In Feminism And Christian Ethics, Lisa Sowle Cahill argues that feminist ethics has much to offer Catholicism. For one, the main issues that concern feminist ethics are basically the same ones that make up Catholic identity. That is, how women and men define themselves in society, what means are available to them for attaining their ends- in short inter personal and social relations.
Second, the founding principles that guide feminist ethics are rooted in the tradition of natural law, a tradition well known to Catholicism. So, while the approach of feminist ethics has been to scrutinize traditions which seek to oppress women by supporting unequal social structures, the guiding principles behind feminist ethics still remain well lodge in natural law.
As Cahill says, it is in the founding principles of natural law where feminist ethics and Catholicism meet. And it is also here where lies the main contribution of feminist ethics for the future of Catholicism. Cahill shows us, how recent studies done on Aquinas’ natural law disclose that Aquinas based his ethics on very general principles. That is to say, Aquinas understood the complexity of life, and, unlike what most believe, he was cautious about generating a rigid ethics that would oppress individuals.
Aquinas believed that moral discourse to be truly ethical must first and most importantly begin with an understanding of the structures of society and the culture under which individuals live. Hence, Aquinas looked forward to developing a contextual ethics, and was cautious about generating the types of absolutes and universal principles that were later integrated into his theology.
Although, Aquinas believed that universals were still possible, he nevertheless, believed that these could only come after considering everything that makes up human existence. Thus, given Aquinas’ understanding of society as a vehicle that brings people together to strive for the common good, a reconciliation is very plausible in this area. As Cahill says, natural law beyond all things believes in reasonableness and objectivity, which is basically the same understanding that guides feminist ethics.
Feminists, argue for freedom, but only in so far as the common good avoids considering social dynamics and inter-personal relations. Apart from rejecting unequal relations that arise from not taking into consideration what makes up human existence, feminists, like the natural law tradition, believe that a common good is worth pursing. So, while on the outset feminists may look like as if they are breaking away from Catholicism, they are in fact much closer to Catholicism than one may think. As new challenges bring the Church to question its ethics and as women and men seek new identities, feminist ethics can help Catholicism make the transition so that the challenges of modern society can be meet.
I enjoyed reading Lisa Cahill’s essay. She brought me to see Aquinas’ ethics in a new way. I believe that Cahill makes an important contribution to Christianity by showing us that it is possible to remain within tradition all while progressing. Often I find myself thinking if Christianity will ever be able to survive considering its rigid ethics.
However, as Cahill so eloquently showed me, it is possible. The renewal interest in natural law is showing us that we can continue to press forward while remaining in touch