Over at Daily Theology, they are in the midst of an Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education. It is an excellent series and one well timed since the most dangerous period for sexual assaults on campuses is the beginning of the fall semester, often referred to as the “Red Zone.” In this series, Katherine Greiner wrote a post on Catholic identity and sexual assault. In it, she writes,
those of us who work with and for Catholic colleges and universities do not deal with the issues of sexual violence and unhealthy sexual behavior in spite of our Catholic identity—we do so because our Catholic identity and mission compels us to compassionately attend to all aspects of human experience—including human sexuality.
I couldn’t agree more and wanted to add support for what she argues.
To be sure, Catholic colleges and universities have incentives that might make them try and address sexual assault quietly. Catholicism in some way, shape or form is part of every mission of Catholic colleges and universities. Moreover, this mission clearly impacts these campuses. Almost every one has a Catholic president, a well-staffed campus ministry, an office of service learning, required courses in Catholicism and the liberal arts, and daily and Sunday masses. Even from the students’ perspective they almost never say that their campus is “not very Catholic” but rather indicated that it is “mostly Catholic”.
Given this Catholic culture, these colleges and universities might avoid public avowals of sexual assault as it implies the existence of pre-marital sex on their campuses as well as that it is occurring without basic kindness, care, or love. It would seem a very non-Catholic place, and no Catholic institution, no matter how little they emphasize their Catholic identity, wants to be known thus. These are real incentives and can silence discourse on sex and sexuality. Yet, this approach—protecting a reputation—was exactly the one taken with so much of the priestly sexual abuse scandal. It damaged the trust people had in the church and, worse, allowed the abuse to continue.
Catholic colleges and universities can take a better approach because of their Catholic identity. The public discussion of how to handle sexual assault has advanced well, arguing that a) individuals must gain explicit consent from each other, (the “yes means yes” policy), b) there must be greater reporting and thus awareness of these assaults, and c) bystanders should intervene to prevent assaults. Catholic colleges and universities should enact these policies but not stop with them.
The foundation of Catholic social teaching is the inherent dignity of every person, the affirmation that a person “is not just something, but someone” who is “capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession” and can freely enter relationships to form “communion with other persons.” Moreover, this dignity is of the whole person, body and soul, thus violating either aspect is a violation of the whole person. The affirmation of dignity not only supports the “yes means yes” policy but goes beyond to affirm any violation of human dignity as intrinsically evil. (See Gaudium et Spes, 27).
Condemning violations of human dignity has two implications. First, it implies that communities must be organized to protect the dignity of all people. Catholic social teaching states it this way:
Together with equality in the recognition of the dignity of each person and of every people there must also be an awareness that it will be possible to safeguard and promote human dignity only if this is done as a community, by the whole of humanity.
As communities, Catholic colleges and universities should organize themselves to ensure that everyone’s dignity is respected. This would entail awareness and reporting of assaults on campuses but also changes in institutional structures and policies, based on this reporting, so that campuses are places where dignity is protected and promoted.
Second, Catholic social teaching’s affirmation of human dignity also implies that individuals commit themselves to bringing about this more justly ordered society. It is what Catholic social teaching terms solidarity:
Solidarity is also an authentic moral virtue, not a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
In other words, it is not enough to make institutional changes. Students also need to alleviate this situation. Thus, Catholic colleges and universities must be places where students are on guard against incidents of sexual assault as well as creating a broader student culture that hinders, resists, and condemns it.
What you find in Catholic social teaching is a ready made resource for Catholic colleges and universities to respond to sexual assault. It should move them to meet the legal initiatives being promoted but not stop there. It should push them to change their institutional culture, from the top-down with institutional policies and the bottom up with the students themselves, so that the dignity of all people is protected and promoted. In truth, it should push Catholic institutions of higher education even further. It demands that they live up to the love of others that Jesus said was a sign of all of his followers. (John 13: 34-35)