The Last Judgement, Michelangelo (1536-1541), Sistine Chapel
Here's news item one. A former producer says that orders came “from the very highest levels of NBC” to stop Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse. Farrow’s report, eventually published in The New Yorker, was instrumental in launching the #MeToo reckoning that ultimately reached, yes, the heart of NBC News.
Here’s news item two. Campus activists, and their feminist allies on Capitol Hill, are enraged with the Trump administration after the New York Times obtained new draft regulations governing sexual-assault claims on campus. The new rules would reportedly bolster due-process protections for accused students, a move that activists claim would exacerbate an alleged campus rape crisis.
And here’s news item three. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has directed the state attorney general to “suspend its probe into whether the Manhattan district attorney mishandled 2015 allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein.” Six days before Cuomo issued his order, he received a substantial campaign contribution from Weinstein’s former law firm.
A coincidence. Surely.
Now, let’s ask a simple question. Are there any significant cultural institutions that have embraced sexual libertinism more thoroughly than Hollywood and the American academy?
Parents who take their kids to college report seeing baskets of condoms in bathrooms. “Sex weeks” teach students to experiment with their bodies, and the only morality that governs campus is the morality of consent. Any other restriction is seen as oppressive — even to the point of systematically tossing from campus religious groups that seek to govern their (voluntary) membership according to traditional Biblical rules of sexual morality.
And Hollywood? Do I even need to state my case? Its sexuality is self-evident, and its celebration of sexual expression is relentless.
Yet as the news items above illustrate — and as the relentless drumbeat of scandal demonstrates — sexual libertinism has not created sexual utopia. Instead, it has created (as it always creates) a ravenous culture of sexual entitlement, exploitation, and abuse.
Why do I feel the need to make this obvious point? Because there are apparently still people who believe that the path through Christian sexual scandals — such as the abuse scandal that is rocking the Catholic Church — is the transformation and liberalizing of traditional Christian teaching about sex.
The latest example comes (no surprise) courtesy of the New York Times, where columnist Timothy Egan chronicles Catholic sex scandals and declares that their fundamental problem wasn’t sin and disobedience but rather that the “root” of their failings is “Catholicism’s centuries-old inability to come to grips with sex.”
Egan comes at this issue not as a theologian but as a “somewhat lapsed, but certainly listening, Catholic educated by fine Jesuit minds and encouraged by the open-mindedness of Pope Francis.” Well then. He’s certainly qualified to opine authoritatively about Christian theology. And opine he does.
“Most of the church’s backward teachings have no connection to the words of Jesus,” Egan declares. He offers the tired lines repeated in so many late-night, self-justifying dorm-room debates. “Outside of condemning adulterous behavior, Christ never said anything about whom you could love. Nothing about homosexuals. Nothing about priestly celibacy or barring women from clerical ranks, for that matter.”
Yes, that’s right. When Jesus condemned adultery and sexual immorality, he was really dramatically loosening traditional sexual moral norms. Anything goes, except for marital infidelity. Jesus was the great sexual liberator.
In fact he was affirming the sexual morality of Judaism, not rejecting it. Don’t look to Christ to sanction your sexual desire.
And what are Egan’s solutions? Destroy the old moral norms. End celibacy. Welcome women into the priesthood. Make the broken church more like the broken world. After all, according to this expert, celibacy “may be one of the main reasons pedophilia is thick in clerical ranks.”
Yet Egan gets this exactly backwards. The answer to indiscipline isn’t indulgence. Otherwise, why are our most libertine sexual cultures so rife with abuse? Why hasn’t the ability to engage in limitless consensual sex cured the human appetite for the forbidden — the desire to transgress the last taboos? Hollywood doesn’t suffer from an excess of sexual repression. The secular American campus is one of the least puritanical environments on earth.
Before conforming to the world, the Church should instead heed the words of the Apostle Paul and “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” That means justice for victims of abuse. It means accountability for abusers. And it means reaffirming, not rejecting, a sexual ethic that is based on a created order that Christ himself so clearly outlined in Matthew 19:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
The path to scandal is indulgence. The path through scandal is repentance. And the path to renewal is obedience. Distraught Christians shouldn’t look to the world for inspiration. It has nothing to offer but the very misery we presently endure.