The #MeToo hashtag that has swelled into a movement over the past several months provides an opportunity for each of us to examine our conscience. The sheer number of women speaking out about their experience of sexual assault points to many troubling issues in our society, not least of which is the treatment of women. Yet how many of us as Catholics (men and women) have exonerated ourselves from yet another cultural battle that’s not our problem?
I know I have.
We Catholics too
When the stories first began to break, I shrugged them off. As they kept coming, even from Catholic quarters, and the details became more disturbing, I convinced myself, “So sad. So hard for those poor women. But not really my problem.”
Not my problem, because I’m a “good” Catholic. I follow the Church’s rules regarding sexuality, I wear modest clothes, I date nice men, and as long as I do the right things, I have nothing to worry about. After all, that’s what the Church’s rules are there for, right? To keep us safe and happy and on the road to holiness.
True, the rules are there for our good, to promote our well-being and happiness, our life in community and our journey to holiness. They’re rooted in who we are as human persons and meant to free us to be who God made us to be. But when we focus too much on how the rules keep us “safe,” we miss the point.
What finally shook me out of my comfortable indifference was a series of ugly stories that broke in January about my alma mater, Christendom College. As reported by Simcha Fisher, some women are alleging that they suffered sexual assault and rape while they were students at the school, and that the college’s response to their allegations was far from adequate. In most cases, like that of Adele Smith, who shared her allegation with Fisher, the assaults happened off-campus, since Christendom’s rules prohibit most physical contact between dating couples while on-campus. So the school’s administration claimed their hands were tied and, according to Smith, did very little.
I want to stress that I had a good experience at Christendom. Yet I know from my experience that the school works hard to create a “morally safe” space, intentionally protected from the broader culture. The noble goal is to help students focus on their studies and growth in faith and friendship. The unfortunate reality is the perhaps unconscious creation of a protective and insular culture, in which it is easier to close our eyes to the ugly things that happen in the world than it is to face them and react with courage and compassion.
Called to transform
As Christians, this is not what we are called to do and to be. We’re called to be “in but not of” the world, and this is hard to do because it’s a paradox. If we focus too much on being “not of” our world, we cut ourselves off, and in the process we forget that the bad things that happen in the world can and do happen in our supposedly safe spaces. Why? Because we’re all fallen sinners.
This means we Christians should read every new, awful headline with the honest realization that “there but for the grace of God ...” The ugliness that happens in our world isn’t just “out there”; it’s in our own communities, and yes, in our own hearts. I’m reminded of a startling line in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” spoken by Father Zosima to his fellow monks as he nears death: “Every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man.”
Hard as it can be to accept, the terrible things that happen in the world around us are absolutely our problem, not only because we ourselves are human and fallen, but because we have been redeemed.
We have a call as baptized Christians to transform our world by bringing Jesus to it. And true transformation always starts from within. That means, if there is any hope of transforming our sad, wounded culture, we have to be OK with being in it, and with the fact that it’s not always safe. Our faith does not exonerate us from the culture’s problems. Instead, it sets us free to be light in a world of darkness.
Mary Beth Baker is senior acquisitions editor at Our Sunday Visitor. Follow her on Twitter @m_b_baker.