A guest post by Simeiqi He (PhD Candidate, Drew University) in conversation with the newly published article by Kristin Heyer, PhD, in the Special Issue of the Journal of Moral Theology, which can be found here.

What is the current landscape of social production regarding care work? Whose flesh does it affect? What are the implications of such effects and what challenges or possibilities do they (or could they) engender? Kristin Heyer approaches these questions in her article “Enfleshing the Work of Social Production: Gender, Race, and Agency” through an intersectional approach that not only pays acute attention to the findings of sociological studies, but also creatively engages critical studies by wedding it with Catholic moral theology. Her comprehensive analysis of caring labor reveals that entrenched ideologies and structures function together to shape and maintain exploitative patterns and unjust work of social production, where care work predominantly carried out by women and women of color and more marginalized statuses is substantially undervalued. Heyer identifies these interlocking structural and ideological dimensions as neoliberal capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and individualism, naming them as “intersectional viruses.” Her critique of structures and ideologies, her proposal of their deconstruction and demystification, and her employment of an intersectional approach signify the dawning of a new methodological development in moral theology that pays deliberate attention to critical studies, one that has begun to gain momentum in recent years. Moreover, her exploration of moral, cultural and policy shifts in reconceiving the “new normal” resonates with present concerns in critical studies, which, as the cultural theorist Laurel Berlant has mentioned in their last book On the Inconvenience of Other People, constitutes a “turning to ‘infrastructure’ to reimagine the transformation of living from within the scene of life, replacing focus on the abstraction of what counts as ‘structure’ with attention to what expresses itself most profoundly in concrete social relations.” (20)

It seems to me that Heyer’s greatest contribution lies in her advocacy for an intersectional approach to caring labor grounded in the theoretical foundation established by Patricia Hill Collins’s Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Heyer sharply points out that while Catholic moral anthropology is profoundly rational and Catholic social teaching has long championed worker’s rights, the assumption and discourse regarding gender complementarity is at odds with the Church’s commitment to solidarity, labor justice, and the common good. This separate treatment of gender and sexual ethics rooted in an essentialist understanding of complementarity, engrossed with an ontological reference, exposes the fundamental inconsistency within the field of Catholic moral theology and undermines its own theological appeal to human dignity and the love of God and neighbor. Perhaps this incompatibility also reveals an opportunity for the development of both, in the sense that it at once demands a reconceptualization of the body and its ontological register and calls for the transformation of Catholic social thought beyond its previously established boundaries, both in its method and in its content. Heyer’s article is undoubtedly an accomplishment of the latter. Through an intersectional approach to caring labor, Heyer not only reintroduces the issues of the gender and sexual ethics into their social milieu, firmly installing (or restoring) their rightful place in social ethics and demands its consistency with the core values of Catholic social teaching; her deliberate introduction of critical studies into the conversation of Catholic moral theology also furthers the development of Catholic social thought by situating moral theology in the broader intellectual community and enabling moral theologians to actively participate in the ongoing advancement of human knowledge as a living process and communal achievement.

Further, considering caring labor – that is, the reproductive labor of women and women of color and marginalized status – and the agency it engenders not only as the result of existing social institutions, but also the locus of its reimagination, Heyer demonstrates the beginning of a re-envisioning of moral anthropology, which may very well lead to alternative understandings of gender, body, and sexuality that imply new epistemological entries and ontological foundations. In this sense, Catholic moral theology can be more intimately joined with critical studies by actively engaging conversations happening in diverse fields – such as, gender studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, cultural studies, literary studies, affect studies, new materialism, etc. – so as to ensure the ongoing and inexhaustible expressions of its intellectual life.

To an extent, by simply coupling the concept of the “flesh” with social production in the title, which also alludes to M. Shawn Copeland’s 2009 book Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (with a new edition coming out in November), Heyer’s article already implies a deeper scrutiny of theological anthropology, gesturing the need for a renewed attention to body and flesh. Informed by Mayra Rivera’s 2015 work Poetics of the Flesh, which figures an extensive engagement with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “the flesh,” I see Heyer calling for an epistemological shift in understanding, not only relationality and the limits of agency, but also the co-constitution of discourse, body/flesh, and social production. This intuition, implying profound shifts in phenomenological and ontological understandings, bears promising potential for the reconceptualization of body and flesh as a transformation of St. John Paul II’s personalism and theology of the body.

It appears to me that Heyer’s critique of neoliberal capitalism shares deep affinity with St. John Paul II’s critique of utilitarianism, which is the driving force behind his urgency to establish the personalistic norm. While the latter seems to suffer serious limitations regarding its conceptualization of the person given its essentialist understanding of gender, St. John Paul II’s concern for the integrity of the body as expressing the dignity of the person is furthered by Heyer’s commitment to expose the injustices of patriarchy, racism, and individualism, the dimensions which figured only marginally in St. John Paul II’s study of the body.

To further the discussion, I wonder if we can take the step beyond the critique of particular ideologies as demonstrated by Heyer to consider more fundamental questions in critical studies regarding the nature of ideology. What new possibilities would it open if Catholic moral theology is to take seriously the now well-known statement, “there is no ideology and never has been,” (4) posed by Gilles Deleuze, one of the most influential philosophers and theorists of the second half of twentieth century, together with Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia? To engage this question directly would require Catholic moral theologians to exercise their philosophical muscles once again by attending not only to critical studies in its present outlook but also its intimate entanglement with continental philosophy. This attention I believe would prove ultimately fruitful, for it returns the discussion of care work and social production to the fundamental question of expression, one that pertains to the depth of our theological tradition and is central to our understanding of the flesh, its dignity and sacramental nature.

Simeiqi He is a PhD candidate at Drew University Theological School. She holds a Master of Arts in Theology and Ministry from Brite Divinity School, a Master of Social Work and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Texas Christian University, and a Bachelor of Science in Materials Physics from Sichuan University. Her interests include moral theology, continental philosophy, Chinese thought, and issues related to marriage and family, bioethics, and peacebuilding.