Has moral theology left Catholic tradition behind?

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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?

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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.

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J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Critical Theory? This is moral relativism.
What's left vs right have to do with moral theology? The author seems to agree. These are political concepts. But even the term "right" is not defined in politics nor is the term "conservative." Isn't a discussion of such concepts in terms of religion revealing that moral theology is not about theology? But more about justifying a bogus political position? This is also what the author seems to be saying. That philosophy departments are intellectually bankrupt that most of academia is intellectually bankrupt!

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

It seems that most of academia wants the world to behave according to their preferences without justifying the value of their preferences. It must be tough for a young person today to navigate this mine field of specious thought processes that permeates the universities and then lead a productive life.

John Sharpe
2 months 1 week ago

Hard sciences are also being corrupted by social sciences (which is faux science) because scientists are also studying social science in school. By using and redefining religious language the secular left has positioned themselves to replace the Catholic Church as the secular church of moral instruction. Secular society is now the moral authority instructing the Church, not the other way around (most articles in America Magazine reflect this) replacing the instructions and writings of the church fathers, saints and the library of deveveloped theology for over 2000 years. It’s not going to end well, read the Old Testament writers...

Jaroslav Lunda
2 months 1 week ago

Living and resurrected God Jesus Christ was abandoned by death Jesus, Jesus the Liar. These people will never kneel down in front of the manger. They even cannot comprehend that it is necessary to start with Jesus if one wants to see human man. And, well, they prefer stable income and career, not a way of cross...

John Sharpe
2 months 1 week ago

Repeat

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

He's pro-life and progressive? The line ... "we now see what separating sex from procreation so totally has done" ... and suggesting Humanae Virae is popular with progressives is an example of the present lack of progressive theologians in the church - certainly he isn't progressive.

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

Whimsically, I muse.
If one is learning, discussing and critiquing human moral life and consider that humanity is both material and spiritual, was created immortal and the fate of each through eternity is decided by their Creator, then intersectional critical theory might apply thus

God is guilty on all counts across all situations and in all ages.

He made humankind in two unequal kinds, males and females.
He made humankind and first put them in an environment where all their needs were catered for and there was room to live and procreate and increase in numbers but exiled them from this as collective punishment.
He made a round earth with different environments, many quite inhospitable and then allowed them to become so numerous that many were cold, or hungry or lacked appropriate shelter.
He endowed each human with a variety of gifts, talents, and powers so that not all could invent machines or lead tribes or discover medicines but allowed the talented to confine the fruits of their labours to their nearest and dearest.

I could go on.

Christian study, teaching and practice in the past has already reached the stage where this nonsense can be dismissed out of hand.
Some may wish to pioneer a branch for this day and age, and develop a sound, watertight, compelling and teachable answer to each of the current counterfeit creeds of cultural Marxism without needing to surrender the slightest conformity to it.
As long as I live, I would support such a Christian and have no doubt I am not alone, the fishers of men would be worthy of our hire.

Christopher Minch
2 months 1 week ago

This article is a "much to do about nothing". The counting of the number of angels on the head of pin. Who at the level of the pew heard about or cares about an intersectional critical theory until this article? This article comes up with few, if any concrete examples of how this would apply or make a difference in anyone's life one way or the other.

My moral question is this: what led to 100 years of popes, bishops and curia to think that they were morally, on a personal level and institutionally, doing the right thing by secretly letting or enabling over time clerics sexually abuse children and others? They were able to ignore Jesus' words, ignore that their efforts of rehabilitation were unsuccessful and then only becoming horrified and taking action when the public caught on to this? These are the actions of enablers and moral cretins. A massive institutional "do as I say, not as I do"!

I say every word, pronouncement, behaviors and book of any of these popes and bishops and even saints wrote on moral doctrine or theology needs to be scrutinized now in light of their behavior and attitudes toward this issue and all sexual morality. They certainly gave themselves a huge "benefit of the doubt", why can't they give the faithful the same courtesy and pastoral sensitivity in moral matters as we all try to find our way to heaven's gate?

But, the sexual abuse of all children is morally and legally reprehensible and out-of-bounds and as well as any encounter where there is a huge power differential as a bishop, pastor or priest acting in these capacities with souls to whom they are professionally ministering to or responsible for in any fashion. And severe sanctions and repercussions need to be applied in these instances. No pastoral or moral sensitivity needs to apply--this was and is simply wrong.

Write something relevant about this Mr. Camosy and Fr. Elitz and leave intersectional critical theory to college thesis writers unless it is really going to make in difference at the level of the pew.

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

It already has made a huge difference at the level of the pew. It has been going on for years and as a result college students and graduates over the last 25 years don’t visit the pews anymore.

Christopher Minch
2 months 1 week ago

Wrong. College students and graduates aren't returning to the pews because of many reasons but not this specific theory. More likely they just decided to sleep-in instead of going to church probably even before the student left home or didn't join the campus Newman's Club. If these students had a good formative Catholic beginning with a good role model then they most likely will be back in their later years if they get a wife who also has some religious upbringing or when he gets married, wants to raise a family and begins thinking about how to raise the kids. Perhaps also the absolutist moral precepts of the church turns specific types of people off. But a theory like the one being discussed here would be a section in a sociology text book under politics or power theories and it would depend on the professor how important they think it is.

mary ann Steppke
2 months ago

disagree the past sins of the church have affected todays 2019 students in Catholic schools . Trust is gpne . Truth always survives thru the Holy Spirit who motivates those that speak out in the name of God . The Church was incredibly sinful in area of sexual abuse in many ways too many ways where the peasants began to not trust. For centuries we were left like orphans but it was the simple love for one another that kept the Spirit . Not the Catholic Church It was a front a false front that leaves us so wounded today Lord hear our cry amen

John Sharpe
2 months 1 week ago

@ Christopher Minch. Is your point because priest and Bishops were corrupt that intersectionality is not? Intersectionality is just another wolf in sheep’s clothing that needs to be rejected along with the bad clergy. Read the Apostolic Fathers

Christopher Minch
2 months 1 week ago

"Corrupt" is too easy a word to throw around for these priests, bishops, cardinals and popes for the last 100+ years. They were supposedly raised and steeped in the Catholic even conservative traditions. What formatively was or is missing? Why were other prelates able to also go along with what they were doing or enabled this? What moral justifications were they using for doing this? And more meaningfully what things have to change in order for this not to happen again? Pedophilia seems to be rampant in our societies it seems--why? What gives mainly men and in our case religious men the impetus to do such evil things? I'm concerned that all we will do in the Church is to just get rid of these guys but not look for the underlying issues we should address as a Church and that it seems the Church's moral theorists and historians need to address this rather than a social/political intersectionality theory. This is what makes me angry and very disappointed in this Church. Scapegoat these people but let's not really look at our traditions and see if changes need to be made there also.

Intersectionality is a social/political theory that works well in terms of thinking of different kinds of oppressed people and how different kinds of oppression may keep a person from attaining "the good life" in society. It is a theoretical concept and in order to make it work each kind of oppression needs to be worked on to help the person. It's use practically is limited in my opinion.

John Sharpe
2 months 1 week ago

For those who are unclear about what intersectionality is, here is a quick video tutorial: https://youtu.be/boVzp4s37VI

Gail Bederman
2 months ago

No no no, John Sharpe! Intersectionality theory actually means something: It suggests that scholars analyze how particular types of marginalization (or oppression) interact with one another--always in particular contexts or for particular people (or types of people). That's all. Thus, for an elderly African American Catholic priest, we might ask how his blackness, his age and his Catholicism might interact in such a way as to make his opinions seem to "matter" or not matter, in particular social contexts. It really doesn't do to cite silly hostile cartoons--that sheds more negativity than light.

Rr aa
2 months 1 week ago

But I think especially as we now see what separating sex from procreation so totally has http://fileexplorerwindows.com done, maybe people are taking a second look.

John Hobson
2 months 1 week ago

I took a hard look at the way that Humanae Vitae insists that sex cannot be separated from procreation. Basically, the authors' argument is that natural law says sexual intercourse must be "open to procreation". How do they back this up? "No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law." (HV 4) In other words, we are arguing from authority, and the authority we cite is ourselves. To put that in a simpler way, they are saying that it is true because they say it's true. Sorry, but I've given up circular reasoning for Lent. When the best they can give me as an argument is a logical fallacy, then they have no argument.

Elena Di Benedetto
2 months 1 week ago

The argument is for virtue, hence, moral theology. The authority is God, not man. That's the whole point of theology, to argue from God's viewpoint, not man's. Intersectional critical theorists are taking the fact that we were lovingly created out of the equation. Theology argues from virtue, for virtue--it's not a matter of arguing from a political or academic authority.

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

When you take away the limitation of sex to marriage, you will have 10 years olds experimenting because there will be no boundary. It certainly cannot be age since each age group will say why should the person 1 year older be allowed and not me. Yes, it will lead to 10 year olds having sex.

Elena Di Benedetto
2 months 1 week ago

Until we as Catholics begin to direct our pro-life arguments to call for virtuous responsibility (like love) from the men who impregnate women and leave them wanting an abortion (instead of lambasting the women for wanting one), we will never stand a chance of defeating intersectional critical theorists. A woman who is loved by the father of her child would find it very difficult to abort a child. Thus I believe it is quite possible for Catholic moral theologians to enter into the dialogue and even be of some use, given the proper framing of the argument, instead of hiding from it in fear of being too controversial. Catholic Moral Theologians, start leading THAT charge!

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

The ones hiding from it are liberals. They initiated the policies that have led to fatherless children. They refuse to take responsibility for it. They refuse to bring it up as a problem. You might want to ask why?

Elena Di Benedetto
2 months 1 week ago

I was speaking more to Carmosy's confession that within the field of moral theology scholars are being warned against controversial writing, but ok, why? Because they get paid to show up to work in social programs for single mothers? Rather, it begs the question, who does it serve to be so binary by blaming "liberals?"

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

First, because the academy (Cultural Marxists) accepts no broach of their agenda then writing the truth becomes controversial. Second, there is no begging the question. Increase in fatherless homes are a direct result of liberal policies instituted in the 1960's to help mothers without the father. The net result was a rapid increase in babies without a father. About 40% in the US when it used to be less than 10%, It is over 70% for African Americans and approaching 90% in several cities. See http://bit.ly/2E58JMM

Dionys Murphy
2 months 1 week ago

"Increase in fatherless homes are a direct result of liberal policies" - Surely you're hitting the drink hard today, J. Increase in fatherless homes is a result of an extreme interpretation of the conservative fantasy ideal of the 'rugged individual,' pushed by conservatives in America since the 50s.

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Critical theory or Cultural Marxism has been around almost 100 years. It is a product of the Frankfurt School that arose out of World War I in Germany. It came to the United States before World War II and has permeated academia and has become dominant in the universities in many departments. As it’s name says it is based on criticism as a way of bringing down anything positive because a positive thing implies something better which means something less and what is less is thus oppressed. It is nilhiistic and based on hate.

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

One of the groups that has been doing the oppression according to the Cultural Marxists has been religion and Christianity in particular. So in academia Christianity has been under attack for about 70 years. Small at first but quite in the ascendancy in the last 35 years. So that is why young people do not visit the pews. Both authors knows this but do not say it. Instead we get a hodgepodge on its latest version, intersectionality.

Gail Bederman
2 months ago

I can understand why people might dislike intersectionality theory, but "intersectionality" actually means something precise, whether used in theology or other disciplines. (See, eg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality) .
Quite simply, the study of "intersectionality" is the study of how particular kinds of marginalization--or even of particular kinds of positions--interact, for particular people, in particular times and places. Thus, there is absolutely no reason "intersectionality theory" can't analyze what makes particular unborn children particularly vulnerable: Fetuses who are poor, disabled, and/or black are especially likely to be aborted. You don't need intersectionality theory to tell you that, of course. But what intersectionality theory can do--for example--is tie the particular situation of that unborn child to the dangers facing poor disabled, African American children who are already born and you have an argument. Conversely, it allows you to argue that pro-choice feminists who also stand up for meeting the particular needs of disabled people of color need to think about why these same intersections matter for some, but not others. Etc

Gail Bederman
2 months ago

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