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Bridges Built and Burned in Ethical Discourse

In September 2021, current and former students and colleagues gathered at Boston College to celebrate the ongoing contribution to Christian ethics of Lisa Sowle Cahill.  Several of us had contributed to a volume edited by KC Choi, Sarah Moses, and Andrea Vicini, SJ, called Reimagining the Moral Life and I was given the challenge of highlighting Cahill’s contributions to feminist ethics and capturing some of the possibilities for a sexual ethics that builds on her legacy.[i]

What captured my imagination as I reflected on that task, was the person of Junia, whom we encounter in Romans 16.  In a plenary lecture for the Society of Christian Ethics, Lisa offered Junia as a patroness of theologians who are at the forefront of feminist theological ethics today.  Cahill noted that Junia “belongs to the local church in Rome, but she is united to Christian communities around the Mediterranean by a common baptism, Eucharist, and what Paul calls ‘the good news that I proclaimed to you’ and ‘handed on’.” Junia “exercised existential apostleship in a gender-unequal church” along with other women from diverse communities and cultures.[ii]  As biblical scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa has noted, paying attention to Junia is crucial because, “The conventional wisdom that Romans was a summary of Christian theology caused attention to fall heavily on the doctrine unpacked in the letter, with little attention left over for the people the letter addressed.”[iii]

Cahill’s attention to Junia is emblematic of the kind of bridge-building that she is lauded for, asking ethicists to build and traverse bridges across many intersectional differences that are cultural, religious, gendered, political, and economic.  As Ginny Ryan notes in her essay for Reimagining the Moral Life, “Theological Bioethics and Bridge Building,” Cahill’s body of work recalls an image from the prophet Isaiah of one who is, “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Is 58:12).[iv]

The image of bridges and bridge-building is a popular one, and for good reason.  Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church called its most recent global conference Building Bridges in Sarajevo.  Globethics sponsors a series of conversations on higher education called Building New Bridges Together.  James Martin, SJ has titled his call for an LGBTQ+ inclusive Church, Building a Bridge. The image signals a willingness to overcome divisions and difference, to meet in the middle, to travel across chasms that might otherwise seem impassable.  Bridge builders provide a structure that is at least functional and at best beautiful and inspiring, so that the rest of us, who may be architecturally challenged, can find sure footing.  Bridgebuilding colleagues like Cahill and others working in Catholic ethics find new ways to employ concepts from the tradition that bridge past and present, near and far, traditional and progressive, powerful and powerless.

Building bridges is arduous work that takes careful calculation and no little amount of muscle.  As we see in U.S policy debates, “infrastructure” is boring; it is difficult to rally people to pay for its upkeep.  They are not flashy but bridges, roads, public transport, and utilities are essential and if left to crumble, create a host of other challenges to the common good by inhibiting both the distribution of goods and participation in social life for many.

Crossing bridges takes courage to move into a liminal space and hope that you will be welcomed on the other side.  I confess that in the current U.S. political and ecclesial climate, my interest in both bridge building and bridge crossing, at least in some locations, is waning.  I am eager to engage in dialogue with colleagues from other parts of the world, with others whose experiences may be quite different from my own, and with people of any faith tradition.  Participating in CTEWC is vital for my vocation. But debates, especially within U.S. Catholicism, about the intrinsic human dignity, beauty, and rights of LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and women in general are exhausting and they leave little room for the flesh and blood people to whom the gospel is addressed.  There is no middle ground on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, poverty, etc.  And sadly, it appears that no matter how overwhelming the evidence, these othering and oppressing perspectives are often intractable.

The story of Junia in translation is instructive.  Because Junia could not have been an apostle as a woman, she must really have been he, Junias.  Once that theory was finally debunked, it was merely replaced with an argument about how to interpret “outstanding among the apostles.” The conclusion remains the same: a woman cannot be an apostle.  Similarly, just as the foregone conclusion that Junia could not be an apostle is wrong, those who claim the reasonableness or inevitability of racist, sexist, and homophobic perspectives are simply wrong.  Trying to meet on some common ground is a betrayal of the those who are brutalized each day, day in and day out, by hopelessly distorted theologies but to whom the good news of the Kingdom is most surely addressed.  Refusing, on spurious theological grounds, to proclaim that Black Lives Matter or to raise a LGBTQIA+ Pride flag, has consequences and, intentionally or not, costs lives.  Doubling down on binary gender exclusive language, Columbus Day, “merry Christmas” or even “all lives matter,” causes real violence and harm.

Let me be clear; I am talking here about wrongness, not badness, even though I believe that human sinfulness lies at the heart of the harm being done to vulnerable people. I am not calling for wholesale bridge-burning or anyone’s excommunication.  I am not claiming moral superiority. Indeed, our common baptism is a lasting bridge and the Eucharist its ongoing restoration, and I approach these graces relying entirely on God’s mercy.

And I am not entirely unwilling to compromise in working out the details of how to secure every person’s dignity and rights, including universal healthcare, education, and access to a livelihood.  People of good will might disagree about some of the particulars and so we all need to cross a few bridges.  I cross bridges to learn from others about their experiences. I cross bridges to access resources.  I discern which bridges to cross according to whether the dignity and beauty of marginalized people are sincerely lifted up and honored. I don’t cross for doctrinal debate that leaves little room for the bodies of the brutalized. Self-care dictates that I cross only where no unjust toll is levied, where I and others are not dehumanized in the process.

I am a white, straight, cis-gendered, relatively affluent woman in the United States.  I can step out onto many bridges without being brutalized, but once I am there, fidelity and justice demand that I express my outrage and my solidarity, unflinching in my antiracism, anti-sexism, anti-LGBTQIA+-phobia of every stripe.  These are risks I must take because I cannot ask BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ folks to fight those battles.  It is not their work to do; it is mine.  The only people who can, and should, step out onto more bridges and take more risks than I do are white, straight, cis-gendered men.

And, as Isaiah reminds us, in order to really repair a breach, we all need to spend more time in the streets in order to make them livable.  We need to be “dressed for action”[v] and travelling many roads to Jericho so that they are safe and navigable for women and children, and free of gender-based violence that falls so heavily on trans women of color in particular.  Restoring streets that are universally designed for every body. Restoring streets where it is safe to walk, run, and drive while Black and Brown. Paving streets to make participation in the common good easier, and not washed away by the floods of environmental devastation, and not blocked by the rubble and ruts of war.  Let us restore streets so that they might bustle with protests, parades, and pilgrimages undertaken by the likes of Junia, those who receive and hand on the good news.

What bridges do you long to build, repair, or cross?

What spaces are you willing to enter in order to struggle on behalf of others?

Are there bridges that you need to burn, doors you need to close, spaces that you need to leave in order to be true to your vocation as an ethicist?


[i] Choi, Moses, Vicini. Reimagining the Moral Life: On Lisa Sowle Cahill’s Contributions to Christian Ethics,  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2020.

[ii] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Catholic Feminists and Traditions: Renewal, Reinvention, Replacement,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 34, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2014): 39.

[iii] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Foreward,” in Junia: the First Woman Apostle by Eldon Jay Epp, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, ix.

[iv] Ryan, Virginia, “Theological Bioethics and Bridge Building” in Choi, et al: 108-119.

[v] Luke 12:35. This translation prompted by The Irish Jesuits, Sacred Space.