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.