Are we now living in a world where scandal and impropriety are regarded as normal?, asks Joseph Kelly

Whatever anyone may have wished, it was the ‘un-named BBC presenter’ story that dominated both the news and public conversation for much of this week. In the aftermath, public opinion seems split between sympathy for Mr Edwards, especially as he’s been hospitalised after a ‘serious mental health episode’, and condemnation for whatever may or may not have been his questionable interactions with a vulnerable, much younger person.

Following close on the heels of the Philip Schofield episode, and the ongoing Kevin Spacey trial, the Huw Edwards affair has brought into sharp focus the challenges and ramifications of the current obsession with liberalising society.

Central to the defence of both Schofield and Edwards has been the argument that – whilst certain actions may have been unwise – nothing illegal has taken place. For his part Kevin Spacey seems to be putting up a similar defence – that his behaviour may have been bullish and even ‘flirtatious’, but nothing he did was illegal.

Legality as a defence is important – it’s the red line measure of what is acceptable or otherwise in modern societies, but it is only one mechanism for defining moral and personal boundaries, which in recent decades have become increasingly vague and difficult to define.

One only has to look at the complexity and confusion of the arguments around transgenderism vs safe spaces for women to realise that one of the fundamental problems with any nuanced ideology is what happens when it confronts its antithesis. This has been a particular problem for modern society, where the relativism of the Self has become the dominant narrative. The tendency is to tolerate anything and everything, unless of course it contradicts the primacy of what ‘I” believe.

In many respects the push towards liberalism of the past two centuries has been no bad thing, as we needed to emerge and grow away from a society that had become oppressive, discriminatory and to all intents and purposes both morally and socially corrupt. Unfortunately the narrative of social freedom, which gave us so many practical and material rights, from workers’ pay to racial equality, has in recent decades become of but a reflection of society’s increasing obsession with the nature and definition of human sexuality.

Many years ago I happened to be interviewing the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell on the phone, and he was then adamant that the looming explosion of sexual rights protests would cause irreparable damage to the movement, and set public opinion back decades. It looks like he was right. The desire for campaigners of any cause to gain as much ground as quickly as possible while the tide is running with them is fully understandable, but it carries a high risk that society will see itself as being assailed, and this only serves to harden contra-prejudices.

For instance, looking at the responses to both the Schofield and Edwards episodes, there’s a clear and worryingly 50/50 divide between those who regard certain, legal sexual behaviours as a purely private matter, and those who believe that there are social boundaries that fall well outside the mere letter of the law.

So it does seem that we have a society divided deeply down the middle between the new libertarianism, and the preservation of standards of behaviour that have a far more cultural than legal basis. Where you stand on all of this can be well-defined by the kind of narrative that the Edwards case has opened up – one is either comfortable with the general concept of a older man soliciting pornographic pictures from a much younger adult, or not, just as one has to decide in the Schofield case whether or not we’re comfortable with a person of such power and influence acting in the manner they did when a far younger, impressionable person was involved. Ironically it may take the Spacey case to define for modern Britain what we are now prepared to tolerate in terms of people in positions of power and influence, and their interactions with other – especially younger – people.

Whilst this might seem like new territory, it been a long time coming. Back in the days of John Perfumo and Jeremy Thorpe such things had the capacity to topple lofty careers and bring down governments, but in just a few decades moral outrage has fizzled and morphed into an obsession far more with hypocrisy than sexual behaviour. One only has to look at the history of our last Prime Minister and his cabinet to see that a litany of corruption, impropriety and sexual misdemeanours enhanced rather than destroyed reputations, and it took a lateral – and in the PM’s mind quite irrelevant – revelation to finally exhaust public tolerance and send him on his way.

The real danger with such social drifts is that, far from increasing liberty and personal freedoms, the relentless push towards relativism both hardens discrimination and normalises deviant behaviours. It also bears no consideration for wider public opinion or mores and as such can miscalculate badly the moral position of the general public.

Whilst the majority of the populace may have applauded and supported the sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, it has been deeply flawed thinking to have assumed that this is an indicator of acceptance of any passing ideology, and that public morality can be moulded without objection or question. Questions are even starting to be asked about the whole post-60s sexual liberation phenomenon itself, which saw liberties (mostly for men) gained at very considerable expense to women.

With all that’s happened in the area of sexual morals over the last half century, its easy to shrug and say that the argument for moral decency and behaviour has been lost. In particular the Catholic Church skewed its theological emphasis at Vatican II and, in attempting to engage with the sexual debates of the period, launched the Church in a disastrous, decades long and almost exclusive obsession with sexual morals that not only saw countless people leave the Faith, but sowed the seeds of abusive practices within its own walls.

The catastrophic fallout of the clerical and other abuse scandals has served to all but silence the Catholic Church on issues of sexual morality, at precisely the time when society needs a voice of reason and sanity, and one that respects the innate dignity of the human person.

Somehow the Church has to recover its voice on these matters, otherwise we’re going to find ourselves living in a society where everything that eveyrone else believes is tolerated, and nothing that you believe is.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian