Why Catholic moral theology is a sign of hope in today’s church

Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Cathedral of Mechelen, Belgium (iStock)

In an interview originally published on Feb. 8, 2019, Tom Elitz, S.J. of The Jesuit Post spoke with Professor Charles C. Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, about intersectionality, moral theology and tradition. In the following interview conducted by Bill McCormick, S.J. of The Jesuit Post, Professor Megan K. McCabe, assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, responds to Prof. Camosy's interview.

You responded online to the interview with Charles Camosy by commenting “as a moral theologian who cares about intersectionality and wrestling with the profound failures of the church and tradition, this offends me.” Why did the interview offend you?

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In his interview, Prof. Camosy suggests that moral theologians who do intersectional work connect to the tradition in a “kind of oblique way” and that such scholars consider the tradition so contaminated that is not worth working within it at all, meaning that they are not coming from a “genuinely Catholic theological point of view.” But I do not know any Catholic moral theologian who does not see their work as working within and in fidelity to the tradition. In my own training, I have had the privilege of learning from and being mentored by theologians who have shared with their students a rich appreciation and love for the tradition.

Younger moral theologians draw on this tradition to answer new questions. With the critique of the dangerous elements of the tradition that have been used to do harm comes a joy and celebration of the beauty of the tradition. For me, my academic work is a vocation and a manifestation of my Catholic spirituality. To see such work and that of many theologians whom I admire characterized as somehow not engaging the tradition is painful.

Megan K. McCabe: "The tradition has always learned from ways of knowing outside of itself. A good example is the way in which Thomas Aquinas drew extensively on the thought of Aristotle in the Summa Theologica."

What is intersectionality? Why is it controversial?

Intersectionality is a term introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” She argues that black women experience intersecting oppressions of both racism and sexism that come together to create a possibility for oppression that is not merely both racism and sexism but is something new formed by the way that the two are compounded. Sometimes black women are oppressed as women, sometimes black women are oppressed as black persons, and sometimes black women are oppressed as black women. Intersectionality helps us name and analyze these various dimensions of oppression that would otherwise go unrecognized. Intersectionality has since become a term often used in social analysis and critique at both the popular and academic levels by those working toward social transformation in defense of human dignity.

I am not sure why some people find it so controversial, given that its primary purpose is to analyze and resist systems of oppression that violate human dignity. In relation to Prof. Camosy’s piece, it appears that some of the suspicion may be that intersectional analysis originates outside the tradition. But the tradition has always learned from ways of knowing outside of itself. A good example is the way in which Thomas Aquinas drew extensively on the thought of Aristotle in the Summa Theologica. Obviously Aquinas was drawing from outside the tradition.

Prof. Camosy also articulates a suspicion of the way that intersectionality has been used to critique the tradition. But I would argue that such critique is ultimately not a rejection of tradition but an honest reckoning of whose voices and perspectives get to count as “tradition.”

How does intersectionality help you wrestle with the “failures of the church and tradition”?

Intersectionality helps us give an honest account of the church and the tradition. Such an accounting is not intended to mean that the tradition has no value or that it is only these failures. But it does mean that we cannot ignore the damage that has been and continues to be done in our retrieval of the living tradition.

Some failures I have in mind are the tradition’s exclusion of women, the support of the church for colonialism and chattel slavery, the ongoing exclusion of L.G.B.T. persons and clergy sexual abuse of minors, vulnerable adults and, as is becoming increasingly named, of women religious.

Sexual abuse in the church is a good example of the helpfulness of intersectional analysis. Abuser priests were not merely moved from parish to parish, but there is evidence of patterns of moving abusers to poor parishes and Latino parishes. Additionally, there are horrifyingly high rates of sexual abuse of Native American populations. Similarly, how has the tradition justified patterns of oppression and domination against women of color in their particularity? All of these features are significant if we want to have an accurate assessment of the problem in order to meaningfully be able to respond to it.

Megan K. McCabe: "Younger moral theologians who regularly engage intersectional analysis are not rejecting the tradition, but thinking about how it might help us respond to new challenges and new questions."

You also stated in response that “I care about and do my work WITH the tradition.” Can you say more?

It is probably worth articulating what I mean by “tradition.” On this point I follow “Dei Verbum,” which articulates that tradition is not itself a source of revelation but is a mediator of and witness to revelation which finds its source in God’s self-gift. Tradition is not handed on exclusively by doctrine but also includes theological and spiritual texts, popular practices and liturgies, and artistic forms, to name a few. The tradition, then, is not monolithic and includes a range of voices and perspectives, always shaped and informed by historical and cultural context.

In my own work, I strive to respond tothe call in “Gaudium et Spes” to investigate the “signs of the times” for the sake of promoting the church’s mission and transformation toward the kingdom of God. As I turn to questions of sexual violence and the suffering of women, I am informed by the tradition on conceptions of what it means to be human, the reality of sin, the duties demanded by conscience and the virtue of solidarity and the biblical witness to God’s vision for creation. I think that when I look at the work of other moral theologians, especially younger moral theologians who regularly engage intersectional analysis, they are not rejecting the tradition but thinking about how it might help us respond to new challenges and new questions.

Charles Camosy argues that “In fact, in many circumstances, I think it is fair to say that intersectional critical theorists would consider the tradition fundamentally contaminated.” Do you agree?

I do not agree. First, intersectional analysis is primarily employed, in my view, by moral theologians who are looking to accurately “read the signs of the times” in order to respond to it. For example, my own research and writing is primarily concerned with sexual violence against women; intersectionality helps me make an accurate assessment of the problem of sexual violence.

It is true that many moral theologians see flaws and failures in the tradition and church. But this comes from a recognition that the tradition is always marked by the cultural and historical contexts in which it has developed and continues to develop; it is not somehow “pure” and self-evident. It has been marked by sin, as the church’s past teaching in favor of slavery makes clear to us. But the question here is not “Do we work within the tradition?” but instead “What constitutes tradition?”

I think we can see this methodological move from many of the earliest feminist theologians, who approached the tradition with some suspicion regarding negative representations of women (Tertullian calling women the “gateway to the devil,” for example), while simultaneously investigating the richness of the tradition in new ways. While not a moral theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, who was my professor when I was an undergraduate at Fordham University, did not merely stop with a critique of exclusively male language for God but sought out the non-dominant strands of the tradition that name God in female terms.

The question is not “Do we work within the tradition?” but instead “What constitutes tradition?”

If you and Prof. Camosy agree on the importance of tradition, where do you part ways?

I am not entirely clear what Prof. Camosy means by “tradition,” and perhaps this is where we disagree. Camosy calls it a “source of revelation,” which I disagree with given the framing of “Dei Verbum.” He also uses doctrine as the example of what could be returned to if moral theology were going to get in touch with the tradition. Is his conception of tradition limited to doctrine? If so, I would consider that an unfortunately restricted sense of what “tradition” means.

Otherwise, the disagreement would be whether theologians who critique the tradition remain inside it. I would argue that they do. Perhaps this difference ultimately has to do with what he understands “tradition” to be. If it is not monolithic, as I would argue, then it is possible to both critique the tradition and work within it.

Charles Camosy argues that moral theology is in a “crisis.” Do you agree?

No. The real crisis and challenge today is the church’s failure to adequately address the systemic cover-up of sexual abuse of both children and women. Theologians today who are seeking to address situations of violence and injustice such as this are a sign of hope, not crisis.

Last July, I had the opportunity to observe first hand the vitality and hope in the field of Catholic moral theology today. I attended the meeting of the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church network that was held in Sarajevo, with the theme “Building Bridges for the Future.” Approximately 500 moral theologians from around the world attended. The work of this network was supported by Pope Francis in a letter he sent to our meeting. And both Cardinal [Peter] Turkson and Cardinal [Blase] Cupich attended portions of the meeting.

At that conference, I had the chance to meet moral theologians from contexts profoundly different from my own but was struck by the areas of both convergence and shared commitment to the tradition that brought many together. As a junior scholar, I am only recently getting connected to the network, but its work to connect moral theologians from around the world inspires me and I think reflects the robust energy in Catholic moral theology.

Our moment is one to celebrate, not one to bemoan.

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Colin Donovan
6 months ago

I'm not sure that I am reading the same Dei Verbum to which Prof. McCabe is referring. In my copy of Dei Verbum it states in n.9, "there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end."

Yes, it does note in n.7 that both sacred scripture and sacred tradition are like a mirror in which we see God (i.e. mediates, in her term), but it seems clear that there is no intention to minimize the revelatory weight of either Scripture or Tradition. In DV 9 it finishes up by stating, "sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known."

Therefore, I fail to see anything provisional or reformable in Sacred Tradition (properly identified and understood) as a fount or mirror of God in Christ, that is, Divine Revelation. And, I can only guess that by referring to Dei Verbum's discussion of Sacred Tradition, Prof. McCabe is confusing the lines and levels of authority between Sacred Tradition, theological tradition and pious traditions, in order to make some point about existential learning as a kind of revelation by which Sacred Tradition, and not just other kinds of "traditions," can be reformed by human experience apart from the mirror of Christ which is Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Annette Magjuka
6 months ago

Your comment assumes several harmful things. First, as the abusers in the church have asserted repeatedly, the "scandal" of shining a public light on heinous and criminal behavior of clergy is WORSE than the crimes themselves. On this basis, the church has silenced anyone who speaks of the crimes--the survivors and all their allies. There is also an assumption that all the apostles and their successors will ALWAYS hear the voice of God clearly and without bias. And, of course, they will never value power for its own sake, since the assumption is that they, having been appointed and "anointed," are always OF GOD in a way that others can never be. This is a pretty tight system of power retention. To dismiss significant lived experience and the prayerful conscience formation of all others is profound arrogance. We have the evidence of how this system rots the church from its center. Will the church evolve? Will we listen to women, POC, and others of faith who have been in discernment (while honoring "tradition") their entire lives? If we do not become intersectional, the church will become a dangerous cult of zealots, impervious to people of good faith and interested only in power and control. The goodness and love (in other words, Jesus) will be gone..
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Al Cannistraro
6 months ago

Mine is obviously not a scholarly opinion by an academic: I'm just a 70-year-old man who was raised and educated Catholic, and who always took it seriously yet maintained an ability to think independently. I have never lost my curiosity about very early Church history.

Dei Verbum seems awfully outdated in light of what is objectively known and what objectively can be known about the subject matter of the OT and NT. A lot of scientific and historical knowledge has been gained since the 5th century BC (or so). The entire document needs rethinking and re-framing with advice from objective ancient historians to root out the historically untenable, and also from objective experts in critical literary analysis and other modern methods, again to root out the historically and linguistically untenable.

Virtually none of the historical OT characters and narratives have been corroborated, including the history of the Jewish people. Only a handful of primitive and seemingly illogical Bible stories have been explained away, within the Church, as allegorical or purely literary.

Secular scholars, on the other hand, view the entirety of the OT as non-historical literature, as do independent thinking modern Jews.

In the NT, it is difficult to see the Sermon on the Mount, which appears to be highly sophisticated and carefully structured Greek literature that was composed in Greek, as being the result of reporting, through Oral Tradition over several decades or longer, of passages that originally were spoken extemporaneously in Aramaic.

The assertion by the Church, in it's self-claimed divine authority, that all of scripture is the inspired Word of God is grounded only in Tradition. (Admittedly a very, very old tradition.)

The Church carried more moral authority in 1965 when Dei Verbum was issued.

Modern minds require more and better 'splainin' in modern language that is more sensible to modern minds.

Also, some humility on the part of the Church, please!. Obviously, it's gotten a lot of it wrong in the past, and a lot of "truths" have been radically revised incrementally over the centuries. People know this.

It seems to me that if the Church does not take steps to begin to liberalize its theology to better harmonize it with modernity, science, modern philosophy, solid historical method, common sense, etc.,, it will continue to shrivel because both its membership and its potential "believer base" will atrophy, leaving a solid but small base of fundamentalists with authoritarian personality types.

But I think most everybody already realizes that.

Kevin Murphy
6 months ago

Only "theologians" care about this nonsense. It means nothing to those who still fill the pews every week.

Kevin Murphy
6 months ago

Deleting duplicate.

Eli McCarthy
5 months 4 weeks ago

Thank you Megan for your insights here. It reminds me of experiences I've had trying to illuminate and re-center Jesus' nonviolence in Catholic moral theology. As I and others did this, while also raising questions or critiques about just war ethics; other moral theologians would dismiss us for not "taking the tradition" seriously. I am starting to think that intersectionality and nonviolence are keys to better seeing the "signs of the times" and creating a path to transform both our Church and perhaps broader society.

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