Mad Men, Catholics and a “Moral Revolution”

Amy and I have been working (translated: watching lazily) our way through the first several seasons of Mad Men. The writing is remarkably subtle, and I was particularly struck by the fact that such a long-standing show could effectively have little or no plot focusing instead on rich character development.

For a writer, this is like enjoying a gourmet meal every night.

But the cherry on top for me is the sprinkling of anachronisms that apparently made plenty of sense at the time, but which are shockingly out of place now. There was a scene of the main family in the park, and when they’re done, the mother gives the blanket a good flick and leaves all of their trash wherever it falls. There’s also the constant smoking, even around kids and by pregnant wives (the perfect antidote for nausea, apparently), drinking at work and brazenly racist comments as the cultural norm.

Hard to believe sometimes that this took place so recently that my parents were teenagers when it took place.

But the most shocking dynamic in the show, for me at least, is the imbalance of power between men and women. Guys prey on young girls in the workplace like so much meat, and when they break down in tears under the pressure, they’re expected to take their feelings to the ladies’ room, so as not to be a distraction in the office. Women were forced into sex and often didn’t sare tell anyone. It’s just the way things worked.

Though today’s gender roles are hardly perfect, it does help point out how much progress has been made in a couple of generations. But it also serves to point out how out of step the Catholic Church is when it comes to such accountability and parity, and therefore, why they are struggling to maintain relevance.

I was surprised and a little shocked when the Pope, speaking in Ireland recently, claimed that the cause of pervasive sexual abuse of children by clergy is “a

Pope Benedict XVI

mystery.” Aside from presenting fiercely willful ignorance, such a dismissive statement suggests that there is little, if anything, to be done. Yes, he calls the abuse appalling, but that’s fairly self-evident, I think. There’s no real contrition on behalf of the greater church, and no sense of urgency in pursuing either justice or a remedy.

So let’s just shrug our shoulders, shake our heads and move on.

Second, Pope Benedict pointed a holy finger at the media, laying blame on their heads for the recent financial scandal the Vatican is now contending with. Basically, some letters leaked to an Italian reporter revealed profound fiscal opacity within the Church’s senior leadership, pervasive corruption and the loss of millions of dollars as a result.

So what’s to blame for this misuse of the donations of millions of faithful Catholics? The Pope says it’s the media’s fault.

Then a third article by Rabbi Mishael Zion shed light on why it is that today’s society will not tolerate such antiquated justifications for the abuse of power. He writes:

We are living through a moral revolution. Sexual abuse by those in power — a topic that has long been kept under wraps — is no longer easily covered up. The ethics of speech around abuse have changed, and they are shifting how we think about gossip, privacy and truth-telling.

Zion makes a Biblical case, pointing to scriptures in Numbers 13:1-15:41, for speaking out publicly against such abuses. And while I agree it’s compelling for some to see such compulsion to seek justice in their holy texts, let’s be honest here.

The reason such transgressions are coming to light isn’t because they’re in the Bible; it’s because society no longer accepts such abuses of power as acceptable or even tolerable. That’s why these stories are making the news.

It’s the same reason I could no more toss a piece of trash out the car window than I could kick a puppy. I just can’t get the crying Indian Chief out of my head.

It’s why hardly anyone smokes in restaurants any more. Or why we recycle. Or why we consider cultural diversity and (relative) parity to be a cornerstone of contemporary civilization.

I’d like to believe that organized religion has been on the front lines of pressing these issues to become permanent parts of our collective moral consciousness. And often times, there have been key religious leaders advocating for such justice at every steps. But the institutions of religion tend either to be silent or to resist such change until either it is political suicide not to do so, or until they are forced to change by power of law.

Is this really what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned us to be Christ’s body to the world?

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Deejay5100

    You write eloquently about these issues. How delightful it is to me to see that 50 years lat# you are shocked by what my friends and I experienced. MadMen has recreated it all perfectly.

  • Mary

    Thanks for this article. It does show how things are changing. Quite honestly I get depressed when I see all the negative stuff going on in religion today. I think the public is demanding change and if it doesn’t happen, then these churches are just going to die off.  Gay marriage a threat to Christianity? No. The biggest threat to Christianity is Christianity itself.

    Not talking about your church of course ;)

    • Aaron Minix

       “The biggest threat to Christianity is Christianity itself”? I think a better way would be to say “The biggest threats to Christianity are Christians.” Even that, however, is theologically questionable. Did not our Lord say that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church? No, the faith will endure because Christ will maintain His Body.

      To clarify the Pope’s “mystery” remarks, he was referring to the reason why  those who received the sacraments could commit such evil. He then says that those who partook of the sacraments were just going through the motions. It’s important to remember that Catholics believe in the efficacy of the sacraments, ie, that the Holy Spirit actually works through them.

      Should the Pope be more forthright? Absolutely. It’s frustrating that the Body of Christ fails to follow its Head.

      PS–I’m not a Catholic, but I’m on the road to Rome, as you might say. I hope I explained the sacraments in an orthodox way. 


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