In November of last year I published a critique of the current state of Catholic moral theology in the United States in the pages of Church Life Journal. I crafted the piece over the better part of a year in conversation with ten fellow moral theologians with different views on these matters, including more than one who disagreed with my central thesis.
Given what was at stake, I was hoping for dialogical responses and critiques to the piece and was initially disappointed that there was so little of a response. The Jesuit Post did do a follow up Q and A with me and when this was picked up by America Magazine I was pleased that responses appeared from Emily Reimer-Barry here at the Catholic Moral Theology blog and Megan McCabe in her own Q and A at America. I also hoped others might join in and respond to their pieces.
There have been some helpful internet comments at the conclusion the pieces, but in general there hasn’t been much of a formal response to Reimer-Barry or McCabe. And while there may be responses forthcoming, I do think the silence thus far reveals a major part of the problem I was trying to identify. (More on this in the questions below.) I was hoping, for multiple reasons, to see the dialogue develop without follow-ups from me, but at this point I do think it might be helpful to ask some questions of my critics in the hopes that a critical dialogue can continue.
(1) After reading both pieces I got the strong sense that we were talking past each other and I now wonder if it is because we have different discourses in mind. A foundational question in the debate seems to be about the nature of intersectional critical theory and how it functions in Catholic moral theology. In both of my pieces I tried to emphasize that different thinkers have different understandings of what the nature of the discourse is. However, I noticed that both Reimer-Barry and McCabe spoke of “intersectionality” rather than the subject of my critique which was and is intersectional critical theory. Is it possible that this confusion threw off the debate? (And perhaps I am to blame for this confusion by sometimes referring to “intersectional discourse” or “intersectionality” in the body of text where in a previous heading I tried to make it clear that I was speaking of intersectional critical theory?)
(2) In a question related to (1) above, I’d like to draw attention to my central description of intersectional critical theory:
Intersectional critical theory focuses on the interrelated systems of power that cause vulnerable populations to suffer injustice. The bad guys (powerful people and the systems that privilege them) are racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, neocolonial, and patriarchal. Each of these sins implies all the others, because the bad guys preside over matrices of domination in which marginal identity categories intersect with and reinforce each other. Against the bad guys, those with marginalized identities—black, LGBT, disabled, immigrant, female—find common cause, though their substantive claims may differ or contradict. For in the matrices of intersectionality, everything boils down to a struggle for power. A postmodern discourse of power, derived from a certain reading of Foucault, absorbs these theorists. Perhaps not surprisingly, power is deployed liberally in intersectional circles to discipline and punish those who do dissent or deviate from intersectional critical theory.
Reimer-Barry says she “disagrees” with this analysis but never articulates why. I did a word search for “power” within McCabe’s interview and got zero results. Both failed to even mention the role of Foucault’s thought (explicitly or implicitly) in the discourse. Since the role of power was at the heart of my critique, I’m curious why this wasn’t addressed in the responses? Was it a byproduct of the confusion between intersectionality and intersectional critical theory? Something else?
(3) A number of moral theologians and others wrote to thank me for my pieces. A good percentage said that they wish they could publicly comment but didn’t feel safe to do so. The unstated implication was that if they were outed as agreeing with my basic thesis they could face forces that could harm them in some significant way. Indeed, as I mentioned in the Church Life Journal piece, I have colleagues in the field who have faced real professional consequences for merely having respectful dialogue with those who have what are understood to be wrong positions on these matters. It is telling that, despite significant agreement among many moral theologians with my central concern, that there haven’t been follow-up pieces written voicing such support. Again, that may change. But in the meantime, and in light of the other points, where do my critics think the fear and silence comes from? Are these folks unreasonably fearful that they cannot offer critiques of intersectional critical theory without facing such consequences? If not, then what does that say about its effect on the field? If they are unreasonably afraid, why are those fears unreasonable?”
(4) One weakness of my pieces that McCabe rightly pointed out was my generic use of the term “tradition” in several places. However, I want to draw attention to the following claim I make about it:
It is true that conservative moral theologians sometimes draw a circle too tightly around “the tradition.” They may dismiss unfairly those on the Catholic left who are wrestling with the tradition in a way that honors its authority, and who are very much doing Catholic moral theology.
Both Reimer-Barry and McCabe take me to task for drawing too tight a circle around the tradition, but I very much agree that Eurocentricity is a problem and it is wonderful we are now getting more theological insights from other sources in other social contexts. But I take it we cannot simply grab insights from wherever we like because we find them (for the moment) to be life-giving or attractive or useful—and then claim they are part of the tradition. Thomas relied heavily on Aristotle, sure, but he didn’t do a cut-and-paste job. There were more authoritative truths to which Thomas owed his allegiance and this meant he had to augment, ignore, and even reject significant parts of Aristotle. Whether we are talking about engaging the Frankfurt school of philosophy or the University of Chicago school of economics or the East African School of Theology in Nairobi, the ideas we glean from such engagement must be evaluated in light of a more foundational authority. Do my critics accept this? If so, what serves as this kind of authority? The Nicene Creed? An apostolic tradition guided by the Holy Spirit? Vatican Council II? Or (acknowledging that no one with any historical awareness thinks the above sources are “pure”) are these kinds of sources (as I suggested in CLJ) “fundamentally contaminated” by Eurocentricity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and the like such that–though parts of them may prove useful–they cannot serve as legitimate sources of authority against which new insights and claims need to be evaluated?
(5) One of my central critiques was that I see intersectional critical theory functioning in Catholic moral theology such that the ultimate conclusions offered (especially about public policy) very rarely differ significantly from (for lack of a better way of saying it) those of secular intersectional critical theory. If wrestling with the Catholic tradition is really at the heart of the projects of intersectional moral theologians why don’t we have more speaking out, say, the intersection of various structural injustices when it comes to abortion? Ableism, racism, misogyny, ageism (and more) combine to create an absolutely horrific injustice: the mass slaughter of our most vulnerable children and the explicit and structural coercion of women. Something similar could be said about euthanasia and assisted suicide. Furthermore, people of color, the subaltern, the economically vulnerable, and other marginalized populations tend to have views on abortion and euthanasia that differ quite dramatically from those of those with substantial privilege–especially in the academy. These views ought to have significant authority within intersectional discourse, but I have not seen them lifted up. I can understand why secular thinkers have a blind spot here, or why they have to capitulate to a kind of orthodoxy on these matters, but what about Catholic moral theologians? Have I missed them writing, speaking and engaging in activism on behalf of these vulnerable populations? Have they lifted up the voices of the marginalized on abortion and euthanasia as authoritative and challenging of the academic status quo? If not, what explains this lacuna? Why are these moral theologians so creatively revisiting other conversations but not these?
(6) I regret that I did not make my belief clear in the CLJ piece that Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator has done good and important work in our field. Without taking away from from this undeniable fact, my point was to highlight his extreme prominence and influence (with multiple plenary addresses) compared to the lack of prominence and influence of another scholar, with a stronger publication record, who works on the similar topics and has had a similar set of experiences: Paulinus Odozor. If not their ideological differences (which have played out publicly at more than one conference), what explains this situation? And if it is their ideological differences, what does the the fact that Orobator’s views have been given a platform that Odozor’s have not say about how the power of intersectional critical theory works in our field?
(7) Reimer-Barry concludes her piece by claiming that “all are welcome.” But many in our field now feel precisely the opposite. They have simply stopped attending major conferences (like SCE and CTSA). And if they do attend, it is almost as if there are two separate conferences going on and they can attend the one in which they feel welcome and safe in engaging. My strong sense is that the hegemonic nature of intersectional critical theory within the field of moral theology bears primary responsibility for these trends. For those who want a genuinely free and open intellectual exchange about an authentically diverse range of ideas it is now clear that many ideas (despite having significant pedigree in the tradition) are simply unwelcome. And sometimes these ideas are not just unwelcome, but publicly declared so offensive that the only proper response is marginalizing both the idea and (often) those who hold it. Indeed, some intersectional thinkers seem to dismiss freedom of academic exchange and calls for ideological diversity as wrongheaded at best and conditions for the possibility of violent speech at worst—especially if it means (on intersectional analysis) the freedom to erase the very being of a vulnerable population. How can we square the sense that “all are welcome” with the sense many others have that, given the power imbalance in the field, their most deeply held views require them either to keep quiet or not show up at all? And if intersectional critical theory is not at the heart of this growing power imbalance and communication breakdown, what explains this common experience?
As I said above, I really would have preferred to see others take on this critical dialogue and develop it apart from my particular concerns and experiences. I’m just one person, obviously, and though others share my primary concern here, everyone brings different values and experiences to the discussion. But this monster tension has been hanging out there for some time now and for the sake of the field I believe we need to find a way to speak about it openly and in the spirit of charity and solidarity. I remain open to changing my mind about each of my contentions—and in some ways I already have. (I think, for instance, I would now describe intersectional critical theory as “ascendant” rather than “ascendant and dominant.”) But, bottom line, I hope to do more listening and less argument-making in the coming weeks and months.