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Kaveny’s “Big Chill”: Thoughts on Sex, Tenure and How it All Relates to the CTSA Report

Cathleen Kaveny has written an important essay in Commonweal called “The Big Chill: ‘Humanae Vitae Dissenters Need to Find Voice.”   It is an essay we all ought to read, especially in light of the CTSA report that Julie Rubio mentions here because I think Kaveny and the CTSA report have a lot in common, though they come from differing angles.

Kaveny opens with  this thought: “Catholics who support Humanae Vitae have done a superb job articulating the ways their adherence to church teaching against contraception fits into their view of family life. ”  Helen Alvaré’s new book Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves stands as an example of such an articulation.  Kaveny laments that it is not likely that women who oppose HV will bring forth a similar book, however, and she argues that it is due to the way  “Catholic bishops have largely squelched open debate among their people about the morality of contraception.”   For example, the ways in which Charles Curran, Elizabeth Johnson, and Margaret Farley were silenced has prevented open academic conversation.  Additionally, many theologians who grew up post-Vatican II with John Paul II’s Theology of the Body are “emerging Catholic moralists were drawn to their field by the examples of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. They accept and defend the teaching against contraception.”  Those who belong to that same era but who dissent do not or have not found that voice precisely because they’ve been frozen out of the conversation.

In other words, younger Catholic theologians are not stepping up to the plate, not writing books like John Noonan’s Contraception, not taking stands like the ones Curran or Bernard Haring made.  All the while, the 9 of 10 Catholics who dissent from church teaching are getting passed by – from both their bishops and their theologians.

I think Kaveny makes some crucial points that I’ll come back to, but I want to pause here to reflect on the narrative as it’s been stated so far.  First, let us be truthful.  Alvaré’s book is written by well-versed women, some of whom are in academia, but this is no book written by theologians hoping to have a conversation with other theologians.  This is an apologetics work aimed at 21st century, mostly lay, women who might be interested in the idea that being a Catholic woman who follows church teaching doesn’t have to mean being a baby-making automaton who looks just like the proverbial ’50s housewife.

When it comes to scholars who have written academic essays or books either defending or dissenting from church teaching against contraception, I’m hard-pressed to name any – especially any from the newer generation that Kaveny laments.   There are essays here and there – hints here and there – on both sides.  Cristina Traina’s essay “Papal Ideals, Marital Realities” in Patricia Beattie Jung’s book Sexual Diversity and Catholicism describes her concerns with HV’s argument.     Nicanor Austriaco’s recent health care ethics book directly discusses contraception in the context of bioethics, but it is not a full discussion along the lines of Noonan or Theology of the Body.

Others try to bridge divides: Julie Hanlon Rubio specifically does so in her essay “Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide on Contraception: Wisdom from Practitioners of Natural Family Planning and Artificial Birth Control,” in Horizons 32.2 (2005): 270-94.   David Matzko McCarthy tries to do so in an essay *Procreation, the Development of Peoples, and the Final Destiny of Humanity” in Communio 26 (Winter 1999): 698-721,  that describes Humanae Vitae as part of Catholic social teaching, attempting thereby to open conversations between so-called “social justice” Catholics and “pelvic issues” Catholics.

There are a few academic blogs – like this one and like Women in Theology – where these questions have been raised.  But discussion of the questions has been sparing.  The WIT blog, for instance, wrote many of its NFP posts anonymously, I suspect precisely for the Big Chill reasons Kaveny mentions regarding bishops.  On this blog, we’ve discussed NFP a couple times but those discussions have taken place largely because of already tenured faculty, and not among scholars who are more vulnerable.  That is – I think there are some other scholars on this blog who would say they dissent in some way from HV; I think there are others who would say that they support HV.

Which is to say: the “Big Chill” has worked both ways.  I agree that ecclesial climate has meant that some dissenters have not had a voice in discussion.   I think that discussions surrounding Lawler/Salzmann, Farley and Johnson in recent years have  especially made academic theology feel like a dicey playing field when it comes to peoples’ relationships with bishops.  I have experienced that chilling effect on my own work – on what I write or not – at times.

But I think that academic climate – a climate where most faculty have presumed, in a wink wink nod nod sort of way, that all thinking people would clearly dissent – has meant a chill even in the rarest of academic environments.  That academic climate has been bolstered by the fact that 9 of 10 Catholics do indeed dissent from church teaching – making some wonder what the point is of trying to defend dissent since dissent has already happened.

For example, Bernard Prusak’s Commonweal review of Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics (to which many on this blog contributed) handily dismissed the entire book because one of its contributors had written in support of Humanae Vitae – and yet most of the essays in the book named nothing about support or dissent of HV, but rather raised exactly the kinds of questions that theologians need to be grappling with (hook ups, divorce, singleness) a la the kind “frank discussion” that Kaveny advocates.

Academics are often just as dismissive of a book like Cloutier’s, or more pointedly, a book like Austriaco’s (cited above) as the bishops are of Johnson’s work.  (I know, too, that there are minorities of  ecclesial authorities who do, in fact, appreciate Johnson’s work, just as there are small minorities of academics who do, in fact, use Austriaco’s work.) In some significant ways the effects are not as drastic, in the sense that academics won’t be “silencing” Austriaco in the way that the Johnson’s work was routed.  Yet the presumptions we make about each others’ work – the degree to which we DON’T order books or use essays in class from those with whom we disagree, the degree to which academic advisors tell their doctoral students not to look at “those” schools (from whichever side) because “those” people are clearly off their rockers, the degree to which people note the stupidity of such-and-such a scholar with whom they disagree (which is the kind of language one often encounters outside meeting rooms at conferences) – is a measure of the kind of fear that is operating in academic institutions, especially from younger scholars who have yet to pass through the tenure hoop – or who, increasingly, aren’t protected by tenure.

The main result has been a Big Freeze on conversations on sexual ethics all around.  I know some readers will likely laugh at this assessment – but I think honestly we’ve been not talking about sex – in the sense of honest conversations – for the better part of half a century.  There are people chomping at the bit to talk about sex – contraception, homosexuality, and so on – and yet they end up preaching to their own choirs, cordoned off by who’s “liberal”, “conservative,” “HV supporter,” and so on.  Not very satisfying, especially if a person believes that sex and the way we practice and talk about sex matters for peoples’ well-being.  (Hook up culture and rape culture always come to mind; so does the clergy sex abuse scandal.)

This all brings me back to what I think is the most salient of Kaveny’s points about the ecclesial side of the Big Chill:

A church that encourages such compartmentalization is hardly catholic. How can that kind of church interpret the complexities of our world? How can it avoid being seen as one more commitment among many others, just something to do for an hour on Sundays?

We already live in an age that compartmentalizes sex.  My students and I and most of my colleagues have grown up in eras where we didn’t think the church had much of anything to say about sex – and many people, I think, still see that this is true.

So I think Kaveny’s right that one of our tasks is to name, theologically, why good sex matters and why Christians ought to care.  But to undertake that task with honesty and integrity is going to mean that – all around – we can agree to warm up to each other.  The CTSA report is, I think, exactly a call to this kind of hopeful conversation and that is why I think we ought to be reading both and having continued discussions.




  1. Jana, I mostly agree with your post, I just think that Kaveny’s characterization of why people who disagree with Humanae Vitae’s teaching on contraception aren’t writing much. She argues that there is a “big chill,” with open discussion of the issue “squelched” by the bishops. But the idea that Charlie Curran, Elizabeth Johnson, and Margaret Farley (I am not sure why she mentions Johnson, who doesn’t write on sexual morality) have been “silenced” in the relevant sense here is a bit far fetched. While their ecclesial relationship with the bishops has been damaged, they are pretty much free to publish on whatever they want.

    I think the more obvious reason why very few people write in defense of disagreeing with HV is because pretty much everyone does, and here I mean in the broader culture. Here is a parallel example. How many books are there arguing that it is okay to eat meat? Not very many, and I would bet far fewer than there are arguing that we shouldn’t eat meat, and that despite the fact that there are far more people who eat meat than don’t. In fact that is precisely why there are fewer pro-meat books, because it is a position most people feel doesn’t need defending. Another historical example. In ancient Athens, we know of several anti-democratic tracts, whether like Xenophon in favor of aristocracy or like Plato’s Republic something else. But there are actually very few texts written in defense of democracy. Was this because pro-democracy voices were silenced? Just the opposite.

    Of course, one important difference between contraception among Catholics and my examples is that in the case of contraception, its supporters are disagreeing with the teaching of church authorities. And here is where I think Kaveny is right, that this is related to the compartmentalization characteristic of our society. But then this creates the same dynamic; if most people already disconnect sexual decision-making from religious authority, there is little incentive to write about it.

    • Sorry, my first sentence should read: “I just think that Kaveny’s characterization of why people who disagree with Humanae Vitae’s teaching on contraception aren’t writing much is misplaced.”

  2. Hi, Jana,

    Thanks for reading my column, and for taking the time to comment on it. I must say, however, that my focus wasn’t on the CTSA or academic theology, except in a tangential way. To put the point more bluntly: my concern isn’t the conversation among professional theologians–the CTSA — but rather among people in the pews.

    i am very well aware, of course, that Alvare’s book isn’t directed at academic theologians, but at ordinary, interested, Catholics. And that’s my focus. The vast majority of church-going Catholic women (not theologians) who use contraception aren’t given the resources or the platform or the role models to think about the moral choices they make within the context of the institutional church. No speaker at a pre-Cana conference, or a Catholic women’s conference, or a Catholic family life conference will say, straightforwardly, “I use contraception–and here’s why and how it fits into my vocation.” The condition for speaking on any broader issue of family life in a Catholic framework in a pastoral context is adherence to HV, and even increasingly o the theology of the body.

    There are very few apologists or public intellectuals who help Catholics who use contraception frame their decisions about family life in religious terms. The general approach seems to be–get off the pill, and then we’ll talk. I gave a couple of reasons for this. First, the theology of the body’s more dire view of contraception, and second, the example of the theologians who have been censured. That’s where the theologians come in. Farley, Johnson, and Curran weren’t just intra-academic matters.
    They were covered by the major secular newspapers too. And their examples did and would make Catholics skittish about expressing their own views–not only theologians, but lay persons involved in Church activities as well.

    So my main concern isn’t what happens to academic theologians, but how what happens to academic theologians affect the people in the pews. I think it would be great if ordinary Catholics of all stripes could get together to discuss the hook up culture, etc. But my impression is that on the diocese and parish level, commitment to HV is often a precondition for participation in the discussion. If I’m wrong, I’d like to know. I am also afraid that the 90 percent of women who use contraception think that they really are “cafeteria Catholics,” rather than appealing to a deeper principle of the tradition to critique a less essential one. As pope Francis reminds us, there is a hierarchy of truths. And they think that because very few people, say progressive apologists, or catechists, have shown them how they can see their position as consistent with the tradition’s deeper principles. By and large, the advice is, “Just ignore the prohibition.” That’s a mistake in my view.

    I think the theological arguments against Humanae Vitae have been made. I don’t think anyone needs to redo Noonan’s tome (although I think his prodigious knowledge of the sources in at least six languages over twenty centuries is something to be admired as a deep commitment to the tradition,) But I do think one of the failures of progressive Catholic public intellectuals generally s to teach the next generation how to think with the church , albeit in a developmental way. So, in my judgment, part of the vast exodus from the Church on the part of progressive youngsters is a failure in catechesis, not primarily a failure in academic theology.

    Like Matthew Shadle, I am concerned that “most people already disconnect sexual decision-making from religious authority,” but I don’t think the only way to fix that problem means interpreting engagement with religious authority as conformity to current magisterial teaching on birth control. One thing that real immersion in the Catholic tradition requires is a differentiation among different types of teaching authorities, and the different levels of assent required of them.

    All the best,

    Cathleen Kaveny

  3. Jana,

    This is really good. Your broader sense of the “big chill” on sexual ethics is a nice complement to Kaveny’s point. Kaveny names something that theologians who disagree with HV certainly feel. You name what theologians who agree with HV feel. In academic circles, it is definitely more difficult to voice agreement than opposition. But you’re right to say that no one is talking about this. When is the last time you went to a paper at a conference on this topic? I’m not sure I agree with Matt that people aren’t talking because they sense there’s no need to make the argument. L think many theologians who support contraception would like to link spirituality and sexuality, both in academic contexts and in the very important public contexts that Kaveny names. But they can’t because their ability to speak as public theologians would be compromised.

    Kaveny is right to claim that NFP advocates (mostly non-theologians) have done a great job of reflecting on their experience and describing how NFP enhances intimacy in their marriages. There is no parallel literature from those who use contraception. When I was researching the article you cite above, my desk was piled high with studies and testimonies of NFP couples, but I could find only two articles reflecting on the experience of married sex with contraception: Traina’s (also referenced above) and an early article by Rosemary Ruether. To do a comparison, I used the sexual ethics of liberal theologians and assumed they were writing about sex with contraception. I found a lot of overlap between the two groups and hoped for more conversation about how sex fits into Christian life, but that conversation really hasn’t happened yet.

    Thanks to both you and Kaveny for calling us back to public conversation about good sex.

  4. A very vital conversation, and I echo the thanks for Cathy and Jana taking this up. I agree with so much that is here, but would just add a couple points.
    One, there is a large genre of how-NFP-is-great literature, but not a genre that recounts the more trying and problematic stories surrounding NFP (call it “how-NFP-fails-some” literature). I don’t think experience arguments completely resolve these discussions, but I do think they are very relevant, and there has to be a discussion of NFP that tells multiple, not just rosy stories.
    Two, Cathy’s reply above is wonderful, but I did wonder about the claim that “the 90%” think of themselves as “cafeteria Catholics.” My suspicion is that it’s much more of a non-issue for them (because they don’t live in worlds where there are a lot of conservative Catholics talking about this?). Donna Freitas’ study Sex and the Sacred suggested that most Catholic undergrads did not feel like cafeteria Catholics if they did not practice what the Church preached – evangelicals did feel this conflict, but Catholics simply assumed Church teaching on sex was irrelevant and outdated, and thus ignored. Of course, the effect is tragic – often enough, our understandings of sex and marriage thus are completely lacking in any Catholic formation, the kind of formation that Julie herself develops so well in her book, Family Ethics.
    Three, Julie mentions above that theologians “can’t speak” because “their ability to speak as public theologians would be compromised.” I think Julie notes one of the difficulties: we recognize that, unless we have a pre-established career (Curran, Farley), open conflict on the contraception issue may mean we simply cannot work in “ecclesial” contexts – in church groups, advising episcopal committees, etc. We certainly can speak on Huffington Post – but I think the key point here is being forced to avoid speaking on certain things IF one wants to retain the ability to work in ecclesial contexts. And this idea of where the “chill” is supports Cathy’s contention that, in effect, any conversations at the ecclesial/parish level can’t be “real” because other views simply will not be admitted.
    And here, I think, is an instance of a real challenge the Church has faced poorly ever since the mass dissent on HV, and will (I worry) provoke much more visible crises in the wake of same-sex marriage: how long can we “pretend” that “the Church” has a firm “teaching” on something when actual practice largely ignores the teaching? (I think this is more true of Catholic social teaching than is sometimes suggested) I’m not saying this is an argument that HV is wrong. But it creates all sorts of problems if we go on pretending that this is absolutely essential teaching, on the one hand, and yet, on the other, know that very few Catholic follow it, or even see it as a desirable but difficult ideal. It would be one thing if Catholics saw the teaching, and thought, “That’s great but hard.” Most people simply think it is wrong-headed. This is a recipe for dysfunctional conversation in the Body of Christ.

  5. Cathleen –

    Thank you for taking the time to respond! The CTSA point was absolutely my own gloss – I did not mean to imply that you were alluding to CTSA at all – but my own sense of connections in what’s going on in the academy to what I see you as saying.

    I can see in your original post that you’ve got a focus on lay Catholics, but it wasn’t and still isn’t clear to me that the academic theology point I’m making is related to tangential questions in your essay. My reasons for thinking that are not only the mention of Farley and Curran and Johnson, but also your mention of John Courtney Murray or Noonan as examples at the end for how conversations become changed – academics both, who also contributed to changes in thinking both academically and not.

    This, to me, is an important point in thinking about how conversations about sex and sexuality might take place in the kind of way you mean (but also, I think, in the kind of way that the CTSA itself needs to model). While I think you’re right that part of the difficulty is failure of catechesis I also think that any dividing line between “catechesis” and academic theology has become increasingly thin especially as more and more lay pastoral associates get master’s degrees from academic institutions. As I teach, I see my undergraduates needing catechesis in, say, an understanding of the Eucharist as the meal of the people of God – but I also watch my master’s students translating what we discuss regarding what would generally be named as academic theology in class to their various ministry settings. This stands to be even more and more the case, in my opinion, as more and more online teaching is done and as lay people continue to have online conversations distinct from either magisterial or academic theological conversations.

    In other words, I think a failure of academic theologians to speak honestly about sex with each other affects lay atmosphere as does the public discussions of Johnson’s, Farley’s, and Lawler/Salzmann’s works. That’s why I think that the CTSA proposal is apropos here.

    I know the hope of many of us at this blog was to recognize that those kinds of conversations (particularly about sex) often happen among lay people in online contexts – and that we wanted to offer academic voices to the conversation where and when we could too – especially as people who disagree with each other but who see conversation. I think that your own pieces at Commonweal function similarly in an online context. What is trickier is developing that kind of atmosphere offline. What is also tricky is the dawning recognition that many of us had here that we felt that at times there were things we could not say online – and places we could not speak offline – and NOT always because of what the bishops are saying, but also because of what academic colleagues were presuming. So our own silence as theologians impacts the range of conversations available for adult lay people and what in turn people think they can discuss or not – i.e. in Theology on Tap, public discussions on campuses, lay-led adult ed courses, and so on.

    So – on my view anyway – that is why I make a case in relation to academic theology as I do with respect to your piece.

    Thanks for all the work you do, and again, for taking the time to respond here.

    Jana Bennett

  6. Dave –
    I responded to Cathy’s comment before I saw yours. I just want to chime in to say: I do think there’s a dearth of discussion about “NFP isn’t rosy” and “NFP did not in fact help my relationships” – I really appreciate WIT’s contribution to the conversation for that reason. It’d be helpful, for all concerned, if an ethnographer came through doing studies of Catholics since HV – who tried NFP and found it wanting and why; who didn’t try it and why? I have actually long wondered – based on hints here and there (so again, not based on direct conversation) – if the numbers of people who have tried NFP but dropped it is higher than the number who currently identity as NFP user.

  7. Thanks, Janna. I guess I see the mentioning of Murray (and Noonan) in this way: One could have said that, by the time of the 1960s, “Oh, it doesn’t matter that there’s no widely understood theological justification for religious liberty,” most American Catholics have moved on, and accept it anyway–it’s not an issue for them, they voted for Kennedy, see. I think that is incorrect. It does matter that ordinary Catholics see and situate their views in the context of the broad church tradition–whether or not those views are accepted by the magisterium at a particular point in time or not. So Murray did the work for Dignitatis Humanae; that work was ratified by the Council. Noonan did the work on contraception, the magisterium rejected it. I think it is better that those who reject in turn the church’s teaching on contraception do it in a Noonanesque way than in a purely secular way.

    But Noonan has already done the wholesale heavy lifting , what is needed now on this point, I think is more retail (distribution to wider audiences). I’m not trying to tell CTSA theologians what to write about in their own constructive academic work (liberal or conservative), but only to say that there aren’t a lot of Noonan popularizers out there helping out the people in the pews in the same way that pro-Humanae Vitae popularizers seem to work.

    By the way, the CTSA report wasn’t even in my mind. I wrote the column weeks before the report came out, and I see the problem of the CTSA and academic discussion in the theological guild as involving a significantly different set of questions, which I hope to address in another post on Commonweal at some point.

  8. This in an interesting post, but several passages, both from the author, but particularly from the original article in Commonweal, seem problematic. The term “chill” is a favorite journalistic flourish of late, to intimate forces dark, forboding or even worse. As the first commenter points out, no one has been ‘silenced’, and strong words from the bishops if anything makes for a boost in sales, and mainstream academic heroism. I don’t meant to trivialize the real challenge to some of the authors you cite, but none of them have the intellectual or social posture of a beaten dog.
    The Alvare book is fine, and you are right that it is indeed different, in proposing the idea that Catholic women who try to follow the church’s moral teachings do not all fit into one mold. Fair enough. This is hardly evidence of a vast array of powerful articulations of anti-abortion or pro-NFP positions. If anything, most literature tends to one of two extremes: (likely catechetical) C. West-ish glowing about the wonders of NFP (which are not practical, but likely designed to win over people to a general world-view), or the usual complete uncaring about the church’s positions, as though they were too ridiculous to be worthy of consideration. There really isn’t a lot in the middle. You are right, websites where people can talk about their failures with NFP serve an important function, as well as venues for those who live with this teaching but are able to talk about how very difficult this actually is (and arguably, it is precisely a pastoral sensitivity to this that is missing from the church). No, there really isn’t a lot of variety in the middle, especially in an accessible form, so I don’t see why one should feel so threatened by Alvare’s book. It’s not a big deal, nor hardly a sign of a wave of “pro-Humanae Vitae popularizers” who are “out there in the parishes.”
    Kaveny’s title proudly includes the term “dissent.” Then she asks “where is the pastoral hand of the church?” or “where is the religious language available to make my married-sexual life feel more sanctified?” Be a proud dissenter! But then offer something a little more interesting and novel than the oft-trotted out statistic that most Catholics don’t care — with the unstated conclusion that of course the teachings are then wrong, and therefore the pastoral burden is on the Bishops. Comparing sexual ‘freedom’ with religious freedom, with any historical sensitivity, isn’t a very powerful comparative argument, indeed, a bit shallow for a moral theology blog.
    The Bishops, the church, the theologians – whoever’s business it is – have never succeeded at teaching and talking about marital-sexual ethics very well, it seems. It may still be worthwhile, in new and humanely practical ways, to try to think (with the bishops??) about the positive end of these teachings, and from that point, evaluate problems, challenges, failures. To begin with “dissent” isn’t going to help get things rolling. If we have all already decided, there isn’t much point talking about it all yet again.

  9. Jana et al,

    Thanks for your posts.

    Regarding the lack of extended recent defenses of HV, I would like to put in a plug for some things I have written that attempt to provide what you say is needed.

    1. In this,, I try to show (in a way that would be seen, even by those who don’t support HV, to reflect intellectual honesty) why the traditional arguments in support of HV have not been seen as persuasive (while also sketching a defense of the encyclical).

    2. This is followed by my subsequent 2011 piece in Theological Studies 72.4 (December 2011): 812-847, which is entitled “Revisiting Contraception: An Integrated Approach in Light of the Renewal of Thomistic Virtue Ethics.” As the title indicates, it tries to show how an approach following the encouragement of VS toward a recovery of Aquinas’s (non-physicalist) approach to moral action and natural law, along with the renewal of Thomistic virtue-ethics can help to show that the main teaching of HV against contraceptive acts is not unreasonable.

    (God willing, a further-developed monograph version will not be too far off)

    Of course, I realize that this approach will be challenged on the basis of its underlying theory by both “traditionally naturalistic” Thomists (who prefer physicalism) by “revisionists,” and that this debate will go on. On the merits, however, I think the underlying theory remains a serious option (as can been seen in Martin Rhonheimer’s broader work). Thus, I hope we will keep it in mind when considering the state of the question.

    With appreciation for the work that all of you are doing,

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