In November, CMT contributor Charles Camosy wrote a piece for Church Life Journal entitled “The Crisis of Catholic Moral Theology.”  His arguments have been given new life this week in an America piece in which Camosy is interviewed by Tom Elitz, S.J., “Has Moral Theology Left Catholic Tradition Behind?”

In both places, Camosy argues that the field of moral theology is in crisis. But I think it is too early to plan the Requiem Mass for our field. It is true that huge demographic and institutional shifts are underway. But this is not a field in crisis. This is a field responding to urgent and complex questions all over the world, drawing on the wisdom of the past and the data of the present, including data from a variety of fields in the social sciences and hard sciences. In these pieces, Camosy argues that scholars of Catholic moral theology are not doing theology the way he thinks it should be done. And sometimes they even have the nerve to call themselves social ethicists instead of moral theologians. But I think we need to step back and think about some very basic questions that his critique of the field raises. What do I need to have to demonstrate to someone that I “belong” in the guild of Catholic moral theology? What exactly has been lost by expanding our field’s methodological approaches? I think Camosy’s description of a “crisis” in the discipline is unproductive. Moral theology is vibrant and exciting! We shouldn’t shut down this blog site just yet.

Camosy describes the changes in the field as problematic because scholars are using the methods of sociology and history (including decolonial, feminist, and intersectional methods) in their research and teaching. As Camosy frames the doing of Catholic moral theology, “the starting point” must be “the tradition and the teaching of the Church.” In the America piece, Camosy explains:

But now a lot of folks have decided that that tradition is not even worth working with. It is too contaminated, too patriarchal, too homophobic and so on. And at some point, I think many Catholic thinkers became more interested in reaching certain conclusions on contemporary moral issues than working within the tradition. Moral theologians like Richard McCormick came to controversial conclusions but did so attempting to work within the tradition. I suspect many sympathetic thinkers eventually came to realize that they could not reach the conclusions they wanted to while working within the tradition.

In reading and rereading these two pieces, I keep returning to the question, what does Camosy mean by tradition? Who counts in this retelling of our Christian past? What texts and figures are in the ‘canon’ of moral theology for Camosy? In the America piece, Camosy repeats that he is not a historian. He is trained in analytic philosophy and Catholic moral theology. But what assumptions is he making about history and theology when saying that the tradition is the starting point? Tradition according to whom? Is he talking about documents, rituals, spiritual practices, institutional methods of organizing ecclesial power?

Ever since I was exposed to the writings of Laurenti Magesa, John Mbiti, Benezet Bujo, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, and Anne Nasimiyu, I have learned to question a Eurocentric retelling of “the Catholic moral tradition” from a growing awareness of the richness of an African worldview and inculturation of theology. Aren’t these African scholars doing moral theology? They are wrestling with a complex tradition that contains a mixed bag of liberation and exploitation. In “Culture as the Path of Faith,” in Magesa’s The Post-Conciliar Church in Africa, he frames his analysis by drawing on John Paul II’s expression that “the synthesis between culture and faith is not only a requirement of culture, but also of faith,” but argues himself that “prevarication in this process is evident in Africa.” For example, he notes that some missionary movements despised African cultural traditions. At the end of their meeting in Ghana in 1977, African theologians insisted on the fundamental importance of context in doing theology. Magesa quotes from that document: “African theology must be understood in the context of African life and culture and the creative attempt of African peoples to shape a new future that is different form the colonial past and the neo-colonial present.” (Appiah-Kubi and Torres, African Theology en Route, 193). Magesa writes that “Africans cannot come to the Christian faith in a cultural vacuum and should not be expected to.”

Is the legacy of Christian colonial conquest in Africa toxic and contaminating? Yes! So how do we “do moral theology” in that context? Well, it is complicated. But we start by acknowledging that there is no pure tradition. There is no discourse that is not historically situated. And Magesa invites theologians to proceed with epistemological humility while also recognizing the gravity of their work. He writes:

“Doing theology is closely tied up with the economy of revelation, or revelation as we experience it here and now in the world. Both are situated in a context and must be interpreted. That interpretation must be continually revised by using linguistic tools of one kind or another. For theology, the questions are: What is the context where revelation and its interpretation are taking place? Who are the individuals and communities experiencing divine revelation to whom the theologian is accountable? How is the theologian, as an interpreter of divine revelation, situated in the context? Finally, what is the best way by which to bring out what God may be saying to us? As long as divine revelation continues, which is to say as long as humanity exists, the task of doing theology will continue.”

These are profound questions for me to consider. As a theologian working on issues of sexuality, when I attend to the data of human experience on rape culture, statistics of sexual assault, clerical sexual misconduct, heterosexism in churches, and women’s narratives of pregnancy and abortion, am I being accountable to divine revelation in the human experience of sexuality? What is the best way to bring about what God may be saying to us? How should I be attending to contemporary sources and what sources from the moral tradition should guide me? Does it matter, when I’m considering how to draw on authoritative sources, that men’s voices have shaped the Catholic moral tradition more than women’s?

These questions are important because Camosy is frustrated by the rise of intersectionality analysis. In their book, Intersectional Theology, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw explain intersectionality this way:

Intersectionality is a tool for analysis that takes into account the simultaneously experienced multiple social locations, identities, and institutions that shape individual and collective experience within hierarchically structured systems of power and privilege. In other words, intersectionality is a lens for understanding how gender, race, social class, sexual identity, and other forms of difference work concurrently to shape people and social institutions within multiple relationships of power. It is kaleidoscopic, constantly rendering shifting patterns of power visible. Is is confluent, a juncture point where identities, locations, institutions, and power flow together creating something new. It is a praxis–an ongoing loop of action-reflection-action– that integrates social justice-oriented theory with activism toward social justice on the ground so that theory informs practice and practice informs theory (2).

Intersectionality analysis reminds us that our tradition presents a partial reflection of the human experience of God. Even the recent US bishops document Open Wide Our Hearts reminds us of Catholic complicity in the colonization of the Americas. Catholics were complicit in the slave trade, genocide of indigenous peoples, and discrimination and hatred of Hispanic/Latinoa peoples. If Camosy wants tradition to be our starting point, in what sense does this “tradition” of racism become our “starting point”? Is that even the right question to ask?

Camosy writes, in his criticism of intersectionality:

The centrality of power to intersectional discourse, however, makes it highly problematic for Christian academics. Commitment to rational inquiry and argumentation, free speech, and viewpoint diversity are, according to intersectional theory, mere attempts to safeguard privilege. But Roman Catholics, who believe in the salvific nature of Christ’s death and resurrection and the continued work of the Holy Spirit in the world, cannot be at home in a discourse that requires the destruction of the perceived enemies of our identity. We must be faithful to the command of Christ to encounter and engage those with fundamentally different views in a spirit of love—which means, for academic theologians, a spirit of intellectual solidarity.

I think Camosy fundamentally misrepresents intersectionality analysis here. But I also think it is important to clearly note that the Catholic moral tradition has not always been “faithful to the command of Christ to encounter and engage those with fundamentally different views in a spirit of love.” The reason why intersectional thinking is so life-affirming for so many people is because whole schools of thought have ignored their lived experiences for so long, and finally intersectional theologians are paying attention. Our scope is wider now, and our methods are more complex. This may mean that comps lists get longer and conference sessions become more variable, but the conversations will be richer.

Camosy is clearly expressing resentment and frustration with the field of moral theology as he sees it. But I would like to be on the record as someone who celebrates the breadth and depth of work being done in the field today. Instead of planning a funeral, let’s have a party and say all are welcome (Lk 14:13).


Update: An interview with Megan McCabe is published in America Magazine and might be of interest to readers. (2/19/19)