‘So this is what it’s come to?” a friend asked me recently. After she had been advising students for years at a large Jesuit college, her school’s student affairs office asked her to speak to a freshman orientation team. The topic they wanted her to cover? Consent.
Given the recent uproar over Title IX and the handling of sexual assault cases on campuses, it’s no surprise that schools are now defining what constitutes consensual sex. But at a Jesuit institution committed to forming “men and women for others” and the Ignatian principle of cura personalis (care for the whole person), just focusing on the notion of legal consent seemed a very low bar to shoot for.
Simply recycling the traditional Catholic perspective of “just don’t do it” wasn’t much of an alternative either. The number of students making abstinence pledges is so small that it would have been like preaching to a tiny choir in a stadium brimming with young adults and their raging hormones.
So my friend found herself frustrated. “The Obama administration’s discussion of consent is reductive and hollow, but the church’s mantra is even less compelling to college students,” she said. “Shouldn’t we at least expect our religious leaders to be more convincing than politicians on this?”
I’ve encountered this gulf between mandated legal minimums and pastoral/psychological realities before. When researching for my book, The Freshman Survival Guide, I spoke to administrators and staffers from public, private and religious institutions alike, and all of them struggled to say something helpful and relevant about sexuality to students. They were constantly trying to have an impact on this highly charged issue before their students showed up at their offices broken from damage they’d done to themselves or others.
Far beyond college campuses, Pope Francis and the bishops are facing a similar lack of connection between rhetoric and reality. As they prepare for the extraordinary synod on the family in October, results are trickling in from the Vatican’s questionnaire on family issues. Unsurprisingly, they reveal a wide chasm between the church’s sexual teachings and the lived experience of the faithful.
“‘Pre-marital unions’ are not only a relevant pastoral reality, but one which is almost universal,” the report from the German bishops states. It goes on to say that between 90 percent and 100 percent of the couples who want to marry in church have already been living together, in many cases for several years.
How do we address this pastoral reality? Do we continue to resign ourselves to perpetual cognitive dissonance? Indeed, is this what it has come to?
“In my experience, you’re not someone who hurts people,” a good friend of mine told his 16-year-old son. A devout Catholic who has thought deeply about the church’s sexual ethic, he wanted to discuss the issue in a way that resonated. He also wanted to have some integrity around the topic as he—like 95 percent of Americans—had also had premarital sex. “Sexuality is incredibly powerful,” he told his son, “but outside the right context people can be devastated. I don’t think that’s the kind of person you are.” It was an inspired approach. Speaking to his son’s empathy and kindness, he invited him to a depth and maturity that fearful proscriptions never could.
My own high school religion teacher’s words still stick. “Before you make adult decisions like sleeping with someone,” Sister Kate told us sophomore boys, “you’d better be prepared for the very adult consequences of your actions. Are you committed to this young woman? Are you prepared to support her and care for a child?” It was a sobering thought that added a new dimension to my moral reasoning that still remains with me.
Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a vast wealth of practical moral wisdom from our own lives that fills the gap between “Just say no” and “Please indicate your consent here.” What are your own stories or moments of moral awakening? I invite you to share with us by online comments, email or letters.
What would you say to those students at my friend’s freshman orientation talk? For her part, she and her colleagues used the Ignatian idea of magis, the “greater,” the “more,” calling students to greater moral depth and maturity. How have you been called to live beyond the minimum legal requirements? How have you reconciled a one-dimensional rule with your three-dimensional life?