Bishop's Column

The prophetic witness of chastity

Last month, more than a dozen women accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of harassment and sexual assault. Since that time, similar allegations have been made against public figures in entertainment, politics, business, and media.

Of course, allegations do not constitute proof, and justice requires that such serious allegations be considered fairly, in light of the evidence. Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that incidences of sexual harassments, assault, and abuse are far more commonplace in American society than many people would prefer to admit.

Perhaps these allegations of abuse should not have come as a surprise to us. We live in a hyper-sexualized culture. Pornography use has become ubiquitous, and even a national epidemic. Beyond pornography, we are accosted with over-sexualized depictions of men and women in ordinary television programs or advertisements. And the social norms regarding sexual relationships have changed dramatically in our country, even in the past decade. For example, cell phone apps have made virtually anonymous sex available, and expected, to almost an entire generation. Sociologists tell us that young people increasingly believe that casual sex is a normal social expectation, even when it makes them uncomfortable. Sexual relationships are increasingly treated like a commodity: readily available, and unimportant.

Amidst the so-called “hookup” culture, it should be no surprise that sex is more frequently trivialized and abused, and consequently, that men and women are more frequently abused sexually. It goes without saying that sexual misconduct, and even sexual abuse, is not a new phenomenon. But the proliferation of sexual imagery, and the casual approach to sexual relationships so prevalent in our culture, are historically unprecedented, and they are the sad consequences of the “sexual revolution” which began in the 1960s.

The catalyst for the sexual revolution was the normalization of contraception, which, for many people, radically changed the meaning of sexual intimacy. Before the sexual revolution, it was obvious that sexual intimacy was connected to procreativity, and that it found its deepest meaning in the procreative intimacy of spouses. But the near universal acceptance of contraception which effectively separates sexuality from procreation – love from life – has created tremendous confusion and damage. When sex is separated from procreation, when love is separated from life, we tend to use sex for other purposes, and, sometimes, for evil and sinful purposes.

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that in the mindset borne of the sexual revolution, sexuality “is reduced to pure materiality: it is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other’s richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts.”

If we do not recover a sense of the true meaning and sacredness of human sexuality– of the ways in which it allows us to share in God’s procreative love, in the intimacy of marriage–we can expect that sexuality will continue to be used as a tool for “self-assertion,” “selfish satisfaction,” and for power.

To recover the true meaning of human sexuality, we also have to recover the virtue of chastity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” Our sexuality needs to be integrated into the meaning of our entire lives, and into our relationship with God himself. Chastity understands that sexuality is a gift, but is not a gift to be used carelessly. Chastity understands that sexual acts are only loving when they respect our own dignity, as well as the dignity and freedom of others.

The sexual revolution rejected the virtue of chastity. It has become clear that Catholics must become counter-revolutionaries, who witness to chastity, and call others to it. The world sorely needs our prophetic witness of chastity.

Of course, it is well-known that clergy members of the Church have committed terrible acts of sexual abuse. This tragedy should instruct us: it reminds us that we are all disordered by sin, and that no one can live chastely without the grace of God, and the will to cooperate with his grace. The Church has worked to ensure that sexual misconduct is absolutely intolerable in Catholic environments. But we must continue to witness heroically and tirelessly to the virtue of living chastely.

The world is looking for answers: trying to understand how acts of sexual abuse or harassment can seem to have become commonplace, trying to understand how we can live more freely. Chastity, understanding our sexuality, and sex itself, in accord with God’s plan, is the answer. We must become “counter-revolutionary” witnesses to the freedom that comes from living in truth. 

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Bishop Conley

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