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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!



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Misguided Divorce Comments Speak to Underlying Scandal

Fr. Peter Ryan of the USCCB

Joshua McElwee has another good interview at National Catholic Reporter, this time with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops new doctrinal head, Jesuit Fr. Peter Ryan. The interview is introductory, and Fr. Ryan offers little besides lockstep adherence to the bishops. He’s an expert in bioethics, which is a growing field of moral quandary with medical advancements on the daily – and in this capacity maybe he will advance theology.

However, one response from the priest about divorce struck me as particularly misguided. I quote it here in full, with my comments afterwards:

“[Joshua McElwee] Since you specified the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, I wonder how you would say this on a pastoral level in talking to someone who has been divorced who was obviously in an unhealthy relationship and wants to continue with their life. How do you consider that?

“[Fr. Peter Ryan] Well, there certainly does need to be a lot of pastoral outreach in that area and many other areas where people have real-life problems. I think the first thing to do is to be genuinely compassionate and understanding and to reach out to them with genuine pastoral care.

“At the same time, the teaching about marriage is right there in the Gospel. It’s pretty clearly not something the church happened to come up with years later. … And so I don’t think that somehow it makes sense to think that being pastorally sensitive could somehow mean compromising that teaching,

“… Sometimes people have to accept a really difficult reality that in fact they are married, and then we just have to support them as well as we can. And if they’re not willing to live by the church’s teaching, then we still love them and welcome them to church.

“That doesn’t mean that we violate what the church says about holy Communion, but it does mean we try and reach out to them and help and support them as much as we can.”

The Catholic hierarchy’s failure to adequately understand and address marriage is not newsworthy, and the continued attacks on the divorced, remarried, same-gender couples, etc. are to be expected. Except, McElwee does not ask about any old divorce and receive the party line. He asks about a woman who is separated from an unhealthy (and we can fairly read abusive) relationship and receives a poor response.

It seems, amid all the talk of pastoral concern and compassion,  Fr. Ryan expects the victim of an unhealthy marriage to remain in that marriage. In order to not “compromise that teaching” that marriage is indissoluble, those in ministry should counsel the abused spouse to stay married even if it is a “difficult reality.”

It’s a few paragraphs in an initial interview, and perhaps I could accept it as such and wait to see how this new doctrinal czar acts. The problem is Fr. Ryan is speaking about a larger trend in the Church, and living among the anti-woman and anti-pastoral culture of the bishops he may only get worse. Catholics should be scandalized by this problem: we do not take issues of intimate partner violence and sexual violence seriously in our theology nor in our pastoral practice.

John Garvey of my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, recently wrote in a San Francisco Catholic publication. His words, like Fr. Ryan’s reveal the scandal, in regards to student life on Catholic campuses where “two different messages about sex…can at times clash awkwardly.” Garvey explains that the two messages in conflict are consent and chastity – I will write more tomorrow about this troublesome piece.

I’m obviously not the first Catholic who reads remarks like Fr. Ryan’s or President Garvey’s and feels pained by the bishops’ backwardness, and Meghan Clarke of Millennial writes a piece well-worth everyone’s time. Writing about rape culture and the high rates of violence against women worldwide, she concludes by criticizing the Church’s complicity:

“As a Catholic feminist ethicist, I am currently struggling with the silence of my own community on the structural sin here.  There are a handful of theologians writing on the hookup culture, domestic violence, and sexual violence in war, but these conversations are small and largely relegated to the edges of our moral theology conversations.  Catholic public debate on violence against women is virtually nonexistent, even as we are about to launch a second fortnight for freedom – this time on same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court.  Why isn’t rape culture and violence against women a priority within Catholic moral theology?”

Let us pray that as Fr. Ryan takes over at the USCCB’s head position for moral theology, a growing awareness of women’s issues and the impact gender and sexual violence will help the scales to fall away from his eyes. His response to the divorce question is inadequate in our day, and everyone who is affected by marriage (so everyone…) deserves more Christ-like, loving guidance from our clergy.



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Obama’s False Choice on Drones, and a Syllogism of Sorts

A few remarks about President Obama’s address last week, specifically relating to his defense of the immoral drone strikes the US government continues to use (You can read the full transcript of President Obama’s remarks here.) Ultimately, I argue President Obama’s defense of drone strikes relies on a false choice between kill or do nothing and some poor logic.

In addressing drones, he sets the stage by reminding Americans of just how remote those the government hunts are considered, hiding in lawless nations like Somalia and in the deserts and caves of the Middle East. Geographic difficulties, national sovereignty concerns, and risk to surrounding populations all mean using troops is implausible most times. The hunt of ‘terrorists’ is necessary, the means are limited, the challenges are many: cue the drones.

The president’s first defense is that drone strikes are “effective.” So much for a discussion on ethics. His quotes from al-Qaeda communications that worry about the effectiveness of the drones as evidence, concluding, “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” It seems President Obama is making the ethical argument that the ends justify the means, and this discussion seems to be all about effective tactics for the just end of…well, I’m not so sure.

To appease the lawyers, he then references the terrorism of September 11th and the Congressional authorization for the War on Terror as the legal basis for this war of self-defense. Relying on the theory of Justified War, the president concludes: “So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” I have no legal training, so perhaps this War on Terror is legal under domestic and international law (though I’m inclined to think not). I do know Justified War theory and its Catholic roots, and definitively these drone attacks are neither proportional, a last resort, nor in self-defense as the theory traditionally understands imminent threat.

Finally, President Obama admits that merely possessing an effective technology is not actually a moral defense for drones. In his own words:

“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance…And that’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists…”

Unfortunately, he dodges the moral question again. Merely having a framework implemented again does not answer the jarring questions raised by drones. His words are shallow, and painfully ironic, for those who know the truth about drone strikes. The president claims these strikes are constrained, respectful of national sovereignty, used only when capture is not possible for “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and when there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” There may be this framework, but it is a failed one and the body count tells a different truth.

President Obama’s defense of drones comes down to the false choice he presents, excluding the voices of nonviolence and peacemakers, development individuals and educators, leaders of civic society and democratic reformers. The choice is between accepting massive civilian death tolls, tacitly acknowledged as a “gap” between official military estimates and those of nongovernmental reports, and not using drones to stop terrorists who would kill us all if only we let our guard down.

As he reiterates, sending in US troops would be too costly and there may be governments who would not allow the US to operate militarily within their nation (shocking). There may be a plethora of reasons why we cannot use conventional means to attack these terrorists, so the only option that is left is drones. For the president, when this choice is all that exists, ” Doing nothing is not an option.” And that something to do is a drone strike.

There is more in the speech I hope to digest, about the killing of American citizens using drones and the expansiveness of their use, about Congress role and the over-empowered Executive branch, about many other issues. I think these are separate issues than the moral justification of a drone strike itself though, and in this moral defense President Obama fails gravely.

Fundamentally, when President Obama made a defense of drone strikes it was this:

(1) Drone technology is effective in getting around the nasty bits of warmaking, like US soldiers being killed, accountability to the American people, or foreign governments rejecting our ‘aid,” and we have a good end to justify this questionable means;

(2) The Obama Administration’s lawyers concocted a way to ‘legally’ justify these drones strikes under domestic, and international law, but there is no need to explain this to the American people. Just trust the Administration that the strikes are ‘legal’;

(3) It is necessary to violently strike/kill at whomever the US government secretly ordains ‘terrorist’ because the only other choice is inaction, and conventional uses of force are impractical for a number of reasons thus necessitating the use of drones;

(4) Therefore, drone strikes are morally acceptable.

That syllogism may not make sense because of my poor articulation, but more likely it may not make sense because the muddling of premises into a cloud of confusion is the only means through which the President can arrive at the unjustified conclusion. The limited imagination at the White House does not allow for new thinking or for the realization violence perpetuates violence.

What if Obama admitted, as we are well aware, that schools, healthcare, democratic institutions and the rule of law, enough food on one’s table from a stable economy, and all the varied benefits of peace will defend Americans and the whole world much more than more drone murder? For this awareness, I continue to pray to God.


P.S.Drone strikes remain immoral, illegal, and ineffective – and they’re ongoing! If you’d like to take action consider speaking out against them join the monthly witness at CIA headquarters the second Saturday of every month from 10am-12pm.

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