No Labels, Please

Lisa Sowle Cahill's Middle Way

Sometimes, when talking to younger audiences, the theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill will describe herself as a “relic” of the distant and benighted era before the Second Vatican Council. In those years, she recalls, it never occurred to her to question why the priest was always a man, or why girls were advised to select confirmation names from a prodigious list of those who chose a gruesome death rather than lose their virginity.

Nor, she confesses, did she blink when her father arranged for her to live in an Opus Dei residence for women, after a job change took her parents to California at the start of her senior year of Catholic girls high school in Washington, D.C. “In 1965, Opus Dei piety did not seem closed, elitist, or bizarre,” Cahill explains of her brief association with the conservative Catholic movement. After all, she says wryly, in those days “a lot of Catholics acted as if they belonged to a secret society.”

As a theologian, Cahill interprets these experiences with critical appreciation and a sense of ambiguity. As she remarked in a lecture at Santa Clara University some years ago, her thoughts about faith and life are suffused with childhood memories of a Catholic piety and practice that were “at once parochial, romantic, prayerful, stifling, uplifting, fear-inducing, identity-forming, spiritual, hopeful, and sexist.” The petite blonde who took part in evenings of silent reflection on the rosary, guided by Opus Dei clerics, is now the mother of five grown children, including three adopted from Thailand. She is also one of this era’s most prominent Catholic moral theologians, the holder of an endowed chair at Boston College, where she has taught since 1976, and a fellow of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Cahill has published at least two hundred articles and has authored, co-authored, or edited fifteen books. Sometimes referred to as a feminist theologian, sometimes as a bioethicist, she made her name in the 1980s with studies on gender and sexual ethics, work she has since extended to larger tracts of theological ground, especially social and global ethics. She has written about sexuality, family structure, genetics, and AIDS, and she is taking a longer look at foundational theology—writing a book about Christology and the historical Jesus. The ultimate utility player in Catholic academic theology, she has already won the discipline’s MVP honor: the John Courtney Murray Award, bestowed on her in 2008 by the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Within the academy, Cahill is widely considered a bridge builder, intent on making connections between different theological traditions, perspectives, and methodologies, always with an eye toward shaping the broader conversation about faith and ethics. Last spring Americans heard her measured voice on National Public Radio, offering commentary on a controversial case in which an administrator at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, Sr. Margaret McBride, was excommunicated for signing off on an abortion. By most accounts, the twenty-seven-year-old woman who underwent the procedure would have died without it—as would her eleven-week-old unborn child. “They were in quite a dilemma,” Cahill told NPR’s All Things Considered, referring to the staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. “There was no good way out of it. The official church position would mandate that the correct solution would be to let both the mother and the child die. I think in the practical situation that would be a very hard choice to make.”

Of course there were many people (including many unequivocally prolife) who did see a reasonably “good way out of it”—namely, saving one life instead of losing two. Given her belief that abortion is morally justifiable in “exceptional” circumstances, Cahill might easily have joined in the general uproar over McBride’s excommunication. Instead, her key word was “dilemma.” Such nuance reflects Cahill’s “challenging but not confrontational” way of doing theology, says her friend and Boston College colleague Stephen Pope. Pope points to her remarks on NPR as an example of her ongoing attempt to highlight the complexity of moral issues while lowering the emotional temperature of theological disagreements within church and society.

This is no easy task, and Cahill has found herself increasingly drawn into highly inflamed debates over the practical applications of Christian theology to social issues. One of them concerns the politics of the U.S. bishops and what Cahill has described, not always temperately, as their almost singular preoccupation with abortion and other culture-war issues. With her challenging but (usually) diplomatic forays into such issues, Cahill may be serving as a test case of whether any high-profile theologian can transcend the polarization that now comes with the fiercely contested territory of Catholic moral discourse.

As a scholar, Cahill finds her main footing in the natural-law tradition, which affirms the compatibility of faith and reason and the possibility of arriving at objective truths—“natural” or self-evident truths on which people of all faiths (and no faith) can agree. Natural-law discourse emphasizes public conversation about the social good, and Cahill believes that the church and other Christian communities can both contribute to this conversation and profit from it, culling truth from a broad diversity of settings and assumptions. Everyone has a capacity for reasonable judgment; no one should be dismissed out of hand.

This methodology is front and center in all of her theological investigations. Take health care, a recurring subject in Cahill’s work. In step with official Catholic pronouncements, she asserts that access to health care is essential to human dignity, and that—in view of the many millions who are uninsured—the system in the United States today “fails the test of justice, at least from a Catholic point of view.” Having summoned the ideals of justice and a “moral mandate,” she then quickly brings them into dialogue with a host of practical concerns, competing values, and political realities. In Theological Bioethics: Participation, Justice, and Change (2005), Cahill stressed that ideals cannot always be matched by public policy, and must often yield to “middle axioms,” outcomes that represent the best that Christians can achieve in particular circumstances. For example, she agreed with many Catholic advocates that the principles of solidarity and the “preferential option for the poor” call—“theoretically”—for a single-payer health-care system. But such a system may not be a realistic option in the American political context. What, then, would be realistic? In Theological Bioethics, Cahill suggested combining “some employment-based measures...with government funds and subsidies,” in a system in which “the market controlled some portion of costs and availability.” Her suggestion resembles what became law this past March with the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Some will close Theological Bioethics (and other Cahill works) with a sense that her search for a “middle axiom” gives away too much—whether the issue is health care or, to take another example, reproductive ethics. In a mostly favorable review of Cahill’s book in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Jason T. Eberl, a philosophy professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, argued that her call for a prophetic stance “sound[s] odd when she apparently advocates a ‘compromise’ policy on an entrenched issue such as human-embryonic-stem-cell research.” And Cahill does reach for such a compromise. The negotiation of policies on embryonic stem cells, she writes in Theological Bioethics, “must be accountable to diverse values, such as the good of scientific research, the value of the embryo, and the value of maximizing the benefits of health expenditures for the least well-off.” Here, Cahill is not merely contending that a tight ban on embryonic stem-cell research might be politically unworkable. She is arguing, in fact, that such a ban is not necessarily in the interests of a common good composed of “diverse values” and social needs. In her construal of natural-law theory, those values contain truth that a theologian must engage.

Another foundation of Cahill’s worldview, one reflecting her debt to natural-law theory, is that truth is not simply deduced from abstract principles. Over the years she has given a share of her attention to questions of war and peace, particularly in her 1994 book Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory, in which she examined how the just-war and pacifist traditions both arise out of a common determination to avoid violence. More recently, her work with the Catholic Peacebuilding Network at Notre Dame has taken her to such strife-torn places as Burundi and Colombia, where she has met with pastoral workers and others seeking to forge reconciliation in the aftermath of violence. “The faith of the local peacebuilders [is] not mere ‘belief’ in propositions about eternal verities, the nature of God, or the afterlife,” she argued in a paper delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. Rather, it is “a real and practical knowledge of God and God’s ways.... Faith and hope came to them in the midst of their work for justice, peace, and reconciliation, that is, in their solidarity with one another in works of love.” While praising these works of love, Cahill was also making a methodological point. Experience must inform any theology. A credible theology of peacebuilding does not descend from abstract truths, but rather arises from the power of small acts of forgiveness and repentance.

It was easy to glimpse yet another influence on Cahill’s thinking during an interview in the grand Greek Revival home in Newton, Massachusetts, where she raised her five children. She was talking about health care in the front parlor when her twenty-five-year-old son, Ae, came down the stairs. Cahill made introductions, looking skeptically at the leather sandals her son was wearing on a frigid winter day. (“I hope you’re going to wear socks to work,” she sighed.) She pointed out to me later that while all five of her adult children, now ages twenty-five to thirty-two, are working long hours, none receives employer-based health insurance. Cahill and her husband, Larry, a corporate lawyer pursuing a second career in the nonprofit sector, have been paying out of pocket for all of them.

Cahill says this personal experience has enlarged her empathy for those who are not covered by health insurance and cannot scrape together the money to buy it on the open market. It has also led her toward a keener appreciation of legitimate self-interest in the pursuit of basic social goods. As she explains, people are right to act specifically in their own interests when they lack such goods, including access to health care. In other words, it would be reasonable to advocate for a legislative fix that delivers one’s children into the ranks of the insured (under the new health-care-reform law, young adults can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are twenty-six). What is not legitimate, in her mind, is for people who already enjoy such benefits to attempt to keep others from gaining similar benefits, out of fear that health care for all might possibly mean less or more costly health care for themselves. Her word for that is “sin.”

 

Part of Cahill’s mission has been to tie together two branches of Christian ethics. She belongs to a cohort of prominent Catholic theologians who have helped open the gates between personal and social ethics, between the requirements of Christian life and reflections on the good society. Cahill has sought to further this project in a number of books, including Theological Bioethics, in which she declared that “Christian theological bioethics should make justice in access to health-care resources its first priority.” Furthermore, she argued, the academic discipline itself should be judged not merely by the cogency of its arguments, but also by its ability to bear real fruit in society. Cahill’s theologizing is deeply pragmatic. For her, the question is not whether a proposition is right or wrong “ideally or in the abstract,” but rather how it contributes to the conversation on behalf of such concrete goals as universal health care.

A similar effort to bridge personal and social ethics appears in Family: A Christian Social Perspective (2000). Cahill says her idea for the book originated in a series of meetings she attended in New York, sponsored in part by the Institute for American Values. By her account, there was too much talk of the need to “re-stigmatize” out-of-wedlock births, too much handwringing over the personal moral failings of those who fall outside traditional family norms. The discussion led her to pose a simple but vital question: What is a Christian family? In her book she approached the question in part by examining biblical sources that shine light on first-century Christian families. She found that the primary allegiance of early Christians was not to the patriarchal family but to the Christian community—reconceived as “the new family.” Christian commitment had the effect of transcending the ties of biological kinship.

Cahill examined other sources, including recent Catholic social teaching upholding the family as a “domestic church” that inculcates generosity and solidarity. She concluded that the Christian family is not modeled by the particular structure of the modern nuclear family, “focused inward on the welfare of its own members.” Rather, it is formed by concern for those outside the boundaries of biological kinship, and can find expression in single-parent families, families split by divorce, gay and lesbian families, blended families, and adoptive families. “The Christian family defines family values as care for others, especially the poor,” she wrote.“It appreciates that truly Christian families are not always the most socially acceptable or prestigious ones.” Such values highlight “compassionate action” and “personal commitment to...mercy and justice.” Family values, in her view, are social values.

To a notable degree, this is official Catholic teaching. Of course, the welcoming implications Cahill draws for “non-conforming families,” including those headed by gay and lesbian parents, are not exactly traditional, and she has been criticized for imposing modern standards on her biblical sources. “A book of this sort is bound to be unsatisfying to historians and social scientists,” Leslie Woodcock Tentler wrote in a June 2002 review for the journal Church History. A history professor at Catholic University, Tentler objected to what she described as the author’s “single-minded promotion of an inclusive Christian family ethic,” charging that such advocacy undermined Cahill’s ability to “assess the causes and costs of absent fathers in the present day with the requisite critical detachment.” (Asked about the tart review, Cahill responds with typical candor: “She’s not wrong.” The question of absent fathers went largely untreated in her book, she explains, because she was primarily intent on addressing the “re-stigmatizing” talk she heard at the meetings in New York.)

For Cahill, finding the social-ethical in the personal has been not merely an academic challenge, but part of her life. In the early 1980s, with two children of their own, she and her husband decided to adopt more, journeying to Thailand for their next three children. Like many families who extend themselves in this way, the Cahills initially saw adoption as a form of rescue, delivering children from hardship far away. But later, as the family made trips back to Thailand, visiting with social workers who had cared for their adopted children and traveling to villages where the birth mothers had been raised, the Cahills began to see adoption through the lens of global poverty. What were the social conditions, they wondered, that lead a Thai mother to give up her children? The couple soon became involved in efforts to improve family services in Thailand, primarily through the nondenominational Christian adoption agency Holt International, which Larry has served for many years as a board member. The challenge they took up was no longer simply to facilitate “rescue” by North Americans; rather, it was to make a better life for children in their own countries.

Cahill grappled with the issue of adoption in Theological Bioethics, in the chapter “Reproduction and Early Life.” Leaning on statements by Pope John Paul II, she treated adoption not primarily as a fulfillment of parental desire, but as a “form of procreation” and a way of contributing to the common good. While describing adoption as a laudable choice in cases where the alternative might be abortion, she underscored that the choice to give up a child is all too often brought on by social injustice. “Ensuring that children have families is always a greater priority than ensuring that childless couples have children,” she wrote. “Social support to keep children in their families or extended families of birth should be the first priority, with adoption in their countries or cultures of origin the preferred backup measure.” Bioethics as social ethics once again.

Theological Bioethics does not refer to its author’s experience as an adoptive parent, but Cahill does make frequent references, in her writing and lecturing, to events and people from her life. There is, for example, the tribute in Family to her sister and only sibling, Maryann, who following a divorce became a nurse while continuing to care for her six children (three of them adopted). Family also mentions her maternal grandfather in Michigan, a farmer who “supported a wife and four children but kept a mistress in town”—an account that helps Cahill take a little air out of romanticized notions of the nuclear family. In her 2003 Santa Clara Lecture “On Being a Catholic Feminist,” she referred to a baby brother of hers who lived only for “a few hours,” and mentions parenthetically, “My parents had been advised by doctors to use birth control.”

Cahill adds little detail to these asides, even when asked in an interview. Her intent is not to reveal all, but rather to remind readers and listeners that personal experience informs all theological accounts, whether the author chooses to acknowledge it or not. Cahill’s own story is interlaced with memories of the American Catholic subculture of the 1950s and ’60s in which she was raised. The Catholicism of that era “could be narrow and superstitious,” she recalled in the Santa Clara lecture, “but it imbued me with a sense of the transcendent and of the presence of God in everyday life that carried many of my generation through the turmoil of change.” She would never consider leaving the Catholic Church, she added. “It is my family.”

With graduate Catholic theological education still largely unavailable to lay men and women in 1970, when Cahill graduated from Santa Clara, she chose to pursue her graduate work at the University of Chicago Divinity School, joining a handful of women studying theology. Her dissertation director was James Gustafson, a larger-than-life figure in Protestant theological ethics. Gustafson was “complex,” as Cahill carefully puts it. Highly demanding, scornful of superficiality, he could be easily angered, particularly when students indulged in what he considered sentimental piety. High on the offending list were explanations of evil and suffering that insisted “it’s all part of God’s plan.” In class and in his writings, Gustafson pushed questions such as: What about the things God does not plan or control?

Gustafson (now eighty-five and retired) had a profound appreciation of the Catholic theological tradition. He encouraged Cahill’s studies of Aquinas as well as of Luther and Calvin. Cahill’s dissertation compared Protestant and Catholic bioethical methods, especially as they applied to euthanasia. Gustafson also introduced Cahill to Richard McCormick, SJ, one of the foremost Catholic moral theologians of the twentieth century, who was then teaching at the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago’s Hyde Park. McCormick bolstered her career in a number of ways, spotlighting her work in his influential “Notes on Moral Theology” series in the journal Theological Studies. It was also through Gustafson, a United Church of Christ minister, that Cahill met Fr. Charles Curran, who together with McCormick helped introduce her to the Catholic moral theological scene—both the people and the issues.

That was the situation Cahill entered in 1976. At the time, the theological academy was still roiling in the long wake of Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming the church’s teaching against artificial contraception. Curran recalls that in short order, Cahill began to breathe fresh life into conversations about gender and family by leveraging the sources of both the Protestant and Catholic traditions in “a marvelously creative way”—mapping out, for example, how ethicists from both traditions took different methodological roads to similar conclusions on issues such as euthanasia. Cahill in turn recalls that McCormick, Curran, and company raised many critical questions. But she adds that the debates they engendered, largely over whether some acts are “intrinsically wrong,” as Humanae vitae judged contraception to be, no longer reflect the pressing issues in moral theology. Today, Catholic ethicists are more likely to look at how personal moral decisions take shape within patterns of social and economic behavior—at how, for instance, the question of whether a young man in the inner city is able to find a family-supporting job in turn influences whether a young woman chooses to have a child out of wedlock.

For Cahill, keeping at arm’s length from the old debates is part of trying to cultivate a particular kind of dialogue. Her association with a younger generation of Catholic theologians comes naturally since, like many of them, she is allergic to polarized discourse. Many are loath, for instance, to refight battles over such matters as “double effect,” the Catholic principle that, in a nutshell, addresses the question of when an evil consequence is acceptable in pursuit of a moral end. (Among the things the principle is used to sanction in traditional Catholic moral theology is unintended civilian casualties in a just war. Among the things it is used to forbid is artificial contraception.) Younger theologians tend to avoid such conflict-laden subjects. They grew up in an era of perpetual showdowns between theologians and church authorities, and many are not sure what was gained. “That’s not a direction we’d want to go in,” says Fordham University assistant professor of theology Maureen O’Connell, who did her doctoral work with Cahill at Boston College.

O’Connell respects her mentor as “someone who always wants to stand on common ground,” and Cahill has forged ties with a loose network of younger theologians who convene under the banner of “New Wine, New Wineskins.” That is the name for a gathering held each summer at Notre Dame, as well as the title of a 2005 book edited by William Mattison, an assistant professor of theology at Catholic University. Mattison, a student of Cahill’s in the mid-1990s, calls her “a godsend to so many of us,” a “sage adviser” to younger theologians of different ideological stripes. He stands in awe of her energy and generosity. “The woman is ridiculously busy, but she always has time to help out younger people and be in conversation with them.”

That does not mean Mattison sees eye to eye with Cahill on all things. Take, for example, the question of engaging in a substantive dialogue with “the world,” especially the secular and pluralistic strands of culture represented, say, in the feminist movement. Such discourse is practically an article of faith for Cahill. But Mattison and many younger theologians are more cautious about entering into a conversation with those who may not share Christian assumptions about such matters as the inherent dignity of the human person and the compatibility of faith and reason. “People of Lisa’s generation will jump right into the conversation,” Mattison says, while those from the younger generation are more likely to insist “that we don’t sacrifice Christian identity in becoming part of the conversation.”

As Mattison sees it, the theological project of his generation is to “figure out what makes us distinctively Catholic.” In his view, many of Cahill’s generation (though not, he says, Cahill herself) take this identity for granted, essentially because they cannot imagine being anything but Catholic. Recent polls show this is not necessarily the mindset of young adult Catholics. “Unlike Lisa’s generation, we understand what it’s like not to have that [identity],” Mattison says, referring to lagging rates of Mass attendance among young Catholics. Cahill, in return, points out that Catholic theologians under fifty have been reared in a church that stands open to the world and shares its joys and anguishes; so they “take that for granted.” And yet, she admits, “The older and younger generations are like ships passing in the night. While we keep talking about social justice, they keep talking about the liturgy” and about devotional practices such as eucharistic adoration. “We say they don’t care about social justice, and they say we don’t care about Catholic identity.” Of these seeming polarities, Cahill adds, characteristically, “Neither is true.”

 

In the conference room of a Tudor-style house across the street from Boston College’s Chestnut Hill campus, Cahill is trying on a new idea. She is giving a luncheon talk, titled “Benedict XVI and the U.S. Bishops: Political Differences and the Difference They Make,” at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. Her new idea amounts to this: people who think like Lisa Cahill are more or less in flow with the political currents in Rome, but the American bishops are not.

On the surface it is not an idea she wears exceedingly well, as a feminist theology professor. But she has a point, especially if one accepts the big distinction she makes between issues and politics. “The positions [of the bishops and Benedict] are very similar if not identical, but the way they are played out politically is very different,” she tells a group of twenty-five attendees, mostly faculty members and graduate students. Take Caritas in veritate, Benedict’s first social encyclical, issued in June 2009. Though the letter reiterated the pope’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia, it focused overwhelmingly on other issues such as world poverty, development, reform of international economic institutions, and access to health care. In contrast, Cahill asserts, the U.S. bishops have concentrated on abortion and related issues virtually to the exclusion of other social imperatives. Her conclusion? The American episcopacy is carrying out its politics differently—“and, I would say, in a very biased way.”

Certainly Cahill sees the irony of academics in Chestnut Hill purporting to march with Joseph Ratzinger—a man, she says in a laughing moment, theologians of her bent were “appalled” to see elected pope. But she intends her critique seriously, and promotes it passionately. During the Q and A, a female theologian with a German accent asks how American Catholics could sway their bishops politically in a more Benedict-like direction. Raising her voice and waving a hand in the air, Cahill replies, “Who cares? Nobody is even listening to them. They’ve become so reactionary.”

Such vehemence is rare from Cahill. But she truly believes the bishops are skewing the public exposition of Catholic social teaching. In Theological Bioethics she made a similar argument, citing a statement on health-care reform in which the bishops committed themselves to upholding the ideal of solidarity. “Disappointingly,” she wrote, “the Catholic bishops have not unambiguously advocated for this ideal in U.S. legislative and electoral politics, preferring to sacrifice the cause of health-care justice to the cause of prohibiting abortion and embryo research.” This judgment is undoubtedly truer today than it was when she published it—a full four years before the bishops lobbied against President Barack Obama’s health-care-reform package, charging the overhaul would lead to direct federal funding of abortions.

For all her concern about the way abortion has hijacked the ethical, political, and theological discourses in which she participates, Cahill is not eager to talk about the issue itself. “I really prefer you not go into my position,” she’ll say in an interview, with a sigh. Others credit her with steadfastly trying to elevate the discussion. “I think she’s a post-abortion-debate kind of thinker,” says her colleague and fellow moral theologian Stephen Pope, referring in part to Cahill’s search for the shared ground of social policies that might lessen the demand for abortion. Cahill devotes a large chunk of Theological Bioethics to the issue, treating it with great care and complexity. But the closest she comes to a bottom line on abortion itself is when she concludes that “any adequate solution to the problem of abortion must recognize” a range of rights and duties, including sexual responsibility and equality for men and women as well as social supports for pregnant women.

On this, Cahill says, her thinking has not changed materially over the decades. In the mid-1980s, she worked with prolife writer and speaker Mary Meehan on an abortion-related dialogue project sponsored by the Hastings Center. Meehan, a senior editor of the Human Life Review, recalls being underwhelmed by the theologian’s treatment of abortion. “It was a lot of ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that,’” she says, pointing to Cahill’s judgment that the human fetus deserves serious but not absolute consideration in moral assessments of abortion. In an essay published in connection with the project, Cahill wrote that although she endorsed “a strong bias in favor of the fetus” and would place “a heavy burden of proof on those who would choose abortion,” she nonetheless would “modify the contemporary church’s teaching in the direction of more flexibility in certain instances.” This was not a view designed to please an advocate like Meehan. Yet Meehan calls Cahill “kind and gracious,” and, referring to Cahill’s role as an adoptive parent, acknowledges that “she certainly walks the walk.” Cahill “has personally lived a prolife position,” says Meehan, “and I respect her for that.”

This past summer, in a final interview for this article, Cahill went into greater detail about her abortion views. Asked to clarify what constitutes an “exceptional instance” that would justify the procedure, she pointed to cases like the one in Arizona that triggered the excommunication of Sr. McBride, where the life of the mother was at stake. Beyond that, she alluded to women in certain cultures who might have a well-founded fear of being stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock. Politically, she questioned the practical wisdom of seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, calling it a “losing battle” that saps energy from other campaigns in defense of human dignity and the common good. And again she underlined the importance of social supports for pregnant women, calling them “the road not taken” in the fight to make abortion rare. But Cahill refuses to be pigeonholed. When asked if she would wear either the prolife or prochoice label, the theologian, who tends to speak in full paragraphs, replied emphatically: Neither. “The labels are usually associated with extreme positions,” she said. “And as soon as you identify your position, that becomes everyone’s focus.”

 

On a warm afternoon last spring, Cahill begins a class session of TH 567, “Theology and Bioethics,” by thanking her graduate students for the cards and e-mails sent to her family in recent days, following a fire that badly damaged her home in Newton while she was lecturing in Paris. “No one was killed, no one was hurt, and we have insurance,” Cahill says with an appreciative smile.

Looking well put together as she always does, with a long, silky scarf over a navy blue cardigan and grey dress pants, Cahill hands papers back. The topic of the class and of the papers is health-care reform, which has just become law. Though Cahill’s support for the reform is explicit (she was a member, in 2008, of then-candidate Obama’s Catholic Advisory Committee), her presentation is hardly one-sided. She makes a point of praising Republican ideas like malpractice insurance reform, and while discussing an argument in a student’s paper—about the presumed “greed” of those who resist health-care reform—she encourages him to consider the extent to which the opposition might be energized by a genuine philosophy of limited government. And when another student raises the rhetorical question, “Did Jesus heal people with preexisting conditions?” Cahill offers no rejoinder, just a smile.

Eventually the conversation touches on the U.S. bishops. Cahill asserts that the bishops have “prioritized abortion and the culture wars” over access to health care, but the remark carries little of the edge that sharpened her comments at the lunch talk a couple of months earlier. “Unfortunately, the bishops seem to be losing all the battles, including the ones I want them to win,” she says, without specifying. This is the “challenging but not confrontational” Cahill in action once again, the scholar who throughout her career has been able to engage people all along the theological spectrum, including those who arrive at a more conservative place than she has.

In the end, the big question is not whether Cahill is transcending the post–Vatican II polarization of Catholic moral discourse, but whether any theologian of note can do so in such an ideologically fraught environment. William Mattison of Catholic University has his doubts. “It’s not like there is a widely recognized centrist figure that we’re all looking to emulate,” he says, speculating that the person who comes closest to filling those shoes is a nontheologian—John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent. “But Lisa is definitely a centrist, and she rejects both poles,” Mattison says, praising her for making what he calls “a conscious effort” to stem the polarization of left and right. “She’s doing it as well as anyone,” he says.

As Cahill acknowledges, there is a price to pay for attempting to expand our theological common ground. That price includes her own difficulty arriving at what is referred to—all too facilely in some cases—as a “prophetic stance.” One may argue about what qualifies as prophetic statement, but it seems fair to say that Cahill’s middle axioms on health-care reform, for example, do not descend directly from the prophets of ancient Israel. “That’s true,” Cahill herself says, almost cheerfully. “That’s a disadvantage of my methodology. My mission in life is to carve out understanding and cooperation, to build bridges and give the benefit of the doubt. But that’s not always called for in the world.”

Perhaps. But such a methodology—and mission—may be urgently necessary at a time when the loudest voices often belong to those who fail to recognize the ambiguities of social and political judgment. Building bridges, enlarging contexts, standing up against reductionism—all that may add up to a prophetic vocation for one inclined, by nature and conviction, to see the other side.


Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.


Related: God-obsessed: David Tracy's Theological Quest, by David Gibson

William Bole is a journalist and co-author, with Bob Abernethy, of The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.

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