Some years ago, when Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, he confessed publicly that he sometimes had lustful thoughts about women that were not confined to his wife. That brought an interesting reaction. Every comedian in North America had ammunition for a couple of years of stand-up gigs. This, however, is not worrisome. Comedians may be our modern equivalent of the medieval court jester, but their commentary is not a crucial indicator of moral fiber within a culture. More serious was the fact that, in all but the most conservative church circles, Carter’s comment provoked either ridicule or that particular kind of pity reserved for those whom we consider well intentioned but naive. Church groups and moralists alike gave him little respect.

More recently, John Paul II suffered a similar fate for, in effect, quoting Jesus, who clearly said that if someone thinks lustful thoughts that person has already committed adultery in his or her heart. Far from being taken seriously, the Pope’s comments, like Carter’s, became fuel for a lot of humor and ridicule.

In both cases, the humor that ensued was perhaps harmless, the ridicule was not. That ridicule, which is a crucial indicator of moral fiber within a society, helped create scandal in the biblical sense. Scandal, as you know, does not normally happen when something really shocks us. It happens when, for whatever reason, we trivialize something important to the point where it precisely no longer shocks us, but is instead taken for granted, as normal. We are scandalized when we are no longer shocked by something that should shock us. This is what has happened in the Western world vis-a-vis lust. It no longer shocks. It has been trivialized, made to seem normal, harmless, innocent.  

What is very interesting here, however, is that few persons see irony in the fact that it is precisely the same people who ridicule both Jimmy Carter and John Paul II for their old-fashioned ideas of lust, who are alerting us, and validly so, to the subtle and pernicious character of sexual harassment. Speak of inconsistencies and moral blind spots! Just as the ninth commandment is becoming the object of humor and derision we are becoming sensitive to the issue of sexual harassment. Small wonder we are making little progress with the latter.

What commandment is broken in sexual harassment, especially of the very subtle variety? What commandment is broken when mindless (at least for that moment) men whistle at pretty young women as they walk by work sites? What is at stake when women, of all ages, feel that men do not treat them with a respect that suggests that they, the men, are seeing an entire human being? Justice is being violated, surely. But on what basis? On the basis precisely of the greed (another word for lust) that is forbidden by the ninth commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife!

This is a commandment we no longer understand today.

In a culture that is obsessed with sex and which tends to view any positive restriction on sex as repressive, it becomes almost impossible to have anyone take seriously a commandment that enjoins us to practice an asceticism within our very thinking about sex. When our moral thinking regarding sexuality slips to the point where we can no longer distinguish between sexual and contraceptive responsibility, when the latter is made to carry the same responsibilities as the former, then we are a long ways away from even talking about the ninth commandment. How do you speak of purity of thought in a debate focused on condoms?

Ironically, as stated earlier, the road forward might lie precisely with those who, for now, disdain this commandment. Being liberal in one’s sexual morality brings some gains as well as losses. One of the gains it brings is precisely, as just mentioned, an ever increasing sensitivity to how subtle, pernicious, and omnipresent sexual harassment is and how, long before it acts out in the public arena, sexual harassment roots in certain attitudes which themselves take root in certain very private, lustful, thoughts. Long before anyone whistles at a pretty girl at a work site or some employer subtly or crassly sexually pressures an employee, someone has been breaking the ninth commandment.

Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God… and not violate the dignity of those around them! That is a positive wording of the ninth commandment which challenges us to see the person in front of us, not through the prism of our own greed, but through eyes that accord proper respect.