The Life & Justice Interview: Fordham Professor Charlie Camosy

Charles C. Camosy is a professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in New York City who is interested in fostering conversation and solidarity between groups that sometimes find conversation difficult. He believes that “a Roman Catholic understanding of the human person in both its individual and social aspects can serve as a bridge between ‘moral status conservatives’ and ‘social justice liberals,'” which makes him a great candidate for our first-ever Life & Justice Interview. Learn about Charlie’s most recent book here, read Slate’s coverage of the conference he organized on life and choice in the abortion debate here, and learn about his Catholic Conversation Project here.

L&J: You used to keep up a blog called “No Hidden Magenta: Bridging the Gap Between ‘Red and Blue State” Groupthink”. What does “magenta” in this context mean to you?

CC: The phrase hasn’t gone away, especially because my twitter handle is still @nohiddenmagenta, and because a few of my friends and colleagues now regularly talk about “magenta” Catholics and other Christians. Basically, what I mean by this is a person or ideology which doesn’t fit into our traditional, binary (and, in my view, intellectually lazy) categories of liberal/conservative, red/blue state, etc. Too often, people of faith are defined by a secular political party rather than their claimed religious tradition. I don’t think it is too strong to say that, for many Christians, a liberal or conservative ideology has become an idol which is more foundational for them than their religious tradition. Magenta Christians understand their source of ultimate concern to rest in a carpenter from the ancient Middle East, and thus they more easily resist the labels and binary thinking of the last couple generations.

L&JWhy are you passionate about issues of life & justice?

CC: At least in my view, because they are the most important issues of our time. What could be more important than working to get equal protection of the laws for the prenatal children killed each year via abortion? For making sure that older children and adults cannot be denied health care because of a pre-existing condition? For refusing to slouch toward euthanasia as the answer to a youth- and capital-obsessed culture which marginalizes older persons? For demanding that women receive equal pay for equal work? I’m so blessed to be able to work on these and other issues in the academy, Church and public sphere, though I admit that their enormity and complexities weigh on me from time to time.

L&J: The pro-life/pro-choice debate can be so hostile. How would you like to see the debate changed? How can we on the pro-life side be more charitable to those we disagree with?

CC: The life/choice binary is much like the liberal/conservative binary–especially in that it simplifies what is complex and artificially pits people against each other. Virtually everyone–even on abortion–is both pro-life and pro-choice. Even ardent supporters of abortion rights think that killing a fetus (especially if she is later term) is a serious matter such that it isn’t an absolute right, while hardcore pro-lifers also accept that certain kinds of abortion are acceptable to choose–especially when the health of the mother is threatened. Pro-lifers should be more charitable–not just because Christians are called to love, full stop–but also because this is the way to open hearts and minds to a new point of view. Being charitable is risky, however, because true love means actually listening to our conversation partner–and this means that we might be forced to consider new facts and perhaps even change our mind. But genuine pursuit of truth means we should follow the best arguments wherever they lead us, and not be afraid of genuine exchange.

L&J: What were your main takeaways from the conference on life and choice in the abortion debate you helped organize at Princeton?

CC: Not everyone had the same takeaways, as the presenters and attendees were a diverse group of people–and there is almost virtually nothing abortion-related about which literally 100% of people will agree. But at the conference I found that different coalitions can agree on different things across choice/life lines. For instance, I think a strong majority of “average” pro-life and pro-choice folks can agree that we should change abortion policy based on when a prenatal child/fetus can feel pain, or when the abortion is taking place simply because the child/fetus is female or mentally disabled. Feminist advocates can agree–whether pro-life or pro-choice–that women should be empowered to choose life, and that social structures must change to allow women to make this choice. Soon after the conference, I developed a friendship with one of the attendees: the reproductive justice advocate Hilary Hammell. We talked about many of these issues in this online exchange which you might find of interest.

L&J: Both contemporary American political parties strike me as severely individualistic and libertarian: folks on the left might say, “I can do what I want with my body. It’s mine,” while the on the right we might hear, “I can do what I want with my money. It’s mine.” What critique of individualism does the Catholic social tradition provide? What messages could faith-filled Catholics bring to leaders of both parties?

CC: This is one of the ironies of the left/right binary: though they focus on different issues, they often have a common ideological focus on the individual. Catholic social teaching highlights the theological, biological, and sociological fact that autonomy is an illusion. Not only are we our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper, we cannot understand our dignity as persons except in relationship to the dignity of others. We don’t “own” our money, our bodies, or even our very lives. Though we currently have access to them via a “social mortgage”, everything we have and are ultimately belong to God.

L&J: What signs of hope for the magenta agenda/life & justice efforts do you see?

CC: More and more of my colleagues in ethics–and my students–see that the liberal/conservative binary is on the way out, and that the more interesting question is what its replacement will be. Pro-life democrats and feminists are becoming more numerous and influential in very public ways. It is no longer odd to encounter a young person who favors nondiscrimination against gays and lesbians, but also favors social justice for our prenatal children. The “liberal” state of Massachusetts recently rejected an assisted suicide law that the “conservative” state of Montana accepted. It is my experience (and the polls bear this out as well) that the Millennials do not have the same questions and concerns as their parents and grandparents, and generally don’t find their binary categories helpful. This gives me hope that a truly consistent focus on life and nonviolence–with a preference for the most vulnerable–can be engaged in the not-so-distant future.


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