In the last couple months, allegations of sexual harassment and assault have dominated the news, from Hollywood to Washington. However, the recent accusations against U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore have led to some difference of opinion among some Christians. Judge Moore has been accused by several women of making sexual advances on them when they were teenagers in the 1970’s and he was a 30-something local politician. Two of the women, Leigh Corfman and Beverly Nelson, have said that Moore sexually assaulted them. In the wake of these accusations, Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler attempted to defend Moore by noting that he did not attempt or engage in sexual intercourse with the women, and by using the Bible to defend the ages of the women at the time of the incidences. Ziegler told the Washington Examiner “Take the Bible…. [T]ake Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.” This argument is problematic from a Catholic perspective for two reasons: because it misrepresents the relationships between the Holy Family, and because it assumes nothing harmful about Moore’s relationship with and assault of teenage girls.
Neither the Bible, nor Church teaching, offer a definitive perspective regarding the age of either Mary or Joseph. The idea that Joseph was much older than Mary is a tradition of the Church, hailing mostly from the East and perpetuated through medieval art. Even if Joseph was older, we can hardly compare the ages of men and women in ancient marriages to our modern social context. In first century Palestine, women died in childbirth at extremely high rates and men were subject to military conscription, all factors which are not influential in the current context of marriage.
Pastor Ed Setzer, Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, condemned Moore’s actions from within the Evangelical community, within which Moore identifies himself. Setzer pointed out, “Bringing Joseph and Mary into a modern-day molestation accusation, where a 32-year-old prosecutor is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl, is simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous … Even those who followed ancient marriage customs, which we would not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage.”
Perhaps more disturbing than the faulty attempt to compare Moore’s actions to the Holy Family, is the failure by Ziegler and other self-proclaimed Christian politicians and commentators to recognize the sin of sexual harassment. Ziegler notes that Moore did not engage in “intercourse” with the women accusing him, but he fails to acknowledge or respond to the accusations that Moore made unwanted verbal and physical advances toward teenager girls when he was a powerful public figure. Moore, in approaching teenage girls romantically or sexually, was acting from a position of power as a public official twice the age of the young women he made advances on. The women themselves said that they felt confused and cornered in when confronted with Moore’s advances. It is obvious in their testimonies that Moore’s abuse of power is in itself a form of psychological violence.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states that, “Violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form-physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal is sinful; often, it is a crime as well.” The Church affirms that women and men alike are created in imago Dei, in the image of God. Furthermore, Christians are called to the loving care of one another as part of the body of Christ. Jesus says in Matthew 25:45, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” To withhold any measure of respect for the body or soul of a fellow human being, is tantamount to violating Jesus Christ.
These accusations against Moore are, unfortunately, not unique. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and many others have recently been accused of acts of sexual harassment or assault. While each case is unique, all of these stories share the common theme of perpetrators leveraging their power to make sexual advances. All of the accusations were made regarding actions that were neither marital, unitive, nor procreative—the criteria used by the Church to assess the morality of sexual acts. Fundamentally, all of these criteria are based on the idea of respecting the dignity of human bodies and human life, which is a gift from God who created us in His image. The women and men who have been victims of sexual violence describe feeling traumatized and deeply wounded as a result of the actions of perpetrators. Their testimonies are evidence that sexual violence in any form breaks the greatest commandment: to love our neighbor and our God.