Several days ago, when I told readers I had begun reading Margaret Farley's book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (NY: Continuum, 2006), I noted that I find Farley's work a valuable corrective to a tendency among Catholic theologians of the center (and even among many liberation and political theologians) to dismiss issues of sexual ethics and the profound questions of justice these raise as less-than-serious diversionary questions that can be quarantined from the rest of theology. I noted that many theologians of the solid center (and, I'd add, theologians in the liberationist and political theological movements as well) appear to think that the questions raised by sexual ethics can be safely quarantined from the discussion of issues of marginalization, oppression, and injustice we consider, say, when we talk about the abuse of the poor by the super-rich, or of the peoples of the developing nations by those of the developed nations.
As I also noted, there's a kind of fiction among many theologians that, as an ethical or theological concern, sexuality is a case apart, that people don't experience real oppression on grounds of sexuality or sexual orientation, and so it's safe to ignore the kinds of oppression that some people report due to their sexual orientation. It's safe to pretend that these first-hand reports of oppression are overblown and manufactured, and that those providing them aren't worth listening to.
I developed these points in response to a prefatory observation in Farley's book that is cited in the posting to which the link above points. And here's Farley expanding on that prefatory point in a magisterial paragraph later on in Just Love, after she has noted the tendency of some traditions (including, certainly, Catholic moral theology) to equate morality tout court with sexual morality:
The other side of the tendency to equate morality with sex is the tendency to see the sexual sphere as isolated from the rest of human life. Hence, while on the one hand we have given too much emphasis to sexual morality; on the other, we may now give too little. Skepticism of this sort takes the form of a complaint that sexual ethics is, after all, a minor enterprise, frivolous or obsessive, and a diversion from the truly urgent moral concerns of racism, hunger, homelessness, poverty, and war. While there may be some truth to this claim, it nonetheless misses the connections between social structure and sexual relations, between political struggles and gender bias, between sexual sanctions and social policies. Feminists have not always met with comprehension when they have insisted that the "personal is political"; but especially in the sexual ethical sphere, the private is as likely to be institutionally determined as it is personally discerned. In a century that has seen rape as a part of military strategy, poverty as the result of lack of reproductive choice, industries based on the economic exploitation of sex, race joined with gender and class to determine the employment options of groups, the development of a sexual ethic cannot be a trivial concern (p. 13).
What Farley is saying here seems to me critically important for a variety of reasons:
1. First of all, it has direct bearing on questions being debated in the current U.S. presidential election. The question of contraception was brought up in the presidential debate several days ago. In his response to a question of Ms. Crowley, Mr. Romney sought to re-set the Etch-a-Sketch and deny that he and his party have been campaigning on an anti-contraceptive platform, one that seeks to limit women's access to contraception.
And, as Annie-Rose Strasser points out at Think Progress yesterday, already a Romney surrogate, Kerry Healey, Romney's lieutenant-governor, is trying to push Romney's assertion forward by insisting that contraception is a "peripheral" issue in the current campaign. It's only a matter of sexual morality. It's not on a par with the real issues of the election.
It can be safely ignored. This has been the line of the religious right, including the Catholic bishops and their centrist defenders, throughout the entire election cycle. Even as these gentlemen (and, yes, they're almost exclusively men) have deliberately sought to make contraception and women's access to it a central issue in the election, they have simultaneously denied that the issue is central at all. It's all about, instead, the "real" and ponderous issue of religious freedom.
2. This strategy allows the gentlemen of the religious right and those who defend them to pretend that questions about women's rights and the just treatment of women are in any way involved in their battle for "religious freedom." It allows them to marginalize questions of women's rights and of the demands of women for justice as trivial issues--as "peripheral" issues, to cite Ms. Healey, which don't deserve to be discussed alongside real and important issues like the economy or religious freedom or the situation with the Libyan embassy attack.
3. What Farley says so brilliantly in the preceding passage also explains why theologians of the Catholic center can comfortably pretend that issues like the unjust treatment of LGBT people within Catholic institutions aren't "real" issues that deserve the attention of the Catholic center, alongside issues like racism, the treatment of immigrants, economic injustice, or war and peace. It also explains why theologians of the Catholic center continue to imagine they can retain credibility while discussing the definition of Catholicity even as they ignore the real marginalization of real human beings from the conversation space in which Catholicity is defined.
Since those real human beings, insofar as they are gay or lesbian, bring only trivial "peripheral" issues to the conversation that defines Catholic identity. Or, to echo Margaret Farley, they bring frivolous issues with which they're "obsessed," issues beneath the notice of high-powered theologians who specialize in objectivity, not in narratives based in the personal, which is by definition the antithesis of objectivity . . . .