One of Britain’s favourite entertainers has been sent to prison. The judge’s words to Rolf Harris sound hollow: “You have shown no remorse for your crimes at all. You have no one to blame but yourself.” His fans here have reacted with silence, numbness, and emptiness.
Because what Harris has done is what unremorseful society has been doing for decades. People feel disgusted not just with him, but with themselves. Many of us are doing much the same every day, even if we keep within the bounds of the law.
I venture to say that the scandal of child-abusing entertainers which has been on the front pages for so many months could be a moment of reawakening in society, but it will need courage and willingness to stand up to scorn.
Since the Swinging Sixties we have been living in a society that has claimed to throw off the yoke of traditional morality. (I say “claimed” because I contend that it cannot succeed in doing so because the notion of right and wrong is innate in man.) And in recent years, Britain has been amending its laws and spurning traditional Christian morality as part of a campaign to secularise public life.
Interestingly, however, when it has an opportunity to hear the perennial truths, the public receives it with palpable joy; witness the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate with its clear and unapologetic proclamation of the traditional teaching on marriage.
The dark cloud of Rolf Harris’s unmasking may have a silver lining. It is a good moment to reflect once again on the beauty of traditional Christian morality. His conviction could have the effect of Ezra and Nehemiah rediscovering the book of the law after their Babylonian Exile. The returning Jewish exiles “wept when they heard the words of the law”.
So what does the law, ie, the moral code of the Old Testament, say? “You shall not commit adultery”. And in the New Testament Jesus explains that this law is not only external but governs one’s thoughts: “Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. Christian morality holds that every fully consented action against the moral law in this matter is a serious sin, punishable with eternal damnation.
Ouch! No wonder the Swinging Sixties complained about the yoke of a guilt complex.
Furthermore, Christianity has no exemptions for age. “What stains a child, also stains an old man” is a proverb of great sense.
As for society, those in authority have a duty to protect human morality. How is left to the civil authorities in each place, since conditions vary considerably. Ideally it should be achieved with a light touch. The more freedom the citizens enjoy the better, since “only with freedom can we love God”; a morality of slaves who are forced to be good by draconian laws is not a Christian morality.
Is it possible to live up to such a demanding moral code?
It is difficult, as the terrible failings of a few priests and religious testify. But the clean lives of so many, many others testify that it certainly is possible. Christianity proclaims the reality of grace and the capacity we all have to change and to be converted. No one is ever written off. If Rolf Harris has gone to prison, the Church encourages him to feel remorse and with God’s help to mend his ways. That help will always be there. No sin is too ghastly to be forgiven and those who administer forgiveness are well aware that they are capable of falling into the same misdemeanours. So sinners can become saints. Look at St Augustine, who once prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Is Christian chastity a message that the 21st Century will listen to? Or is it as dated as Victorian top hats and horse-drawn carriages? The media’s answer is always No. It profits from gasping in pharisaic horror at the sins of the rich and famous. But the scandal of Rolf Harris & Co could be different. The media, particularly the BBC, were complicit in the crimes of these men. Revulsion at the media’s manipulative hypocrisy could eventually lead people to search for their Christian roots.
And, as people see on the face of Pope Francis, chastity is not an intolerable burden but a source of lasting joy. Christ has promised: “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God”, in whom is all attraction and happiness, though for the present we only see that darkly and through a mirror.
It’s up to us and society to decide.
Father Andrew Byrne is chaplain at Grandpont House, a residence for students at the University of Oxford, in England.