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