Stumbling Toward Cultural Purity

What do we make of the all the headlines of late about what has suddenly become “zero tolerance” on sexual harassment? The example of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein seems to have been the beginning of the public avalanche, or great purging, on all allegations or instances of unwanted sexual advances by men of influence against women. One woman came forward against him, then others, then more. What seems to have been the decisive move is when the board of directors of Miramax decided to cut all ties with him in a stinging Hollywood rebuke of immoral sexual behavior (off screen, that is).

Once that happened, in our media-trend driven era of shaming and public pressure campaigns, it gave everyone else permission to publicly air their own experiences of unwanted sexual advances knowing that if Miramax and the Academy of Motion Pictures would discipline a perpetrator, then anyone else publicly accused of misconduct would be badly scarred or demolished as well.

Fast forward to now where the campaign against any type of sexual misconduct has taken on the same nature as the clergy abuse crisis in 2002. It is a sweeping socio political movement where accusers have all the power, and anyone accused has little chance of surviving because they are, by cultural standards, public sinners.

Much could be said about this. For one, sexual misconduct is always wrong and the rejection of a culture of it in business, the media, government, households, the Church, etc, has been a long time coming and is necessary. It has long held women at a serious disadvantage to men which is a deplorable fact. Perhaps that will now change which would be for the better to be sure. Women (and men) have the right to be free of things that are so degrading.

On the other hand, it is a curious thing when the American media all of a sudden feels guilty over sexuality. In this case, they are concerned not because of any consistent, moral, ethical reasoning but rather because an emotional victim has been identified and in our culture, we rush to the defense of victims while scapegoating some perpetrator.

The upshot is that it will bring justice to victims who need it. The downside is that it is only a small moral accomplishment because they are on the right side of this issue (as in consistent with Christian ethics) only by coincidence.

A culture that truly cared about sexual morality would have impeached President Clinton for being, essentially, an earlier version of Harvey Weinstein and company. They would also have never elected Donald Trump.  The same sexually moral society would eradicate the porn industry, would demand an end to explicit Hollywood movie content, would never have legalized sodomy, would never have eased the pathway to civil divorce, etc, etc, etc. All of that would be ethically consistent. What is happening now, frankly, even if necessary, is not consistent. In fact it is flat out odd in light of the rest of the cultural trends.

Understanding it in terms of the victim of the day is all that explains it. The media decided gay people were victims, too, which is why it is now taboo to speak publicly about chaste lifestyles for them. Victimhood is the chief legislative and policy driver of our era. Which is helpful when it is grounded in consistent reasoning, but less than helpful when it is a product of emotional whims.

Unfortunately, precisely because this current movement is more about emotions than it is about consistent ethics, the other problem is that it leaves no room for the Gospel teaching on mercy and forgiveness. Yes, there must be consequences for poor choices. We have all made them, me included. But a properly nuanced understanding of sin, weakness, frailty and grace would leave more room for conversion and mercy for these people than the current binary whiplash against them all.

Is there any case by case analysis of these people to see if they learned from their mistakes? Or rather, are the perpetrators now labeled as perpetrators for ever with no hope for rehabilitation? That is not the Christian teaching of grace and the possibility for conversion that is at the center of the Gospel.

Faithful Christians would be wise to attempt to bring some nuance to this current conversation. A firm rejection of sexually immoral behavior is paramount. That includes ALL sexually immoral behavior. And, the doorway of conversion must also be held open to all those who have fallen and need the healing that only Christ can offer.


About Father Nathan Reesman

Father Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin.
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