Sunday, September 13, 2015

Commonweal's "Fortress or Field Hospital?" Discussion: Margaret Farley on Natural Law Theology and Church's Obligation to Learn from Married Same-Sex Couples

Yesterday, Commonweal sponsored a panel discussion of the topic "Fortress or Field Hospital?" Commonweal editor Mollie Wilson O'Reilly moderated the disucssion. Panelists were moral theologian Margaret Farley, journalist David Gibson, theologian and professor of law Cathleen Kaveny, and Barbara Dafoe, who directs the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity. 

A video of the panel discussion is online at Commonweal's LiveStream page. Here's Margaret Farley making some extremely insightful observations about the role of natural law theology in traditional Catholic moral theology (Margaret Farley begins her presentation at the 37.04 mark): 

We are the tradition that has for centuries continued to believe that, despite original sin, or whatever you want to name it, there is something to be learned from creation. It's intelligible, it's revelatory — partially, at least. And, we are the tradition that has continued to believe that the human mind, however limited or damaged, retains a capacity to know, to learn, however partially, about the concrete realities of ourselves and the world. . . . 
If we are to be consistent, then, when we learn something new through reason and with the help of revelation, it is incumbent upon us to take this seriously. Let me say that again: If we are to be consistent when we learn something new, because there's something to be learned from reality and because we do have some capacity to learn it, as a method, as an approach to understanding of ourselves and concrete reality beyond ourselves, this may be called natural law. . . . 
I'm speaking  of natural law as a method, as an approach, which does not give us all the answers, but  does tell us where to look — that is, to concrete reality. We have, and let's say parenthetically, especially looking at all the very good initiatives in the synod and elsewhere to try to break open some of the dilemmas we seem to be tied up with. But in the process, as I watch it, the intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic tradition is hardly alive and well. 
Synods come together, yes, one great thing is, they do dialogue together, and they do share experience as they've heard if from others. But they never really delve into, What difference does this make? In other words, they repeat teaching. They don't rethink it. And if they try to rethink it, the reason it doesn't work is because they're not thinking about it!

As she wraps up her presentation, Margaret Farley notes that she's running out of time, but wants to point to "three examples in point" to illustrate what she means when she speaks of how the tradition of natural law in Catholic moral thinking requires us to attend carefully to concrete reality, to the experiences of others, and to learn from these. The first such example she identifies is the "tragedy" of the magisterium's "rigid condemnation of contraception," which appears to pay very little attention at all to concrete reality, the lived experiences of married Catholics, the witness of the various fields of science. As Margaret Farley notes, the question we need to ask about all of this is, Does this make sense any more?

Her second example in point is what the magisterium has to say about the topic of gender today. As she notes, it's mind-boggling to hear statements from church leaders today that anyone trying to theorize about new understandings of gender is creating havoc akin to the havoc created by those who build nuclear weapons. Does this approach to discussions of gender that seek to take into account concrete reality, human experience, the testimony of the various fields of science, make the slightest bit of sense?

And in conclusion, Margaret Farley points to the case of same-sex marriage as her final "example in point":

And then, finally, another key example is, What kind of key insights could we gain (and many have, but not everyone) about the possibilities of same-sex marriage? We now know it as a legality, but lots of attitudes towards it have not changed because of that legality. But to look to concrete reality, looking at it, and being able to understand it, means that same-sex marriages, those marked by love and commitment mutually pledged, yielding fruitfuilness of many kinds and lived in the very everydayness of just and graced love — they are available for our thinking and our understanding.

As these observations imply, if the upcoming synod on the family wants to be true to the deep and rich insights of natural law thinking in the Catholic moral tradition, it will find a way to include, to listen respectfully to, to learn from the experiences of Catholic same-sex married couples. I do not expect this to happen — any more than I expect the people running the Commonweal enterprise to open a space anytime soon for Catholic theologians, journalists, and thinkers (including those at Commonweal itself) to listen respectfully to and to learn from the experiences of Catholic same-sex married couples.

As Margaret Farley astutely observes, the intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic tradition is hardly alive and well at this point in history. It's hardly alive and well, in large part, because of the tribalism of those controlling the intellectual conversation within the Catholic community — because of their refusal to listen with respect to those who do not easily fit within the safe and secure tribalistic parameters, to welcome and include them — LGBT Catholics in particular.

The photo is from Margaret Farley's faculty page at Yale Divinity School.

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