Ending harassment requires more than laws

Archbishop Aquila

The ongoing wave of disclosures of sexual harassment across our country shows that while policies and laws are helpful, they do not solve the underlying problem. The issue we have to confront is that the American culture fails to recognize the dignity of the human person and to value sexuality as a gift, rather than treating it as a commodity.

History teaches that sexual harassment is hardly new, but the extent and bald belligerence of it are new. Predatory sexual behavior runs the gamut from politicians and Hollywood luminaries, to journalists, artists, and – as the Church has learned the hard way – even clergy. There are many factors that have contributed to this epidemic in our culture.

This coming July will mark the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on sexuality and contraception, Humanae Vitae. Even though he was being pressured to change the Church’s teaching on contraception, Blessed Paul VI prayerfully and wisely taught that the unitive and procreative aspects of sex cannot be separated without causing significant damage. He predicted that doing so would lower morality, increase marital infidelity, cause men to lose respect for women, and allow governments to use contraceptives in a coercive manner.

Blessed Paul VI’s prophetic insights have unhappily come to pass with the widespread use of contraception. His prediction about a loss of respect for women is quite relevant to the discussion about sexual harassment. He wrote: “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods 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 …” (HV, 17).

It is too simplistic to say that the increase in sexual harassment can entirely be linked to the widespread usage of contraception, but the role it has played in turning sex into a commodity and in objectifying women is undeniable.

The sociologist Mark Regnerus analyzed the situation in his new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy. He states, “Sex is cheap. Coupled sexual activity has become more widely available than ever. Cheap sex has been made possible by two technologies that have little to do with each other – the Pill and high-quality pornography – and its distribution is made more efficient by a third technological innovation, online dating. Together, they drive down the cost of real sex, and in turn slow the development of love, make fidelity more challenging, sexual malleability more common, and have even taken a toll on men’s marriageability.”

The research carried out by Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillman of the University of Alabama back up this connection between pornography and the devaluation of women. They discovered that over time, many male porn users became more callous toward women, and less likely to value monogamy and marriage.

Whenever a man or a woman engages in sexual harassment, they fail to see the inherent dignity of the other person and the true meaning of human sexuality as a gift from God. Their focus is on themselves and their self-satisfaction, which often leads to using the other person to fulfill their desires. When this mindset takes hold, people change partners like changing clothes, and fidelity, lifelong commitment, and waiting for sexual intimacy until marriage are perceived as foolish. This is what happens when God and his plan for creation are abandoned and we decide for ourselves what is good and evil.

From Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church, we know that loving relationships, especially marriage, are meant to be more than a means of personal fulfillment that lasts only as long as it pleases both parties. Love is not just another commodity that can be used and thrown away, to borrow a theme from Pope Francis.

The solution to the tragic objectification and use of people is not introducing more laws and policies but helping change hearts, so that our desires can follow God’s plan for our sexuality. As Catholics, we have been blessed with the rich teachings of Blessed Paul VI and Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. We can learn from Jesus in the Gospels who treated women with dignity and respect, whether it was the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan Woman, or Martha and Mary.

God made us in his image and likeness, giving every human being inherent dignity. He designed our hearts and relationships to reflect the inner love of the Trinity, so that they are a communion of unselfish giving, for the good of the other, and with an openness to the life that might come from our love.

Combatting the scourge of sexual harassment begins with recovering a sense of the sacred dignity of every person. It requires conversion and the grace of Jesus Christ through the sacraments. Simple prayers can be made, “Jesus grant me the grace to love and respect persons like you loved and respected them.” Or “Father grant to me the grace to see human sexuality as you created it to be.” Or “Jesus free me from ever objectifying another human being and help me treat them with your respect.”

Finally, I encourage anyone struggling with the sexual temptations and distortions that are commonplace today to seek out Confession, no matter how many times you may fall, as the Father’s mercy is there for you. You may also find support through places like www.foryourmarriage.org and www.reclaimsexualhealth.com. May each of us in this Advent Season encounter Jesus in a deeper way and receive him more intimately in our hearts.

COMING UP: Recovering a sense of celebration

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With the seemingly ever-increasing number of days dedicated to celebrating various causes or events, the Church presents us with the season of Advent, a time of preparation that can help us recover a true sense of celebration.

More than 100 years ago, no less than Friedrich Nietzsche, the frequent critic of traditional values, warned that people were losing the ability to truly celebrate. “The trick is not to arrange a festival,” he said, “but to find people who can enjoy it.”

As a society, we have found so many occasions to celebrate that one digital marketer created the Days of the Year website to keep track of everything from Flossing Day to more serious things like Native American Heritage month. This flurry of partying is amplified by social media posts, likes, and shares, but one is hard pressed to give convincing reasons for commemorating things like Squirrel Appreciation Day.

As a culture, we need to recover the reasons we celebrate and feast, and that must start with one of the greatest events in human history, the moment when God entered human history as a man, which we celebrate at Christmas.

Truly celebrating an occasion, according to the theologian and philosopher Josef Pieper, involves more than just having a good time. It involves participating in “the utmost perfection to which man may attain … the partaking of the utmost fullness that life has to offer.” In other words, through our celebration we connect with and express our longing for the eternal, to be with the God who is love, truth, and mercy for eternity.

Pieper explains this in his book In Tune with the World by saying, “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” And the most radical assent to the world and creation, he says, is to praise God for it, to recognize the gift and beauty of creation.

Pope Francis picked up the theme of celebration in his 2015 series of reflections on the family. During his August 12 general audience, the Holy Father defined celebration as “first and foremost a loving and grateful look at work well done. … It’s time to look at our home, our friends we host, the community that surrounds us, and to think: what a good thing! God did this when he created the world. And he does so again and again, because God is always creating, even at this moment!”

In just a few days, we celebrate Thanksgiving. For many people, the holiday is focused on family, the food, drinks and entertainment rather than the reason for celebrating – giving thanks to God for his provision and blessing. But if we can reconnect with the reason for celebrating, we will experience a deeper, more authentic joy.

Advent, which begins on December 3, presents us with another period of time to direct our hearts and minds toward the great gift of Christ’s coming at Christmas and his eventual Second Coming, when the longing of all creation for eternity will be satisfied.

Pope Francis has noted that the family “is endowed with an extraordinary ability to understand, guide and sustain the authentic value of the time for celebration. How beautiful family celebrations are, they are beautiful! Sunday celebrations in particular.”

Some of the ways that families and individuals can prepare for joyfully celebrating these great gifts include, using an Advent wreath, celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas, blessing the Christmas tree, reciting the “O Antiphons,” celebrating the Marian Feasts of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of the New Advent, and making sacrifices in pursuit of spiritual growth. All will lead us to a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ!

During this holiday season, I encourage everyone to rediscover the reasons we celebrate, which open us to the transcendent and help us become people who can truly enjoy the feast.