Has moral theology left Catholic tradition behind?
Charlie Camosy is a moral theologian at Fordham University specializing in bioethics. He recently wrote an article assessing the state of Catholic moral theology in the United States for the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal. Tom Elitz, S.J., interviewed Mr. Camosy about “The Crisis of Catholic Moral Theology” for The Jesuit Post.
In your recent article, you talk about intersectional critical theory and how it has come to dominate moral theology at this point. Just for a little bit of background on that, could you elaborate on what intersectional critical theory is?
First let me say that it would be more precise to say that it is ascendant overall in moral theology and in some places it has become dominant, especially among younger moral theologians. And I do not think they all agree on what it is.
But maybe at a baseline, intersectional critical theory focuses on something like the interrelated systems of power that cause vulnerable populations to suffer injustice. Vulnerable populations would include African-Americans, L.G.B.T. persons, the disabled, immigrants and refugees, indigenous peoples, women, etc., and the unjust systems of power often related to those populations—which are racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, neo-colonialist, patriarchal, etc. So intersectional critical theory, at a baseline, connects all those together and works at the intersection of those injustices.
So your concern seems to be the use of it to the exclusion of other types of moral theory in some circles. What is it about this that you would see as an issue?
Before I criticize it, let me just say good things about it. There are good reasons why good Catholic moral theologians would be interested in it. Who could be against trying to liberate the oppressed? That is, in some ways, at the heart of the Christian message. But lots of people agree with liberating the oppressed.
I always ask my incoming freshmen, “Why did you come to Fordham? You could’ve gone to New York University or any number of schools. Why’d you come to a Jesuit university?” Often they will talk about social justice or some version of liberating the oppressed. And I will say: “Well, the people down the street at N.Y.U., they also want to liberate the oppressed. They’re also for social justice.” What is going on here?
I think it is fair to say that intersectional critical theorists would consider the Catholic tradition fundamentally contaminated.
And I guess that would be my main critique of intersectional critical theory as it currently is constituted. Often it connects to the [Catholic] tradition in a kind of oblique way. In fact, in many circumstances, I think it is fair to say that intersectional critical theorists would consider the tradition fundamentally contaminated. It is homophobic and racist and classist and neocolonialist in its approaches. And that is why we cannot trust it. That is why these other disciplines like sociology and history need to come in and radically critique it and maybe even serve as the primary disciplines that are operative in the discourse.
That is fine, and this scholarship has been important work, but at this point, I do not think that it is theology anymore. It is not starting with the tradition as somehow inspired by God and the church as being integrally a part of what is happening here as a source of revelation. Too often it seems like the tradition is considered contaminated and some other discipline is actually driving the discourse—something other than theology.
I will give a couple of examples. Let’s try to answer the question of who or what counts as being a marginal identity. It turns out that the prenatal human child does not count [according to intersectional critical theory]. Even though we might take such children to be the paradigmatic vulnerable population or the paradigmatic population in need of liberation. Or how about those who are in a persistent vegetative state? You might think of them as also counting, given their profound disability and vulnerability, but they do not. You would think that if intersectional thinkers were coming from a genuinely Catholic theological point of view, these populations would be at the forefront, but in most cases, they are not. And that is a tell-tale sign that something else is really driving the discourse.
You would think that if intersectional thinkers were coming from a genuinely Catholic theological point of view, the prenatal human child would be at the forefront.
What do you think caused this skeptical view of the tradition?
Well, I am not a historian of what happened, so I do not speak with authority about it, but I can make a guess. I suspect the critique of the tradition began in the post-Vatican II era. And, frankly, some of it was necessary. Moral theology needed to be renewed, and it is one of the more important things the council did. But a critique which originated from within the tradition (going back to scriptural and other foundational sources) eventually shifted to a critique which could be described as working outside of the tradition.
One thing I mentioned in the Church Life Journal piece was that the red-hot debates which took place in moral theology post-Vatican II were immersed in the tradition. But now a lot of folks have decided that that tradition is not even worth working with. It is too contaminated, too patriarchal, too homophobic and so on. And at some point, I think many Catholic thinkers became more interested in reaching certain conclusions on contemporary moral issues than working within the tradition. Moral theologians like Richard McCormick came to controversial conclusions but did so attempting to work within the tradition. I suspect many sympathetic thinkers eventually came to realize that they could not reach the conclusions they wanted to while working within the tradition.
What do you think it would take to get back to a renewed engagement with the tradition?
It’s a good question, but it again requires me to speculate. When thinking about this I often think about the #MeToo movement and how it has pushed many different kinds of people to consider sexual morality in very different ways. The 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae” was this past year, and there have been conferences and talks given by people who you might think are progressive or left-leaning—whatever that means, I really don’t like the left-right binary—who are finding good things in “Humanae Vitae.” But a generation or two ago, for many people who identified as progressive or left, “Humanae Vitae” was basically just garbage or deeply problematic.
Many Catholic thinkers became more interested in reaching certain conclusions on contemporary moral issues than working within the tradition.
But I think especially as we now see what separating sex from procreation so totally has done, maybe people are taking a second look. So I wonder if the kinds of ideas that so many moral theologians so quickly dismissed are kind of coming back, seeming more reasonable—especially in the realm of sexual morality. It might give people a sense that “well, maybe there’s something here that I missed, something which speaks to these very real issues of our day.”
I have heard you use the term “intellectual solidarity” to describe your work. Can you talk about what this means?
Before I knew it was intellectual solidarity I think I knew it as being a good philosophy major. I was kind of raised, academically, in analytic philosophy. And in analytic philosophy I took a formal logic class where we would work out the reasoning almost like a math problem. The person who was making the argument or the context in which they were making it or whether they had power or not was absolutely not part of the scenario at all. We were just trying to figure out if ‘A’ followed from ‘B’—if the reasoning was valid.
Part of the joy of doing analytic philosophy was seeing if the argument would work and really testing it and having a group of people around a table giving it all sorts of logical critiques. And then others would try to defend it. And that is how I thought about the academic project. But now that I am actually in the academy I see first-hand how little that approach is actually used.
But David Hollenbach, S.J., came up with this phrase, “intellectual solidarity.” And I thought, “Well that’s what I think I was doing when I was in analytic philosophy.” I would never consider someone the enemy. I would do my best to understand every argument. And if I did not agree with it (maybe even especially if I didn’t agree with it) I would try to understand why somebody was arguing the way that they were and how their reasoning worked.
Today my sense is that a lot of the debate in moral theology really sits along partisan lines in the broader secular culture.
But now in a theological context I want to talk about it in a context of love and solidarity with somebody else who thinks differently from me. I want to try to understand and articulate their point of view according to the best version of their argument before trying to defeat it. And maybe I do not try to defeat it; maybe I am actually convinced through the process of engagement. That is what I thought and continue to think the academic project should be.
Today we hear a lot about division in the church. In some ways, we can talk about disagreement in the church going back to Peter and Paul. So is there anything different about the disagreements we are seeing in academic moral theology today?
Again, I am not a historian, but I would say that the divisions and disagreements today are more partisan than they were. If you think of somebody like Richard McCormick (who was considered left-leaning) arguing with Germain Grisez (who was considered right-leaning), they were theologically left or theologically right, but it would not fit very nicely over the left-right debate in the broader secular culture.
In fact, those new natural law people (Grisez and others) were against lots of things that would have been considered conservative in a secular U.S. context, like the use of a nuclear weapon or even usury.
But today my sense is that a lot of the debate in moral theology really sits along partisan lines in the broader secular culture. So you do not have very many people on the Catholic left, if any, who are publicly anti-abortion, for instance. I am one of the few such people I think that is not Republican or conservative that is very strongly pro-life in the public sphere. And by the same token, who are the people on the right who are very strongly pro-L.G.B.T. or who are out there for universal health care because there is a Catholic teaching that there is a right to health care?
Those who are studying moral theology today are increasingly told by their mentors not to specialize in anything controversial.
So that is one of the most disappointing things I find about our current moment. And I know, personally, moral theologians who hold those more complicated views. But because of the way the power structures work I also know they do not feel comfortable publicly articulating those views.
But so much of what the tradition that we are claimed by as moral theologians just cannot possibly be made to fit in that left-right binary. And yet I think we are divided along that binary maybe now more than ever.
What do you think has allowed you to break that mold?
Well I think being at a Catholic school helps. It is difficult (though not impossible) to say to a Catholic moral theologian at a Catholic school that they cannot take positions like mine. Also academic freedom is still a thing. I have tenure, and I can pursue my research with some significant freedom.
But a lot of younger theologians—and especially moral theologians—do not have those protections and are not at those kinds of places. And this limits their freedom to pursue certain directions of research. There are no longer many Catholic moral theologians who identify as bioethicists, for instance, because bioethics requires a serious thinker to take public positions in ways that are totally polarizing and therefore quite risky. Taking a position on what kind of health care system we should have or what our abortion policy should be or any number of issues. No matter what your position is, you are going to land yourself in hot water with some powerful group of people.
So those who are studying moral theology today are increasingly told by their mentors not to specialize in anything controversial. You might not get a job and, even if you do, you might not get tenure. So more and more people are doing “social ethics.” And maybe studying even some of the same issues but in ways which try to avoid, again, taking positions which could bring the wrath of powerful people in the academy who disagree.
Last question. We’ve talked a lot about division, disagreements, tension. Amidst this negativity, where do you find hope?
That we’re not in charge of all of this.
I think that is a good thing for academics and others in the corridors of human power to remind ourselves—that it is the Prince of Peace who is ultimately in charge of all of this. We are not. The best we can do is witness to and anticipate the peaceable kingdom that is to come. It is divine power, not our power, that will bring about a new heaven and a new earth. “Knowledge of God will be like the water that covers the sea.” Isn’t that what Isaiah says? That is the kind of vision that gives me hope, even when we seem so far away from it.
This interview originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.