Both my undergraduate and graduate institutions prepared me, in different ways, to see that the discussions worth having were the most fundamental ones, ones in which disagreement involved examining basic principles and dealing well with sharp differences. These can be especially valuable when they are done well – but painful when they are not. I want to give one example of an exchange that seems fruitful, and then one that seems not. Despite the difference in topics, I think both arguments require Catholics to see that their commitment to the traditional notion of “common good” make it challenging for them to be aligned with secular political camps.

The first exchange – on a topic I am aware of on an almost-daily basis – was about the gulf between pro-capitalist Catholics and those much more suspicious of capitalism and markets. Earlier this year, Vince Miller published an excellent response to some prior Catholic pro-capitalism essays that appeared in America. The exchange models what it means to have such discussions of difference well. The article merits particular attention for its subtle, detailed analysis that really attempts to get at the root of the issues. Rather than stay at the surface – and consequently become embedded in the pro-anti polarization of such debates in our society – Miller goes much further, showing (I think, decisively) that the Catholic social tradition offers what John Paul II called an “obviously complex” (cf. Centesimus Annus, no. 42) answer to the questions at hand. At the heart of Miller’s argument is that capitalism’s defenders have made a subtle yet crucial mistake about the notion of the common good. In defending capitalism on the basis of its effects in lifting so many people out of poverty, these defenders confuse accomplishing the common good with the different notion of aggregating individual goods. As he notes:

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the official Vatican summary of papal social teaching, distinguishes the common good from “the simple sum of the particular goods” of each member of society. The compendium notes that this good is “‘common’, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it” (164). … It designates a certain kind of agency: working together for the good of the whole.

This makes all the difference for evaluating the “success” of this or that economic arrangement, since it precludes reducing “success” to the aggregation of individual outcomes – which is, unfortunately, the methodology used by most economic analysis. What might appear successful by these measures can in fact be detrimental to the common good, especially as reflected in various sorts of unquantifiable (shared) goods, such as social solidarity (undermined by increasing inequality) and the environment (undermined when costs to shared resources are not measured). Miller goes on to distinguish “markets” from “capitalism,” noting that the former undoubtedly aim at and achieve genuine goods, whereas the latter, when it becomes a consistent ideology, attacks the very “home” (or as Daniel Finn has described it, the “moral ecology”) that markets needs to be successful, both in terms of the common good and on their own terms. Thus, he concludes:

Market economies have much to offer society when oriented toward the common good. … [But] [w]ithout a lived experience of the common good and access to the forms of action that achieve it, we become isolated, vulnerable and cruel.

Everything depends on this ordering: markets, and their inevitable competition and self-interest, must be subordinated to – although not erased by – the larger social vision of the common good. If Catholics can get clear on this, perhaps their debates over policy will actually be not only more charitable, but more fruitful.

Miller’s fine analysis might shed light on a quite different disagreement afoot in contemporary Catholic moral theology: Charlie Camosy’s concern about the influence of intersectionality. This is a case where the public discussion has not gone so well. Camosy and his interlocutors – most recently, Cathy Kaveny in Commonweal, but earlier Megan McCabe and Emily Reimer-Barry – appear to be locked in an either-or conflict, but, as with arguments over economics, the conflict really needs further excavation. I actually began my doctoral seminar this past spring with the Camosy article paired with Cathy Kaveny’s earlier narrative of the state of moral theology (“Not Just Sin-Spotters”) as reflected at the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church conference in Sarajevo last year. The pictures are quite different. That’s why they are worth talking about. Why are they different? What are really the core issues at stake?

Part of the trouble is that Camosy’s respondents have not shown the care in responding that Miller has shown toward the pro-capitalists. Of course, this in part illuminates an aspect of the particular topic. For example, McCabe responds first and foremost by saying that Camosy’s essay is “offensive” – notably, Miller does not take this approach to his interlocutors, despite his strong disagreement that suggests he thinks they hold a morally problematic position. But then Camosy’s essay contends not only against the intellectual ideas surrounding intersectionality and identity, but also against a purported “hegemony” they possess in the discipline. It may thus appear that Camosy has already personalized the conflict, and it may then be understandable why responses are adamant and personal… especially from those who might worry that they are part of this supposed hegemony. However, on yet the other hand, Camosy’s claim about hegemony is simply an outworking of the very intellectual ideas of his opponents. That is, his chief concern about such ideas is that they reduce all social relations to power that is rooted in competing identities, identities that are narrated in term of oppressor/oppressed. That is to say, the hegemony claim is not meant as a personal insult or take-down of anyone, but rather a (perhaps unintended?) consequence of the very ideas and narratives that he contends are being used unquestioningly.

All this, it seems to me, is a discussion worth having… and worth having better than it has hitherto gone. My thought is that, at its heart is the same problem raised by Miller: an underlying question about the common good.

How so? As it is, neither party to the intersectionality disagreement appears to be using the language of common good. Moreover, the parallels can be more difficult to spot because the roles are kind of “reversed” (at least in the typical Left-Right frame). But here we need to recall the origin of the argument on the economic side: a number of well-intentioned Catholics making a genuine argument for how capitalism (and by extension, the knowledge we’ve gained from economics) actually should be understood as consistent with and even exemplary for the achievement of the common good. When this argument is approached rightly (as Miller, to his credit, approaches it), it cannot be rejected out of hand for two important reasons: (a) those making it are not hostile interlocutors coming from outside the tradition, but rather arguing for the tradition’s ultimate ends, and (b) those making it have some plausible grounds on which to stand, i.e., markets really do seem to have done good things for many people.

Here is where I would draw an analogy by reconfiguring what I would take to be Camosy’s core concern: the use of intersectionality and other similar tools of analysis borrowed from outside the tradition, and then used by well-intentioned thinkers to foster what appear to be the ultimate goals of the tradition, has plausibility precisely because (like the market defenders) such tools generate a larger and stronger analysis of what is really going on. But, like market defenders’ use of capitalism and its economic tools, the tools are being used uncritically, and in so being used, actually stand in significant tension with the tradition itself.

To develop this concern, one needs to ask the same sorts of questions that Miller asks: critical questions about the tools. Too often instead, these conversations proceed on the levels of ultimate goals (which are shared! – Miller and his interlocutors both want to overcome material poverty, Camosy and his interlocutors both want to overcome injustices rooted in race and other identity categories) or are adjudicated by references to often-conflicting practical outcomes (what actually “works,” whose anecdotes are to be believed, etc.). The analogous question I believe Camosy is asking is not “should an analysis from outside the discipline be used?” but “what kind of analysis is it?” What are the conceptual underpinnings and assumptions?

As with Miller’s excursion into economics in his piece, answering this question well would require space longer than a blog post. But I think the crucial question – absent from the discussion so far – is one I raised in a response to Emily Reimer-Barry’s post: is intersectional analysis something that simply gives us better descriptions of the complexities of experiences of injustice? Or is it an analysis that includes relational assumptions about (a) power and (b) individual expressivism (or “rights”) that would be more problematic in relation to the Catholic vision of the society, rooted in a sense of the common good?

My sense is that responses to Camosy have missed this question. And that is unfortunate, because it’s really the crucial question that needs answering. My sense is that most such tools are rooted either in an interest-group-based rights liberalism or in a Marxist-Foucaultian understanding of social conflict between oppressor classes and oppressed classes. (By the way, invoking Marx and Foucault is not name-calling. It’s a sign of the seriousness of those philosophical projects, in offering normative conceptions of social relations, as well as method for thinking about these relations, and most especially – in both cases – unmasking those relations as ones of oppressive power. I learned a lot from them, especially from Foucault, in grad school.) Either way, the tools suffer from exactly the same problem that capitalist economic tools have: the inability to place their analysis of (genuine) social competition within a larger vision of the overall common (shared) good, not least because the disciplinary tools cut against these assumptions, whether in economics or in intersectional analysis.

This is a discussion worth continuing, if we continue it well. It is not one that fits secular categories. But just as pro-market Catholics need to distance themselves from the most extreme versions of capitalism and libertarianism – uncomfortable as that may be – so too Catholics with deep concerns about systemic identity injustice and discrimination may have to put some distance between themselves and secular advocates who (like libertarians) aren’t able to give a genuinely Catholic account of the common good.