Exclusion and Method in Moral Theology

6 Comment(s) | Posted | by Jason King |

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).


  1. Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST's avatar
    Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST
    | Permalink
    Thank you for the article. It opens to good discussions which would really bring new insights and openings.
  2. Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST's avatar
    Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST
    | Permalink
    Thank you for the article. It opens to good discussions which would really bring new insights and openings.
  3. Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST's avatar
    Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST
    | Permalink
    Thank you for the article. It opens to good discussions which would really bring new insights and openings.
  4. Emily Reimer-Barry's avatar
    Emily Reimer-Barry
    | Permalink
    Thank you, Jason, for this piece. I especially appreciate you pointing out the common ground between our positions.
  5. Thomas A. Shannon's avatar
    Thomas A. Shannon
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    The Role of the Moral Theologian: An Indirect response to Intersectionality

    Thomas A. Shannon
    Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Ethics
    Worcester Polytechnic Institute

    Though I did not realize it for a while, two professors of mine in moral theology showed me clearly the past and present of moral theology. My first professor told us his job was to teach the generally accepted positions of the magisterium of the church on moral theology as understood and presented by the majority of moral theologians. He taught us the tradition and how to put it into practice.
    My second professor did much of the same thing, though two changes occurred. First, we had as our text The Law of Christ by Bernard Haering rather than the traditional handbooks of moral theology. This text was critical in renewing moral theology by focusing on Scripture and the role of love, thus shifting the focus to the development of a moral agent. But second, there was an undercurrent in class whose significance I discovered when I found out that this professor had resigned his teaching position. In his work as a confessor he experienced adults acting as moral agents through the formation of their conscience. He affirmed this development but was unable to reconcile it with what he thought his job was as a presenter of the tradition
    These two stories represent two key themes or models in the development of the role of the moral theologian. The first is the pre-Vatican II role of the faithful dispenser of the tradition of the Church reflected through a study of the traditional texts of moral theology and by following generally accepted opinions of leading moral theologians. This dominant image is documented carefully in the essay by Jim Keenan and Peter Black “The Evolving Self-Understanding of the Moral Theologian: 1900-2000” (Studia Morales 39 (2001): 291-327). Their term for this is the moral theologian as a “middle man”, the one who, standing between the Hierarchical magisterium and the laity, mediates the tradition.
    Yet Black and Keenan note that sometimes the applications of these principles led to a new understanding of the principles themselves. Important here is the reality that while it was the role of the moral theologian to present Church teaching, there was a legitimate discussion of what that teaching was and the possibility of a growing edge, though always in union and harmony with the Hierarchical magisterium, i.e., most particularly the Pope. The classic example of this is the development of the acceptability to use surgery to remove the part of the Fallopian tube where an ectopic pregnancy occurred. This was eventually understood as directly intending to repair the tube that was in danger of rupturing. The removal of the embryo with the tube was understood as indirect.
    My second professor represents, though perhaps unintended, the major shift in the understand and practice of moral theology. This can be described variously as a shift to the subject, a shift to post-modernity, or a shift to experience. What ever one calls this, the reality of this shift is a recognition that one cannot simply repeat the content of the manuals, one cannot simply repeat magisterial teachings, one cannot start with principles and directly and clearly derive moral conclusions from them. As Black and Keenan cite Joseph Fuchs: the shift is from utterances to persons. This shift is also affirmed in Gaudium et spes. First the Council, speaking of the norm of human activity, says: “In accord with the divine plan and will, it [the norm of human activity] should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it.” (Paragraph 35) Second, in speaking of harmonizing conjugal live with the responsible transmission of life, the Council says in Gaudium et spes: “It [the moral aspect of a procedure] must be determined by objective standards. These, [are to be] based on the nature of the human person and his acts.” (Paragraph 51) This, combined with the overarching affirmation of the Council that we have shifted from a static to a dynamic understanding of history, led to new understandings of moral theology and, consequently, the role of the moral theologian. Thus the role of the moral theologian is not simply to repeat the words of the tradition of various Church teachings. Rather the moral theologian is to understand these teachings in creative fidelity with the Church and the times in which we live.
    The task of the moral theologian broadens to include the history of the tradition as well as the authority of the Hierarchical magisterium. While history had an important role prior to Vatican II, the role was different. In moral theology as in Scripture and dogmatic theology, history was relegated to finding texts for proof-texting—using a text without attention to its historical setting or context--to prove a position or citing the approved authors—mainly Augustine and Aquinas. The shift was to resourcement, rereading the tradition in light of its times and our times. This was not looking for a proof-text; rather it was a quest to reappropriate the insights of the tradition to our situation or as Black and Keenan phrase it. “the historical embodiment of the witness to the truth of Jesus Christ.” (P. 321). The critical example of this remains John Noonan’s Contraception. This book not only rehearsed the history of the practice of contraception; more significantly it documented the development of the teaching, described the various contexts to which it spoke, and how the doctrine had in fact been imbedded in concrete situations and responded to particular historical problems and contexts. The teaching developed and must continue to develop. This book is a model of how to mine the tradition so one can apprehend it and use it to respond to the current situation. Indeed, at a lecture I heard him give after the book came out, Noonan called for speculative moral theologians, ones who would help bring us into the future.
    The role of the moral theologian is more clearly presented as being in service to the whole Church, the whole People of God. And a significant part of that service is the formation of a community that realizes its moral truth from within itself and has that experience validated through this reappropriation of the tradition. The role of the moral theologian is not so much orientated to telling people what to do as it is to help them form their conscience within a pilgrim Church that exists within a larger community. Black and Keenan describe this as teaching the community how to practice the virtue of epikeia, a traditional concept in Canon Law. Here “epikeia provides the moral agent [with] self-direction.” (P. 319). The role of the moral theologian is, from his or her understanding of and stance within the tradition, to help develop and promote the moral maturity of the community.
    There are two other facets of the role of the moral theologian I wish to highlight. The first comes from David Tracy.
    There is an underside to all the talk about history in modern religion and theology. That underside is revealed in the shocking silence in most theologies of historical consciousness and historicity alike on the evil rampant in history, the sufferings of whole peoples, the destruction of nature it self… [It is] a history without any sense of the radical interruptions of actual history, without a memory of historical suffering, especially the suffering caused by the pervasive systemic unconscious distortions in our history—sexism, racism, classism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Eurocentrism.
    What is significant in this quote for the role of the moral theologian is to recognize that we must see beyond ourselves, beyond our education, beyond our experiences. We must be attentive to reality as it is around us, not just our reality, but the reality of our community, our Church, our world. History reveals to us that we are not quite as innocent as we would like to think and that we must carefully and critically attend to our history and to what is happening around us. There are movements in this direction: liberation theology, feminist theology, the growing body of work by theologians speaking from various groups who have historically been marginalized both within the Church and the world. Clearly each of us cannot address all of these issues or write from all these perspectives. Yet as moral theologians we have to remind ourselves that our vision is limited and contextual. But we must listen, we must be attentive, we must be in solidarity. Our role is to listen and to learn and to begin incorporating the reality of other perspectives into our thinking and writing.
    There is a second facet in the changing role that I think important and I learned this from a paper written by our older daughter Ashley E. Shannon in which she discussed the issues of post-colonial identity by commenting on the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s discomfort at being asked to contribute poems to an anthology of British literature (my passport’s green, he notes). She says
    Heaney’s somewhat facetious take on the issues of postcolonial identity nonetheless clearly reveals one of the great dilemmas of the imperial subject. Is it possible to profit from, perhaps even be materially or philosophically improved by, empire, while still maintaining the individual subjectivity that allows one to choose to identify with one’s own national culture? In other words, it is possible for the colonial subject to construct an identity that incorporates elements of the colonizing culture without being accused of complicity with the colonizer? Is hybridity possible? More importantly, it is desirable? If so, how can such an identity be negotiated in a literary text?

    How can a moral theologian be trained within the tradition of the Church but still be faithful to his or her own national culture, his or her own experience, his or her own person, one’s community, indeed one’s own experience of being a Catholic in a particular country? Post-colonial studies raise the issue of the double consciousness—the individual who is subject of the empire and the subject of one’s own culture. How does one negotiate these; to which does one give fidelity; to which tradition does one turn in seeking to resolve issues?
    Emerging from the pre-Vatican II tradition into the Vatican II tradition and from this tradition into our contemporary situation is quite analogous to the experience of identify formation in post-colonial contexts. We have multiple sources of identity, multiple sources of experience, multiple interpretations of traditions, multiple sources of fidelity. We find ourselves exactly in the situation described by Heaney: we have in fact multiple citizenships. Think, for example of all the professional organizations to which many of us belong and the different insights into the nature of ourselves and our communities they give us. Think of all our relationships and various values and loyalties they bring out in us. Think of our membership in a particular church community as well as our membership in the world Church and how we hear various teachings proclaimed in different contexts—or not proclaimed. Think of all these multiple identities as we work our way through a particular problem in moral theology. How can identity be navigated in the search for moral integrity, to rephrase our daughter’s question?
    I think the role of a moral theologian is precisely to develop an intellectual hybridity, taking the best from all we have received and forging it into a new synthesis. Simply repeating formulas from a past age, valid though they may be, does not in fact make this tradition intelligible or vibrant for our post-modern and pluralistic world. We have to bring the tradition with us as we enter the unexplored land of the creation of appropriate moral teachings in our particular time and culture. We need to be multi-lingual and multi-cultural as we blend the best of the past with the concerns and realities of our contemporary life. This will require the practice of many virtues: courage, fidelity, discression, integrity, prudence, and creativity. It will also require the use of our creative and synthetic reason to try to pull this together. But the role of a moral theologian is to walk into and through this new land and to begin making the maps that others can build upon so that we can create a new moral synthesis for our time and culture.
  6. Emily A Reimer-Barry's avatar
    Emily A Reimer-Barry
    | Permalink
    "I think the role of a moral theologian is precisely to develop an intellectual hybridity, taking the best from all we have received and forging it into a new synthesis." Brilliant... thank you for sharing! I too think that the church not be well served by theologians who simply repeat what has been said before, but the process of becoming a person of integrity with intellectual hybridity is a lifelong task. You've given me much to think about!

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