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CUA President John Garvey: Consent & Chastity “Clash Awkwardly”

John Garvey of The Catholic University of America

John Garvey, the president at The Catholic University of America, recently wrote a letter in Catholic San Francisco about students’ sexual conduct at his school (and my alma mater). Concerns about the “hook-up culture” and sexual health seem to be discussed a lot lately in higher education, and with validity I agree. Garvey’s take however is troubling given CUA’s poor record on sexual violence. He begins:

“At The Catholic University of America, where I serve as president, we have been working on some revisions to our code of student conduct. We’re finding that it’s challenging because we need to send students two different messages about sex that can at times clash awkwardly.”

What exactly are these two clashing messages that Catholic college students receive? The messages, as Garvey elucidates, are the importance of consent and the importance of chastity.

It seems that Catholic teachings on sexuality are at odds with seeking consent from one’s partner – in his words, they “clash awkwardly.” He refers heavily to the sexual violence portion in legalistic terms, although admitting it is “a sin against justice and charity” at one point. Most important it seems is that sexual assault is forbidden by local and federal laws, and there are all kinds of laws that colleges must comply with too.

The takeaway from John Garvey: Don’t sexually assault a person because it violates the law, and we need to keep the “risk managers” happy. He actually writes at one point:

“Risk managers (accountants and lawyers) want us to be very clear with our students about what counts as sexual abuse…If we’re not explicit about this, they say, we may be guilty under Title IX of creating a hostile environment, and risk losing federal funds.”

Cast aside any concern for students who may be victimized by failing to teach about healthy, mature, and consenting sexual relations (or Catholic identity for that matter), The Catholic University of America could lose precious federal funds and thus is forced to comply with the laws. So there’s that, in approximately three paragraphs.

President Garvey then continues discussing consensual sexual relations, which are presented as far worse, and is worthy of almost double the words sexual violence was. He continues:

“College student conduct codes will usually tell students that the difference between sex and sexual abuse is the element of consent. And they will use a formula something like this to define consent: ‘Consent is informed, freely given, mutually understandable words or actions that indicate a willingness to participate in sexual activity.’

“But that’s not the end of the story from a Catholic perspective. Consensual sex between students matters, too. It’s not a crime (fortunately), but it is a sin against chastity when it takes place outside of marriage.

“Chastity is an unfashionable virtue nowadays, but the idea is not hard to understand. Casual sex is harmful even if there is no coercion. It plays at love for sport. It makes promises that the players don’t intend to keep. It insults the dignity of the other person by treating him or her as a sex toy rather than a child of God. It divorces sex from the creation of new life and the unity of a family.”

Apparently, encounters of rape and sexual assault, and consensual relations between two students are analogous at some level – the article hints that both are quite harmful. It even leans to emphasis how sinful consensual sex is – it’s insults the dignity of the partner, treats them as a sex toy, divorces sex from it’s meanings. Sex outside of marriage is seemingly the worst sex there could be. Except it is not.

In a balancing act, the president then forcefully says sexual abuse must be dealt with justly at Catholic schools, even if “it’s a bit awkward to turn around then and say, ‘But wait – that sexual activity we told you to get consent for? You should not be doing it at all.'” These principles of consent and chastity now “clash awkwardly” again, even as President Garvey writes that the goals are “quite harmonious.” So who is to blame for positioning them in conflict?

“The awkwardness in explaining this arises because our culture doesn’t want to hear the message it needs. It wants to prevent violence while preserving promiscuity. It is forbidden to consider that for some subset of the population, the latter can lead to the former.

“Casual sex is a disordered activity. If you engage in it, it creates terrible habits in you and degrades your partner.”

Nowhere in the article is sexual assault called a degrading activity or a disrespecting of human dignity, and nowhere in the article is the opposition to violence rooted in Catholic thought aside from the general “sin against justice and charity.” The theology against using our sexuality as a violent tool and a power game is so clear and so deep, it would not be hard to draw from. Garvey would rather stick to faulting culture for putting Catholics in the awkward situation, not our own inadequacies in responding to pastoral realities.

Yet, President Garvey in this article is clear that sexual violence is a legal matter, and sex outside marriage is the theological one. I know he would clearly speak about against rape and assault as morally contemptible acts, but he refuses to stop equivocating between two disparate acts. Where is the disconnect?

The problem, I believe, is the Catholic silence around sex positivity, especially for young adults. Yesterday, I wrote about misguided views by Catholics on intimate partner violence and marriage, with some good links on these same problems including a piece by Meghan Clarke at Millennial.

As for education today, the hierarchy and school administrators spend far too much time with heads buried, constantly haranguing unmarried Catholics to chastity – meaning celibacy – without any other conversations. Deprived of discussions around sexual health, consent, positive body image, and good relationship dynamics, students on Catholic campuses are trapped in a twilight zone where there is no acceptable “yes,” and yet nearly everyone is sexually active. Students participating in the average activities of college students nationwide, drinking and hooking up, are less (or completely un-) equipped situations they may find themselves in – and this is when terrible things happen.

Garvey hedges in ever saying consensual sex, inside or outside of marriage, is totally separate from violence and power expressed sexually. The Catholic University of America, and I guarantee it is not alone, hedges from recognizing that consensual sex may not fit within the Catholic framework – but it should never be spoken of alongside rape.

Catholics in our Church remain silent around building up a culture that is sex positive – that endorses the goodness of these divine expressions, openly discusses consent and sexual health, deals with the realities of college students’ lives, and all the while rejects the “hook-up culture” by reappropriating chastity to the responsible use of one’s sexuality, not merely listing prohibitions.

I know that Catholics in the pews are imagining sexuality in new ways, in ways closer to Christ’s message and the love of God, and in ways that are making each of us safer, healthier, and more fulfilled. Let’s pray this Spirit carries onto our Catholic campus too!

-Bob

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