The Crisis of Catholic Moral Theology

Screams and applause and “Hail to the Chief” greeted President Obama as he walked onstage to deliver the 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame, the weekend during which I formally received my doctorate in Catholic moral theology.

On the other side of campus, protestors were rallying against the President’s legislative record on prenatal children—consistently the worst of any successful presidential candidate in history. I was present at the main commencement, because unlike the protestors I approved of Notre Dame’s decision to invite the president and confer on him an honorary doctorate. Obama was not the first president so honored with a record fundamentally at odds with Catholic moral teaching, and for me the opportunity to open a dialogue on abortion was simply too important. Still, given the scale of abortion’s injustice, I understood the protestors’ concerns. And I was distraught to see how, thanks in part to polarizing media coverage, U.S. Catholic culture was being riven by the debate.

I went from Notre Dame to Fordham, where, as a young idealistic assistant professor, I was determined to do something. I knew intelligent, well-intentioned people on multiple sides of the debate, particularly in my discipline of moral theology. It seemed what we needed was to get to know each other, pray together, and debate the issues in good faith. We would soon prove that the narrative of hopeless polarization was false.

During the last decade, I undertook several projects to try to bridge divides not only within the Catholic Church, but between Catholics and Evangelicals, Catholics and secular utilitarians, Catholics and animal-rights activists, even Catholic pro-lifers and secular abortion-rights activists. For the better part of that decade I have sought through the Catholic Conversation Project to promote intellectual solidarity among Catholic theologians by means of de-polarization and viewpoint diversity.

Despite this commitment—or rather, perhaps, because of it—I am compelled to give a report of the state of Catholic moral theology in the United States today: The discipline is in crisis. Fractured and polarized, the ascendant methodologies are only preoccupied with power both in theory and in practice.

This is an old story with a new twist. The right-left polarization of the Culture Wars persists, but something is different this time around. Post-Vatican II debates over moral theology, though heated, evinced a common commitment to marshaling evidence and making careful arguments in conversation with the tradition. Richard McCormick and Germain Grisez went at each other hard in the proportionalism debates—but anyone who reads that literature will come away with a respect not only for their erudition, but for their mutual commitment to the norms of academic moral theological debate.

Today, something akin to the McCormick-Grisez debates seem nearly impossible. Indeed, the methodologies now ascendant cause one to wonder in what sense American Catholic moral theologians are even engaged in a common enterprise.

Pressures on Academic Theology at a University

The disciplinary crisis of moral theology arises in part from the disciplinary crisis of theology broadly—at least of theology as practiced at a typical US university. Centers of theological inquiry have relocated to universities over the past half-century, drawn away from seminaries by more plentiful appointments—along with larger salaries, larger research budgets, and more graduate assistants.

In some ways, this change has been positive. For instance, it is difficult to imagine how the shift in moral theology mandated by Vatican II could have taken place without the academic freedom afforded by the modern university. The flipside is that many theology departments have been pressured to mirror the norms of the secular academy. Criteria for what counts as good scholarship, teaching, and service have gradually ceased to have reference to the tradition and the Church. Increasingly, these criteria have pushed theology to morph into the ostensibly neutral study of “religion,” especially as shaped by the disciplines of sociology and history.

But the disciplines of sociology and history are anything but neutral. They are hyper-secular. When theology is forced to give an account of itself to colleagues and administrators who share those disciplines’ assumptions, the result is a situation in which theological commitment is often a source of embarrassment. Even hostility. This is no trivial matter, especially because the academy has powerful means at its disposal to punish dissenters.

A New Hegemonic Discourse in Moral Theology

The problem noted above has become especially acute in moral theology. Around the time I was applying to graduate school, there were several different schools of moral theology in U.S. Catholic colleges and universities competing for leadership and graduate students in the field. Fifteen years later, some of my colleagues in the discipline even wonder whether moral theology is “still a thing” outside of seminaries. The preferred term for the discipline, one that signals evacuation of theological content, is now “social ethics.” The ascendant and dominant social ethicists today are committed to a power discourse which, broadly speaking, could be described as intersectional. More on that below.

In general, the debates of the new hegemonic discourse in moral theology tend to frame debates in terms of “tradition versus context” or “law versus situation,” and then employ a certain understanding of conscience to advocate for contextual or situation ethics. This approach has been helpful in some ways, especially as a counterweight to the problems of the manualist tradition. It becomes problematic when applied too consistently, however, such that Catholic theology is abandoned for a different ideological framework.

But most of those who occupy positions of power in the major boards and journals of moral theology, as well as leadership positions with the relevant academic societies, hold something like this view. In consequence, moral theology in the United States is becoming almost indistinguishable from the broader progressive culture. It is difficult to find recent public statements from the dominant moral theologians, for instance, that would make the New York Times editorial board uncomfortable. Calls to reform the Church’s message and practices accord with the usual progressive checklist, acceptable to any Catholic liberal (or indeed most any secular liberal). Appeals to social justice are used to call Catholics to enact social change, but the means typically recommended—changing (or keeping) the policies of the secular state—rarely receive meaningful theological interrogation.

Intersectional Critical Theory and the Norms of Academic Exchange

Anyone who has paid attention to the humanities during the last decade is aware of the meteoric rise of intersectional critical theory, which went from being a blip in a handful of literature departments to full-blown predominance in what seems like the blink of an eye. Intersectionality discourse does not merely dominate academic conferences and journals—it norms administrations, classrooms, and student life at our most prestigious universities. And, as mentioned above, it is ascendant and even dominant in Catholic social ethicists.

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.

Intersectional theorists should not be dismissed out of hand. They are often astute on the functions of power, and they have refused to bend on many issues of justice that traditional activism has overlooked. Their focus on interlocking injustices overlaps with the “consistent ethic of life” tradition advocated by, among others, Pope St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. There are also resonances with his understanding of social and structural sin. I have personally found critical race theory helpful in interpreting my experience as a white person living for several years in the Bronx, then marrying into a Filipino family and adopting three children from the Philippines. It has allowed me to recognize the privileges that come with my station, as I suspect it would do for others who are similarly situated.

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.

Orthodoxy Enforcement

Perhaps the most important academic conference for Catholic theologians has been the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. But the CTSA tends to lack viewpoint diversity on its board, among its plenary speakers, and in its ethos and spirit. A few years ago, several members broached this issue with a few sympathetic CTSA leaders, but hope for change was soon succeeded by disappointment. The concerns of marginalized members were (unsurprisingly, given what we have just explored above) seen by many as a kind of power play, and CTSA leadership ultimately ignored the recommendations of its own ad hoc committee on theological diversity. Their orthodoxy was not to be challenged.

This sort of thing is hardly new in the academy, of course, and many currently in leadership positions undoubtedly remember a time when people with very different views were the enforcers of orthodoxy. But the rise of intersectional critical theory presents the current enforcers with new methods of keeping hegemonic control of the discourse. Because forms of exploitation are interrelated, a person who holds the wrong position on, say, gender theory is likely guilty on other counts as well. Consequently, a traditionally Catholic view of sexual morality is vulnerable to contamination by concurrent charges of homophobia and racism. And the accused cannot avail himself of the norms of the academy in their defense—because those norms have historically defended and promoted injustice. If someone branded with an intersectional scarlet letter makes an arguments in the mode of traditional academic exchange, he merely digs his morally-contaminated hole even deeper.

Often the only option for the accused is—in a ritual display reminiscent of nineteenth-century Protestant revivalism—to check his privilege and publicly accept the norms and conclusions of intersectional critical theory. Without such a public conversion experience, which can serve as a kind of baptism, one is considered depraved and even demonic. One must die to the old self, engage in public repentance, and commit to a new life of fidelity to orthodox belief. Interestingly, this approach is far less concerned with liberating consciences than with making sure consciences are rightly formed.

Intersectional critical theorists wield their power not only against dissenters, but against those heterodox who, while agreeing about the non-negotiable issues, nevertheless engage with dissenters according to the norms of academic exchange. According to intersectional critical theory, authentic allies of vulnerable populations do not legitimize oppressors by engaging them on their own terms and validating the legitimacy of their approaches. Such heterodox theorists may suffer diminished employment prospects and other punishments simply for engaging with the heretics.

On-the-ground viewpoint diversity exists in some intersectional circles. But, alarmingly, very little diversity is publicly tolerated on issues central to Catholic moral theology. For instance, pro-life feminists often have methodologies and structural concerns similar to those of intersectional feminists. But a feminist whose pro-life views are made public risks exclusion from feminist discourse. There is a “right” position on abortion, and it is strictly enforced, even if that means excluding potential allies.

Intersectional critical theorists are often at pains to raise up the voices of people of color—a laudable goal, especially in the all-too-white academy. And given that African American and Latinx populations tend to have different views on controverted issues (including abortion, euthanasia, and marriage) than do whites, it is a goal that one would think naturally tends toward cultivation of viewpoint diversity. In most circumstances, however, academic orthodoxy enforcement trumps viewpoint diversity, even when unorthodox viewpoints are held by people of color.

This becomes conspicuous when the discipline promotes people of color who take orthodox academic positions while marginalizing people of color who are heterodox or dissenting. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, despite not being trained in theological ethics, has risen to astonishing prominence in the discipline. But Notre Dame’s Paulinus Odozor, an established moral theologian with university press books directly related to lifting up authentically African voices and ideas in moral theology, has not gained similar prominence. Orobator and Odozor have had very public debates, but unfortunately for Odozor his academically heterodox views means that those who hold power will keep him out of the leadership club.

A Common Discipline?

The power plays described above might be considered payback for the power plays once perpetrated by the institutional Church on behalf of orthodox moral theology. For those who have “The Curran Affair” at the Catholic University of America foremost in their imaginations, this is an understandable reaction. Even today, some progressive theologians run afoul of ecclesial power, such that they may not speak in certain dioceses or serve as experts for USCCB or Vatican panels. But, in the main, power in the discipline of moral theology functions very differently today. Norms are no longer primarily formulated and enforced by the local ordinary or the CDF.

And if the current intersectionalist project counts as an authentic form of moral theology or Catholic theological ethics, then the discipline really is at sea. For if the teaching authority and tradition of the Church are to be understood as hopelessly compromised by patriarchy, homophobia, and so on—such that they can and should be something other than central to the discourse—then a discipline other than theology is setting the terms of the practice.

An intersectional theorist can find certain Catholic ideas attractive and important, of course. But what must be believed (and certainly the council fathers of Vatican II believed it) is that revelation is entrusted to the apostolic Church, and through many ups and downs the tradition is guided by the Holy Spirit and roughly, over time, we discern more and more how to live out the vocation of followers of Christ until he comes again.

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. But from left to right, these theologians all take the tradition and teaching of the Church as their starting point, though they disagree on where to go from there. By contrast, intersectional critical theory generally begins with the assumption that the tradition is fundamentally contaminated.

In what sense, then, are such theorists engaged in the same practice as that of moral theologians whose starting point is the tradition and teaching of the Church? What is this thing we are ostensibly doing together?

Possible Common Ground

A fundamentally Christian intersectionalist discourse in moral theology would have the potential to restore a new kind balance to the discipline. What would it look like? The secular state may be found to be historically and morally compromised in ways that reduce its all-encompassing priority. A focus on the sinful and self-deceiving nature of human beings could lead us re-prioritize consciences that are rightly formed in light of the tradition. There could be new and exciting contributions to ongoing discussions about whether anything like public reason can form a coherent basis for liberal discourse.

Current dynamics in the discipline, however, would require those who currently wield power to wrestle with the views of heretical or dissenting theologians, views that make them profoundly uncomfortable.

Perhaps heeding Pope Francis could be unifying. Reasonable people may disagree about whether he has always walked the walk, but the Holy Father has called for a diversity of views. For debate. No power plays. Rather, room to play. Following Pope Francis here means cultivating viewpoint diversity in the discipline. It means more tolerance for ambiguity. It means dispensing with framing narratives designed to shut down debate.

A further question looms: Which institutions are capable of facilitating such discussions? The Journal of Moral Theology and a handful of smaller theology departments are fostering viewpoint diversity. But our larger societies and communities (from the liberal CSTA to the traditional Academy of Catholic Theology) currently have little incentive to change, especially given their current roles as intellectual safe spaces. An authentic commitment to dialogue across difference commits us to participating in the suffering of Jesus forsaken, in ways that are not intellectually safe. The discipline of moral theology cannot overcome its problems if moral theologians are not prepared to suffer in the process of working on our disagreements.

If the dominant voices of the intersectionalist discourse are willing to take a Pope Francis approach to viewpoint diversity, then there is good reason to be hopeful. Without such changes, however, it becomes difficult to envision a future in which the discipline of moral theology will continue to be practiced at universities. In a historical reversal, it will likely be pushed to back to the seminaries, while intersectional social ethics becomes the province of religious studies departments.

This would be a terrible loss. Traditional moral theologians and intersectional critical theorists can challenge each other productively, but it becomes much more difficult if they are segregated into different disciplines and classes of institution. Worse, the more the two camps diverge, the more debates will be decided on the basis of power. Then, as intersectional theory instructs us, the dogma of the privileged will be uncontested orthodoxy, and dissenters will be left on the margins.

Featured Image: George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-80. 


Charles C. Camosy


Charlie Camosy is Professor of Medical Humanities at the Creighton University School of Medicine and holds the Monsignor Curran Fellowship in Moral Theology at St. Joseph Seminary in New York. He is the author of seven books, most recently Bioethics for Nurses: a Christian Moral Vision.

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