I pay more attention to “Star Wars” than the average moviegoer. I’m the kind of fan who, at 23 years old, took a job at my local movie theater just to get an advance showing of Episode I, which I had waited for since the release of “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. I quit a week later. Sorry, Movies 14.
While many things have changed about “Star Wars” over the decades, one clear shift has been a growing discomfort with the concept of a “light side” and a “dark side” of the Force. That discomfort reflects a need in our culture to see everything as gray or morally complex.
Some of the most popular stories our culture tells succeed in making human beings who do despicable things likable. And we the audience are pushed to side with such people. From “Joker,” to “Breaking Bad,” to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” this trend has become predictable. It’s certainly no longer pushing boundaries or subverting expectations.
Our cultural discomfort with clear and unambiguous moral claims, calling something “good” and something else “evil’ is worrisome. We are especially uncomfortable with saying that something is always and everywhere wrong. Such simplistic views belong to an older time, people claim, a time in which submission to religious authority ran the show.
Most shifts in this regard seem to be focused on sexual morality. Yet some moral actions like kidnapping, intentionally killing the innocent, and rape are still thought of by the vast majority of people as deeply evil and always and everywhere wrong.
This is still true of seniors and older adults. When respondents 65 and over were asked in a new Harvard-Harris poll if the killing and/or kidnapping of thousands of innocent civilians by Hamas “can be justified by the grievances of Palestinians,” only 9% answered yes. For those 45-64, similarly small minorities answered yes.
But for those aged 25-34, the percentage who said yes rose to 44%; for those 18-24, the number jumped to 60%.
Let that sink in: 6 in 10 young people think that kidnapping and killing the innocent can be justified for the right reason. This tracks with a similarly disturbing trend of young people looking the other way when it comes to the sexual violence Hamas perpetrated on Israeli women and girls.
One Twitter user sharing this information spoke for many, I think, in calling the 60% number a “wild statistic.” On the one hand, it certainly is. If the next generation coming up can’t condemn these actions as always and everywhere impermissible and evil, there is little hope that the culture they lead will be a good one.
But on the other hand, such a development is predictable given that these are the moral views they have been taught playing out more consistently and authentically.
If exceptionless moral norms are from a time gone by — if claims about certain actions always being evil come only from an outdated religious authority — then it makes perfect sense that a generation raised as consequentialist utilitarians (who care only for getting the outcomes they want and not for moral concerns about how they get there) would become … consequentialist utilitarians.
Let me be absolutely clear: We should not downplay the ways in which Israel has overreached or acted disproportionately in ways that are morally grotesque in its history. Nor should we backtrack from authentic complexity and gray areas in moral discourse. Clearly we can and should do both.
But neither of these goals require giving up on the concept of exceptionless moral norms or intrinsically evil acts.
On the contrary, our current moment calls for a profound and serious defense of these very concepts. Unfortunately, there is a disturbing movement afoot in the Catholic Church (even at very high levels), which critiques and dismisses these concepts as a simplistic “handbook for formulas” for a moral life that is much more complex.
But the trends described above demonstrate that the Church’s clear teaching on exceptionless moral norms and intrinsically evil acts is needed more than ever. People need to know and recognize what, by its nature, is good and what is evil. People need clarity.
Indeed, when faithful Catholics speak into a culture which has normalized that which is wrong without exception — which tells predictable stories designed to make us root for the bad guy — our position becomes subversive. Ours becomes the one that pushes cultural boundaries. Ours the one that speaks truth to power from the margins.
Let us pray, especially in the power of God’s grace offered to us this Christmas season — one in which Christ is born from the margins — for the courage to speak and act in ways which undermine the foundations of a dominant culture that has lost the ability to name evil for what it is.