The Church and the Cultural Acceptance of Sexual Violence

 

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Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, made the statement below  at a 4-day meeting hosted by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angeline Jolie.

Cardinal Nichols’ comments address a several  issues that I think are important ones for the Church to take up if we want to end sexual violence.

He deplored the de facto cultural acceptance of sexual violence. This is a key component in the issue everywhere on the globe, including here in the United States. Rape is treated as entertainment in this country. The signals our culture gives about sexual violence, are, at best, mixed. We sometimes go into a frenzy of indignation over a particular crime of sexual violence. But more often, we attack the victims and treat rape as entertainment.

There is a reason why young men video themselves committing gang rapes and then put those videos on the internet to brag. There is a reason why girls are cautioned to be careful what they drink at fraternity parties or to stay away from the jock dorms on campus. There is a reason rape victims don’t talk to their pastors or tell people in their churches what has happened to them.

It all circles back to this one thing: The cultural acceptance, including the direct promotion and exploitation of, sexual violence against women and girls.

He also said — although not nearly strongly enough —that sexual violence is a sin. Potential rapists and their victims both need to hear this. I once put together a meeting of the heads of the various religious groups in Oklahoma for the express purpose of asking them to call sexual violence a sin. My reason was simple: I had been going to church, sitting in pews, for decades, and I had never once heard this preached. This is a moral black hole on the part of the churches, and it has fed into the cultural acceptance of sexual violence.

Finally, Cardinal Nichols gives one of the most accurate descriptions of why sexual violence is such a fundamental crime against the humanity of its victims. Here’s what he said,

Human sexuality is a strong and vital component of our humanity and of each person’s nature. The exercise of that sexuality, in sexual relations, is something that touches the deepest aspect of our identity and personhood. A fundamental aspect of the Church’s teaching about sex is that sexual acts must always take place within the context of authentic freedom. This is because, properly understood, human sexuality has the capacity to unite two people, body and spirit, at the deepest level, in a completeness of self-giving that has within it the call to a permanent commitment between them and which, of its nature is open towards the creation of new human life. What is most relevant in this teaching for us today is that there is no place in sexual relations for brutality, aggression or any kind of de-humanisation of a person.

This Initiative is concerned to highlight that the use of sexual violence is always and absolutely a violation of human freedom and of every rational standard of human decency. And what is more, its de facto cultural acceptance in many places and in so many circumstances contributes significantly to the degradation of women in particular. Sexual behaviour is so often the key litmus test of the honour and respect given to women either in conformity to moral standards or in defiance of them.

I can say without equivocation that the church’s (I am speaking here of the entire body of Christ in every denomination) easy acceptance of sexual violence and its willingness to condemn the victim while harboring the perpetrator led me directly into 17 years of defiance against both organized religion and God Himself. It made me into an ardent advocate for legal abortion.

I do not think I am unique in this.

It literally took an act of God to change me about this. I was so damaged by what I had seen in the churches that I asked God in all sincerity if He hated women. I don’t often get direct answers to my prayers, but I got one then. That answer bound me to God in a way that nothing else could have. It has also made me fearless about speaking out about clerical disregard of sexual violence. I know — know — that this indifference is not only wrong, it is deeply sinful.

It means a lot when a Prince of the Church speaks out against sexual violence. We need to see a lot more of it. His remarks are directed at the use of sexual violence as a weapon against cultures and societies in warfare. I apply them to all sexual violence in every circumstance.

I’ve highlighted a few points in the text below.

From Vatican Radio:

Please find below the full text of the address by  Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, to the conference, delivered on 12th June 2014:

Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative

“I am privileged to have this opportunity to speak at this most important Initiative and to be invited to do so from the perspective of my Catholic Faith. In doing so, I offer my fullest congratulations to the Foreign Secretary in particular, for his dedication to this crucial cause.

The unbelievable surge of sexual violence against both women and men in parts of our world is manifested in the shocking facts well documented in this Conference. I doubt though whether even the most graphic accounts of this evil are capable of conveying the sheer horrors which are generated by sexual violence in conflict and warfare. The damage which is done to the human dignity of the large numbers of victims of sexual violence is so radical and so permanent that it defies description.

It is not the random act of men who have, for a while, lost all sense of decency, which defies description but the deliberate and ordered tactic of oppression, domination and destruction which is at the noxious heart of sexual violence. It is to the shame of our world that the systematic use of sexual violation is still today, in some places, considered as a duty of soldiers, an order that they must carry out. This horror is further compounded by the fact that the stigma attached to sexual violation often falls on the victim and not on the perpetrator. What terrible collusion is indicated by that fact! The public tolerance of sexual violence leads to the inversion of human decency; it reinforces other forms of oppression and undermines the morals which uphold the rights of the human person.

I wish to make three points regarding the moral and religious framework which, I believe, can strengthen this fight against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The first is the clear principle that every human activity is subject to moral principles and judgment if it is not to lose its truly human character and sink into the realms of the amoral, the dark hole of a subhuman wilderness. This principle applies to situations of warfare and conflict. No declaration of war – whether arguably legitimate or not – excuses those who fight from their obligation to observe fundamental moral principles.

In Catholic teaching this is described as ‘jus in bello’, that just principles must be observed even in warfare. The teaching states: ‘the Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law in armed conflict. The fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties (CCC 2312). It refers explicitly to ‘non-combatants, wounded soldiers, prisoners’ who must be respected and treated humanely.’ It continues ‘Actions contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out’ (2313).

History has many examples of the pursuit of war criminals. It is also has many instances of the failure to do so. In this Initiative, the measures being proposed and pursued to strengthen the legal frameworks for the pursuit and prosecution of all war criminals are fully supported by the principles of morality and social justice and must be given widespread support. War is no excuse. The demands of justice remain in place. A crime is a crime, whether committed in the context of conflict or not.

And sexual violence is always a crime; it is always an immoral act.

The second point I draw from Catholic moral thinking and teaching is this.

Human sexuality is a strong and vital component of our humanity and of each person’s nature. The exercise of that sexuality, in sexual relations, is something that touches the deepest aspect of our identity and personhood. A fundamental aspect of the Church’s teaching about sex is that sexual acts must always take place within the context of authentic freedom. This is because, properly understood, human sexuality has the capacity to unite two people, body and spirit, at the deepest level, in a completeness of self-giving that has within it the call to a permanent commitment between them and which, of its nature is open towards the creation of new human life. What is most relevant in this teaching for us today is that there is no place in sexual relations for brutality, aggression or any kind of de-humanisation of a person.

This Initiative is concerned to highlight that the use of sexual violence is always and absolutely a violation of human freedom and of every rational standard of human decency. And what is more, its de facto cultural acceptance in many places and in so many circumstances contributes significantly to the degradation of women in particular. Sexual behaviour is so often the key litmus test of the honour and respect given to women either in conformity to moral standards or in defiance of them.

What is clear, therefore, is that the Church wholeheartedly backs every initiative to prevent sexual violence being perpetrated against anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances. The justice at the heart of human sexual relations must be respected as integral to all justice, even in conflict and warfare.

I am proud today to be able to point to the significant work carried out by many religiously motivated people in the fight against sexual violence in warfare and its dreadful consequences. I salute especially the work of religious sisters, in many countries, who for decades have dedicated themselves to this work, without seeking reward or praise. They do so as part of their commitment to justice in our world today. And we are richer for their efforts, along with the efforts of many others, too. This enterprising work generates the kind of wealth without which our world cannot survive. They are, in my view, at the top of the world’s rich list!

The third point I wish to make flows directly from this notion of integral justice as our greatest wealth.

In the efforts of this Initiative to prevent sexual violence, we rightly speak of wanting to protect the human rights of everyone, especially the most vulnerable and the victims of this terrible form of abuse. In order for this language of human rights, and the framework it offers, to be robust, I believe we are helped by clarity about its foundations. The entry of human rights into the international legal framework is largely welcomed. But human rights themselves do not derive from a legal system, nor a political authority, or a state. The dignity of every person, and the pattern of rights which flow from that dignity, are inherent in the person, herself or himself. They are inalienable. Often, of course, there are choices to be made between competing human rights and difficult decisions ensue. But some rights are more immediate, more fundamental than others. I believe that this priority of human rights can best be seen when they are understood in the light of their ultimate origin.

The dignity of every person arises from within their nature and that nature is most clearly understood as deriving from its Creator, from the mystery of God. Here the light of faith sharpens our rational understanding, it deepens our sense of who we are and the dignity which is properly ours. And in this God-given dignity, the right to life itself and the right to bodily integrity are fundamental, as is the right to religious freedom. The violation of that bodily integrity in sexual violence is therefore a most fundamental denial of human dignity and a most gross breach of a person’s human rights. It is a crime which ought to be eradicated with all vigour.

Sexual violence as an instrument of warfare and conflict is a deep wound in the body of humanity, to borrow a phrase of Pope Francis. That it is as old as humanity is a cause for our lasting shame. That this Initiative is daily growing in strength, that it is beginning to engender a common will to say ‘no more, never again’ is a source of real encouragement. That it is producing the statutes and instruments by which perpetrators will be prosecuted and punish is a measure of its initial success. That it will in time challenge and change the cultures which tacitly support these crimes and heap the stigma of shame on its victims is a cause for real hope. I congratulate all involved and I assure you of my full support.”

  • hamiltonr

    Anne, I have personal knowledge of a church that actually voted (not a Catholic parish) on whether or not a rape victim should be dismissed from membership in the church. I have knowledge of many other, similar instances of the church, including various Catholic parishes, turning their backs on rape victims.

    In addition to that, there is no outcry about rape, even though 1 in 5 women in this country are subjected to it, from the pulpit. Where are the demands that fraternities be shut down for allowing gang rapes on their premises? After all, the rape prevention people know enough to caution girls about going alone to these parties, or from drinking from an open container for fear of being drugged and raped, then it must be pretty much an openly acknowledged fact that is TOLERATED that female guests are not safe in these frat houses. Why aren’t the fraternities shut down, and why doesn’t the Church speak out about it?

    I could go on, but that’s enough for now.

    • AnneG

      What you witnessed and what happened to that girl is horrible. Everyone involved is in grave trouble.
      I do not know why behavior by these young men towards girls is ignored. I do know that it is prosecuted sometimes.
      That behavior is not so much tolerated as there seems to be a feeling that you cannot stop bad, sinful, evil or illegal behavior for some reason. So, you warn the victim, don’t got there, don’t go alone, be careful of your drink, etc. seems like a general breakdown of expectation of moral, responsible behavior. That, as well as an attitude of, “well, it’s only sex.”

  • hamiltonr

    That’s a lovely little speech, focusing on one situation and ignoring every other instance of sexual violence in the world today.

    • guest

      I didn’t mean it to come across that way, all sexual violence is wrong and needs to be addressed. In fact that is why I specifically stated, “It’s monumentally important to talk about sexual assault and it’s shocking prevalence EVERYWHERE, including within the church”. By “Everywhere” I meant literally everywhere- religious and secular institutions, as well as all of the “non institutional” (so to speak) sexual crimes that are so prevalent as well. The beginning of my last paragraph, “Talking about sexual assault and mistakes made when addressing it is so important, and it needs to not only continue, but spread more widely and increase in frequency, however this kind of talking needs to inspire change in how this issue is handled in order for it to be effective”, applies, not just to the Church, but EVERYWHERE, as I stated previously. Schools, parents, police, etc. in many places could do better jobs of handling sexual violence. I see more talks about sexual crimes taking place than in years previously, which is a great start, but so often I feel that this talking doesn’t inspire much action, and not just in the church, in many places. As I’ve said, even the police in many places handle sexual crimes rather poorly, if at all.

      That said, this article specifically was referring to sex abuse within the Catholic Church, so I tailored my response accordingly, with a reminder about reporting to the police, etc. if your article had been about, say the police mishandling sexual abuse, my response would be different, I would have talked about the police needing to understand victims reactions and neurobiology behind them, police believing the victims and not making up excuses about why an assault couldn’t have happened (her pants are too tight to get off, that person isn’t acting how a victim should act etc), and making sure rape kits are processed quickly. The reason I mostly discussed the abuse within the church, was because it was in response to an article about abuse within the church. I thought I’d made myself more clear than I likely actually did, when I touched on sexual abuse occurring “everywhere”, and more discussion, coupled with more action being needed. Apologies for any confusion.

      • AnneG

        Read the article again. The article is about dealing with abuse of women and why the Church and society as a whole do not preach against rape.

  • pagansister

    There is no excuse for rape under any circumstances. What is horrible is that it has been carried out for centuries by conquering armies and continues to this day in conflicts all over the world. Obviously that is not news to anyone. Even in the 21st century some “men” can’t stop mistreating females. IMO a lot of males are not raised to have any respect for females. Women are for 1 thing only is the attitude of some men and many of those are the ones who go after a woman for just that. If she says “no” it serves to initiate a rape. Hasn’t the world’s inhabitants learned anything? Obviously the answer is NO! I have a feeling that even those men who are of a faith don’t seem to have let their faiths teachings stop them in some cases.

  • AnneG

    Rebecca, I know this is off topic, but wanted you to see this article if you hadn’t.

  • hamiltonr

    I agree with you completely. The Church needs to find ways to deal with the needs of victims of sexual violence, particularly since this violence is so widespread.

    This priest was a jerk and an idiot — and I am being charitable. There is much worse I could say about such behavior. Much worse.

    His behavior was a reflection of the society a large, not Jesus Christ. Since he was standing in for Christ in that confessional, he failed horribly as a priest. FWIW, people sometimes say stupid things without thinking. Maybe he did that. Hopefully, he did that.

    If a priest aligns himself with sexual violence, he is aligning himself with satan.

    If you have a nearby rape crisis center, you might go to them to talk about this. Someone needs to go to this priest’s bishop, not to punish him, in particular, but to see to his spiritual care and to helping the priests in that diocese learn more Christ-like ways to respond to this. They are supposed to be pastors of their flocks, including the women.

    If you are still fragile, that someone shouldn’t be you. The rape crisis center can do it for you.

    Again, blessings, dear sister.


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