Lisa Sowle Cahill earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School, completing her dissertation under James Gustafson. She holds an endowed Professorship of Christian Ethics at Boston College, where she has taught since 1976, and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Cahill is a prominent Catholic feminist theologian and ethicist, having published over two hundred articles and worked on fifteen books that cover a variety of topics: just war and pacifism, sex and gender, marriage and family, bioethics, adoption, and even christology. Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics was published in 1996.
Cahill is known for being a scholar of the middle ground. A January 2011 column about her in Commonweal is titled: “No Labels, Please: Lisa Sowle Cahill’s middle way.” As such, her work lacks polarizing language and dogmatic stances, preferring instead to highlight the ambiguity of social and political judgment, working for understanding and cooperation between opposite poles. This makes her typically moderate work unsatisfactory for those looking for ideological tools with which to beat the opposition into submission. As a bridge builder, Cahill is often shot at from both sides. This stance is clear in Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics as Cahill both critiques and extends some feminist and postmodern arguments, while criticizing liberalism and retrieving resources from (and remaining within) the Christian tradition.
While Cahill’s methodology in Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics is critical of modern liberalism and postmodernism, radical deconstructionism especially comes under critique for leading to a cultural relativism that undermines “real moral communication, intercultural critique, and cooperation in defining and building just conditions of life for men and women.” Ultimately, it seems, Cahill is arguing with feminists, whose deconstruction of moral foundations she sees as hindering political critique. Even though she asserts the importance of modern values, such as freedom and autonomy, she believes these values must be reintegrated with “human embodiedness.” She proposes a “critical realist” approach to moral knowledge that draws primarily on the Aristotelian-Thomistic ethical tradition to argue for the possibility of shared moral values. For Cahill, these shared moral values appear at the level of “broad areas of agreement about human needs, goods, and fulfillments which can be reached inductively and dialogically through human experience” (2).
The main claims of the book can be found in “An Interlude and a Proposal,” where Cahill outlines a particular view of sex and Christian sexual ethics. First, she offers that human flourishing as sexually embodied depends on the realization of the equality of the sexes, male and female. In their sexual union, male and female have, at least potentially, three main aspects: reproduction, pleasure, and intimacy. Although she admits that there are forms of sexual life in which one or more of these aspects are missing, Cahill argues that we should not look to those forms to for a full picture of what sex is. Ultimately, she concludes that the “the institutions of gender, marriage, and family should ethically and normatively be responsive to and should enhance these values” (110).
Although focusing primarily on what she calls the “cross-cultural sexual ‘center’: heterosexual, reproductive, and patriarchal marriage,” she is careful to say that she is not thereby condemning or “casting into the shadows” possible “non-conformists” (116). Rather, she emphasizes that the sexual subordination of women to men in marriage and parenthood is unjust and asserts that women’s equality needs a substantive, intercultural defense. Also, she observes that sex has been given a moral meaning in the West that is individualist and narcissist, disassociating sex from parental fulfillment and social responsibility, often allowing sexual privacy and free choice to serve as a front for “continuing oppressions of violence toward women (whose choices are in reality not always so free)” (116-117). In the end, she is not interested in demarcating “specific offenses against sexual virtue” (i.e., condemning homosexual sex as beyond the pale). Cahill says she is, instead, hoping to make a better “apologia for a humane and Christian approach to sex and gender” (117). When she does mark off sexual behavior as unacceptable, she wants to do so within the “center” institutions of Christianity (Catholicism?): marriage and religiously vowed celibacy.
In “Sex, Gender, and Early Christianity,” Cahill considers what bearing the faith and practice of early Christianity had on sex and gender. Here, Cahill keeps front-and-center the thesis that Jesus’ preaching of the reign of God represents a new experience of the divine presence in history, “an experience which transforms human relationships by reordering relations of dominance and violence toward greater compassion, mercy, and peace, expressed in active solidarity with ‘the poor’” (121). She rejects the notion that the New Testament presents a comprehensive “sexual ethic,” as such, and warns against the assumption that the NT patterns of moral relationships can be equated with modern, liberal values.
In summary, she notes that in the NT heterosexual marriage is assumed as the proper context for sexual behavior, but the NT doesn’t particularly value procreation. The NT upholds the equal reciprocity of men and women in marriage; it forbids divorce, except in the interest of keeping Christian “peace”; and, above all, it offers an alternative to marriage: vocational celibacy (163). Cahill shows that NT has a tendency to loosen personal identification with the family, marriage, and parenthood, in order to better resist standard (oppressive) institutions of their day. But, what she sees as the contemporary challenge is to transform marriage and the family as institutions, so that they no longer represent structures of domination (165).
In “Sex, Marriage, and Family in Christian Tradition,” Cahill makes a quick survey of the development in Christian thought about sex, in reference to four topics: celibacy, indissolubility, contraception (including the matter of population control), and family as domestic church. Overall, she emphasizes the significance of Christian virginity, celibacy, and marriage as ways to combat social divisions and entrenched interests. Specifically, she criticizes what she sees as the Catholic Church’s limited focus on abortion and contraception with little regard for the Christian social message of reciprocity and inclusion, which calls for the transformation of the family, along with women’s sexual roles as mothers and wives (214). In other words, Cahill sees any contemporary change in the matters of abortion and contraception as hinging on the intercultural, Christian pursuit of the transformation of the family in ways that promote women’s equality (215).
The final chapter, “Birth Technologies and Moral Public Argument,” is the most forceful and pointed of the book. Here, Cahill takes on dominant notions of individualism and autonomy in modernist liberalism, in reference to donor insemination, in vitro fertilization (with donor gametes), and surrogacy. Her most fundamental critique is that public discourse on these issues is entirely focused on the primacy of choice, with no attention given to the social ramifications of new technologies or attention to the values of kinship and community (218). She presents adoption as a viable (albeit not uncomplicated) alternative to such technologies, with personal testimony from the adoption of three of her five children from Thailand. In the end, Cahill does not seek to condemn or control individual couples “desperate” for a child, but to “open public discussion to values of parenthood which extend beyond freedom to embodiment, and to see use of reproductive technologies in a larger context of technical reason operating toward unexamined ends, of gender hierarchy, and of economic inequality” (254).
In her conclusion, Cahill reasserts her aim to present what she thinks a Christian perspective on sex and gender can contribute to cultural debates about women’s equality and sexual meaning, all the while fortifying the kind of ethical foundations which best allow for moral criticism and consensus-building across moral and cultural traditions. In short, she is offering a Christian approach to sex and gender that can speak publicly and inter-culturally. Although some parts are more persuasive than others, I think Cahill’s work is commendable for its balance, restraint, and thoughtful nuance.
That said, I have two concerns about Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics. First, Cahill assumes from the beginning that Christianity is “fundamentally egalitarian,” though always liable to perversion. This is something she doesn’t attempt to defend, even though many would quickly disagree with this assumption. If she intends her writing to contribute to public and inter-cultural conversations about sex and gender, I think this is a premise that needs bolstering. Also, Cahill’s treatment of homosexuality is disappointingly thin. I support her choice to focus on the “cross-cultural center” (heterosexual, procreative marriage), but I think that her American context demands a more thorough engagement with what has become a very contentious and challenging issue for most Christians.