriage. Before, every woman was a potential mother of the man’s child, a fact that often sharpened his eyes and put brakes on his impulses. With widespread contraception — and later, access to abortion as a fall back when contraception was forgotten or failed — man began to regard woman far more easily as an object, to use her body for his pleasure, and to discard her afterward.
Paul VI said that it doesn’t take much reflection on the consequences of birth control methods to realize that contraception would “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Once a man, he said, “grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods [he] may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (HV 17).
A culture of contraception rejects the maternal meaning of a woman’s body in the very act by which a woman can become a mother. Once woman’s full dignity and nature are no longer embraced in the lovemaking between spouses, we should not be surprised at how quickly, Paul VI was indicating, respect for women and woman’s dignity will collapse in other sexual contexts as well.
What’s the alternative? If we’re really serious at creating a culture in which no woman ever has to tweet #MeToo, then we must stop sowing toxic weeds and start spreading fruitful wheat. It’s time for an honest conversation about, and vigorous education in, personal and cultural chastity.
Contrary to popular confusion, chastity is not equated with continence, abstinence or celibacy; it’s raising one’s attractions and interactions with another to the dignity of the person a whole. St. John Paul II taught that it’s tied to purity (seeking God in another, for “the pure of heart will see God”), piety (reverencing the other as God’s image) and love (willing the good of the other as other; treating the other as a subject with his or her own ends, rather than as a means to one’s own; and ultimately sacrificing oneself and others desires for the other’s good).
A culture of chastity is one in which woman is more easily respected as she ought to be, so that no woman needs to suffer the objectification that can lead to harassment and abuse.
A culture of chastity forms people with the self-mastery necessary to love rather than exploit others, to recognize lust for the poison it is, to reject the interior attitudes that can lead to objectification and predatory behavior, and to strengthen people courageously to say no to sexual coercion.
A culture of chastity is needed now more than ever.