Common Ground

In her new book, Theology's Cahill says feminist perspectives and Christian insights share many concerns

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Sex and gender issues often inspire bitter debate, but Monan Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill aims to reconcile the contrasting views and emphasize the best characteristics of each in her new book, Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics .

Cahill seeks a middle ground between feminist perspectives and traditional Christian insights regarding sex, parenthood, family and related areas. Arguing that these philosophies share many concerns, Cahill explores the contributions a Christian perspective on sex and gender can make to cultural debates, while reinforcing ethical foundations which promote moral criticism and consensus-building.

For Cahill, the book reflects more than her interest in the Catholic tradition and its role in contemporary society. It also parallels many similar ongoing discussions, including an interdisciplinary seminar on Catholicism and feminism in which she participates.

"These are matters which have been on the table for several years now and are being talked about in many settings," said Cahill, who wrote the book as part of a project on religion, family and culture sponsored by the Lilly Foundation and University of Chicago.

Monan Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill-"To my mind, economic and social factors are as much a consideration as the notion of individual responsibility and morality, and I have tried to articulate that in the book." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"I shared the general concern about the state of the family, but I also had some skepticism of the remedies offered," she said. "To my mind, economic and social factors are as much a consideration as the notion of individual responsibility and morality, and I have tried to articulate that in the book."

Cahill examines traditional Catholic teachings to point out their key values regarding sex, family and parenthood. These include "the goodness of sexuality, the commitment of love and the importance of parenthood," as well as "a commitment to reasonable debate about moral values."

But these teachings also tend to define women's nature "in terms of reproductive function, to tie sexual meaning to the biological structure of sex acts" and "focus on the morality of individual acts instead of on the personal, familial and social relationships in which they occur," Cahill added.

The feminist critique of gender and sex speaks to these issues, Cahill said, yet as with other expressions of post modernism its emphasis on personal autonomy and mutual consent dilutes its moral impetus.

"Freedom from traditional repressions needs to be translated into an ethic of meaning, purpose and even discipline which can meet cultural trivializations and distortions of sex," Cahill explained. "For Christian sexual ethics to have a future as more than a sectarian relic, it must ground sexual freedom and fulfillment in some account of the human goods at stake in sex and in the relationships built upon it."

In addition to analyzing such areas as deconstructionism and its alternatives, biblical perspectives on sex and gender, and Christian teachings on celibacy and the indissolubility of marriage, Cahill looks at contemporary social issues that benefit from a wider range of inquiry. Reproductive technology, Cahill said, is a prime example of the need to set a moral context for attitudes toward family and parenthood. The use of this technology tends to be governed by free choice and informed consent, she noted, but little else.

"Once you go beyond choice and consent, what other values are at work?" Cahill asked. "In pursuing such solutions, do we ignore the significance of that close relationship between love, sexuality, parenthood and family?

"These questions are not posed to judge, condemn or control individual couples so desperate for a child they find birth technologies irresistible," she said. "It's to explore how one can open public discussion to the values of parenthood which extend beyond freedom to embodiment, to see use of this technology in terms of technical reason operating toward unexamined ends, of gender hierarchy and of economic inequity."

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