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Exclusion and Method in Moral Theology

Keywords: Charles Camosy, Emily Reimer-Barry, intersectionality, method in moral theology, inclusion, exclusion, tradition 

In his recent “The Crisis of Catholic Moral Theology” and the follow up interview in America  magazine, Charlie Camosy argues that Catholic moral theology is in crisis, divided by the “ascendant methodologies” of intersectionality that excludes those who approach moral theology differently.

 Emily Reimer-Barry responds to Camosy’s claim in “We Don’t Need a Requiem for Moral Theology.” She argues that the field is not crumbling in division rather it is facing “urgent and complex questions” that arise from globalization and the social and natural sciences. For Reimer-Barry, intersectionality discourse equips theologians to better understand and respond to these questions.

While they differ, you can only see the difference after seeing all the ways they agree. As Reimer-Barry defends intersectionality, so does Camosy. 

Camosy writes that those who employ this discourse “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.” 

As Camosy argues we should work within the tradition, so Reimer-Barry works within the tradition.  

In her post, Reimer-Barry cites scriptures, bishops, and colleagues in moral theology. She understands the Catholic moral tradition as driven by questions like, “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?” 

Both are similarly concerned about people being excluded: Reimer-Barry reminds us that the sources of our tradition are wider than a Euro-centric canon; Camosy reminds us that theologians must be accountable to both the revelation and the people who consider our reflections. Reimer-Barry raises up people who have typically not been heard by those working in the discipline, writing that “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.” Camosy worries about people who attend to the tradition being left out or worse: he worries about the ways in which power in a Foucaldian sense may be deployed “to discipline and punish” traditionalists who dissent from the critique.

 They agree that people are being excluded; they disagree on whom. Does exclusion apply to those more focused on the tradition (Camosy) or to those who have been ignored or continue to be excluded from the tradition (Reimer-Barry)? While framed in a desire for inclusion, their opposing theses implicitly raise the question “who among the discipline’s interlocutors should be excluded and on what basis?”  

I do not raise this question lightly, but asking and attempting an answer is important for the discipline and for collegial respect. It is both insufficient and unsatisfying to say, “we should listen to everyone.” Such a response glosses over the realities of exclusion and buries the reasons for our discomfort. We must avoid the rhetoric of “very fine people, on both sides” that masks real biases and prejudices, animosity and hostility.

Moreover, Catholic moral theology has long been involved in discerning who we should and shouldn’t listen to. It is called tradition. The problem is that tradition has too often been understood as static, closed, and univocal (a point Megan McCabe makes in her response to Camosy). While the tradition includes doctrinal certainties –like the creed professed at Mass every Sunday–overall the tradition develops. The centuries have witnessed deep and expanded understandings of the Spirit’s movement over time, speaking with several voices that we prioritize and reprioritize as insight comes to the fore. Thus, today we exclude Mirari Vos and the Syllabus of Errors that condemn freedom of speech, press, and religion and we include Pacem in Terris and Dignitatis Humanae to insist on these rights. Moreover, voices that have been “outside” the tradition, for just one example, women, become voices “inside” the tradition. As Alastair MacIntyre notes (cf. Whose Justice? Which Rationality?), living traditions draw in and begin to engage new voices and ideas and develop thereby.

 As we wrestle with development in the tradition, we should keep in mind Terrence Tilley’s insight (cf. Inventing Catholic Tradition) that we often do not understand development until we are looking back at a tradition through history. In the meantime, we utilize whatever skills we have, listening to the voices that we have reason to think are important, listening to the voices we do not typically hear so that we may be able to do the work of theology for the Body of Christ, the Church. 

We need this development in Catholic moral theology today to help us in reflecting carefully about who is and is not included. It is no easy task. We should be including those people who Camosy and Reimer-Barry worry about being excluded. We need, to use Reimer-Barry’s words, a “wider” scope and a “more complex” method in moral theology, an approach that means our “comps lists get longer and conference sessions become more variable.” We also should heed Camosy’s call for “intellectual solidarity” in our pursuit of discerning what is right and just. On that basis then and as a matter of course, we all should be raising the questions of exclusion.

Even then, our pursuits will be messy, incomplete, and filled with mistakes along the way. Thus, we should be extra kind and merciful to ourselves and to those around us. Only if we listen carefully and attentively can we better speak about and try to live according to “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).