My wife Margaret alerted me to a very troubling piece in the New York Times by Diana Nyad, possibly the greatest distance swimmer in American history. Nyad, now 68, has accomplished such feats as swimming from the Bahamas to Florida and Cuba to Florida. However, these challenges dwarf in comparison to the lifelong battle she has fought in the aftermath of serious sexual assaults inflicted upon her as a teenager by her swimming coach, a man regarded as an icon in the field of high school swimming. I debated with myself about posting her teenaged experiences, but in the context of the morality stream here at the Café, the ugliness of sin and evil cannot be avoided, particularly given that the victims of sin often have no opportunity to escape it. Be advised that the link here is for mature adults only.
Ms. Nyad’s detailed account of events of over fifty years stands in the context of this autumn’s “Me, too” awareness and the allegations of multiple women against a man running for the U.S. Senate next month from Alabama. There is a sad predictability about such cases as the one in Alabama; they are rarely isolated, and it only takes one public accusation to open the door. In Ms. Nyad’s case, she finally decided to describe her experiences to a peer, who in turn admitted that the same coach had repeatedly molested her, too, with the same sex acts.
In the Alabama campaign, I have had to process the reaction of the voting citizenry. Business Insider reported on a very recent poll in which “29% of survey respondents said they were actually more likely to support Moore following the accusations, while 38% of respondents said they were less likely to support him following the report, and 33% said it made no difference.” In a heavily evangelical state like Alabama, I found this inconsistency remarkable—though this poll is a referendum on federalism and the media as much as anything--and for a time it roused my lesser angels to quick and superficial conclusions. But given our weekly commitment here on Mondays to the moral life, the subject—multiple subjects, actually—deserve deeper theological consideration.
Paragraph 1701 opens the door to our considerations with its assertion that man has been created “in the image and likeness” of the Savior. I would maintain that this Biblical truth is one of the hardest for us to maintain, because we are overwhelmed by what seems to be the opposite. St. Augustine, certainly no stranger to the evils men do, attempted to provide an explanation for the evil tendencies of mankind with a language reflected in the Catechism here, that the divine image has been disfigured in man by the first sin [of Adam and Eve.] Augustine’s metaphysical/biological analysis of the root of sin and evil is admittedly not emotionally satisfying in attempting to explain the actions of shooters Devin Patrick Kelley [Texas] or Stephen Paddock [Las Vegas], nor does it get to the core of why some individuals sin more egregiously than others.
The ”Me too” movement is probably the better focal point of moral discussion, for it moves our attention from the dramatic and radical behaviors of the few to the more pervasive sins of the many—the commonplace exercise of abuse of power by males in relationships with girls and women. This form of abuse is so prevalent that I have included it in my psychosocial patient histories for years. We are talking about a wide range of behaviors here—child abuse, as in the case of Diana Nyad, to work site harassment, coercion, or indecency—where power motivates sexual words or actions. I have always carried some knowledge of the uphill battle faced by all women; I am married to a brilliant Ivy League doctoral graduate who has been tossed under the bus from time to time in her professional life by the male brotherhood.
It is rare indeed to hear any woman report that she had no instances in her life where her sex did not, at the very least, put her in an anxious or very uncomfortable predicament. Given the almost universal scope of the problem, it is fair to say that as men, our sensitivity on this matter is sorely lacking. Some people we have known, trusted, done business with, worshipped with, or even trusted our children with, do live double lives, and apparently in large numbers. Catholics have come to public knowledge of this since the 2002 Boston Globe investigation into the actual numbers of abusing clergy.
The troubling issue for a man of conscience is coping with the prevalence of sin. It is troubling to me, for example, that I missed a good number of cues in my earlier life, that when a parishioner, student, or client, reported a past or present struggle with the predatory behavior of a man or a workplace, my solutions were round-a-bout. Mandated reporting laws in Florida did not come into play until the late 1980’s. As a priest and therapist, I have reported several cases to authorities, and I was subpoenaed to testify in several child abuse cases, not a pleasant experience.
When you immerse yourself in such matters, there is a depressing sensation that the world is a much more sinful [and dangerous] place than we like to think. But this despondency is the beginning of wisdom. Words like “salvation” and “redemption” begin to assume the power God intended them to have. In reflecting upon grave sin, and the reality of hell, it has occurred to me that God, in the very way we are created, has empowered us to choose eternal life. Similarly, God has empowered us to make the decision to damn ourselves as well. It is a terrifying thought, really, and it is one that we suppress—the power God has given us. For this reason, we downplay the many sins of our culture—including the abuse of power and a reluctance to enter the experience of women.
Morality makes sense only when we understand the high stakes of being the creatures of God, in his image and likeness. If we despair of our divine gifts at the cost of our depravity, great as it may be, we have admitted defeat. Hope is not called a virtue for nothing.