A Culture of Engagement

Law, Religion, and Morality

Cathleen Kaveny

"Kaveny's prose is clear and concise. . . . This collection of perceptive essays provides insight into how one theologian addresses the complex moral, legal, and political issues of a pluralistic society."
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Religious traditions in the United States are characterized by ongoing tension between assimilation to the broader culture, as typified by mainline Protestant churches, and defiant rejection of cultural incursions, as witnessed by more sectarian movements such as Mormonism and Hassidism. However, legal theorist and Catholic theologian Cathleen Kaveny contends there is a third possibility—a culture of engagement—that accommodates and respects tradition. It also recognizes the need to interact with culture to remain relevant and to offer critiques of social, political, legal, and economic practices.

Kaveny suggests that rather than avoid the crisscross of the religious and secular spheres of life, we should use this conflict as an opportunity to come together and to encounter, challenge, contribute to, and correct one another. Focusing on five broad areas of interest—Law as a Teacher, Religious Liberty and Its Limits, Conversations about Culture, Conversations about Belief, and Cases and Controversies—Kaveny demonstrates how thoughtful and purposeful engagement can contribute to rich, constructive, and difficult discussions between moral and cultural traditions.

This provocative collection of Kaveny's articles from Commonweal magazine, substantially revised and updated from their initial publication, provides astonishing insight into a range of hot-button issues like abortion, assisted suicide, government-sponsored torture, contraception, the Ashley Treatment, capital punishment, and the role of religious faith in a pluralistic society. At turns masterful and inspirational, A Culture of Engagement is a welcome reminder of what can be gained when a diversity of experiences and beliefs is brought to bear on American public life.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Life in the Crisscross

Part One: Law as a Teacher
1. Rules Are Not Enough: Why Judges Need Empathy
2. Teacher or Remedy: What Is the Law for?
3. Letter versus Spirit: Why the Constitution Needs Interpreting
4. Remember the Mormons: Thinking about the Nature of Marriage
5. Regulating Abortion: What Did the Roberts Court Do?
6. Caught in the Gap: What Hostility to Health-Care Reform Has Wrought
7. “Peaceful and Private”: Montana’s Supreme Court Rules on Assisted Suicide
8. More Than a Refuge: Why Immigration Officials Should Steer Clear of Churches
9. Justice or Vengeance: Is the Death Penalty Cruel and Unusual?
10. Undue Process: The Evisceration of Habeas Corpus
11. Bad Evidence: Not only Is Torture Immoral, It Doesn’t Work
12. Perverted Logic: Behind the Bush Administration’s “Torture Memo”
13. Regret Is Not Enough: Why the President Should Read Paul Ramsey

Part Two: Religious Liberty and Its Limits
14. The Right to Refuse: How Broad Should Conscience Protections Be?
15. The Bishops and Religious Liberty: Are Catholics Becoming a Sect?
16. Is the Government “Defining Religion”?: The Bishops’ Case against the Mandate
17. Defining Exemptions Does Not Equal Defining Religion: A Category Mistake
18. An Evolving Accommodation: Religious Minorities and the Common Good
19. Employment Division v. Smith: The Eye of the Storm
20. Smith, RFRA, and the Bishops’ Claims: Neutral Laws of General Applicability?
21. The Key Supreme Court Case for the Mandate: U.S. v. Lee
22. Reading the Tea Leaves: Why the Supreme Court Is Unlikely to Block the
Contraception Mandate
23. A Minefield: The Troubling Implications of the Hobby Lobby Decision

Part Three: Conversations about Culture
24. Watch Your Mouth: Sage Advice from St. James
25. Model Atheist: Jeffrey Stout and the Culture Wars
26. Bishops and Politics: Lessons from Australia
27. Moving beyond the Culture Wars: Why a Bioethics Council Needs Diversity
28. A Flawed Analogy: Prochoice Politicians and the Third Reich
29. Sick Minds: What Can We Do to Prevent Another Tucson?
30. Crime or Tragedy? Murder and Suicide at Villanova
31. Dignity and the End of Life: How Not to Talk about Assisted Suicide
32. The Right Questions: Catholic Colleges and Pop Culture
33. Either/Or? Catholicism Is More Complex

Part Four: Conversations about Belief
34. Family Feuds: What’s Keeping Catholics Apart?
35. The Martyrdom of John Roberts: Catholic Squabbling, Then and Now
36. No Academic Question: Should the CTSA Seek “Conservative” Views?
37. The “New” Feminism? John Paul II and the 1912 Encyclopedia
38. Catholic Kosher: Is the Ban on Contraception Just an Identity Marker?
39. The Big Chill: Humanae Vitae Dissenters Need to Find a Voice
40. How about NOT Firing Her? Moral Norms and Catholic School Teachers
41. Truth or Consequences: In Ireland, Straying Far from the Mental Reservation
42. Unspeakable Sins: Why We Need to Talk about Them
43. A Darkening: Why a Church Scandal Does More Harm Than the New Atheism
44. The Long Goodbye: Why Some Devout Catholics Are Leaving the Church
45. That ‘70s Church: What It Got Right

Part Five: Cases and Controversies
46. The Consistent Ethic: An Ethic of “Life,” Not “Purity”
47. Contraception, Again: Where Can We Find Compromise?
48. When Does Life Begin? Two Prolife Philosophers Disagree
49. Why Prolife? It’s about People, Not Abstractions
50. The ACLU Takes on the Bishops: Tragedy Leads to a Misguided Lawsuit
51. Co-Opted by Evil? Abortion and Amnesty International
52. Boycotts in a Pluralistic Society: How and Where Do We Draw Moral Lines?
53. Forever Young: The Trouble with the “Ashley Treatment”
54. Risk and Responsibility: Why Insurance Is the Wrong Way to Think about
Health Care
55. A Horrific Crime: But Is Execution the Answer?
56. Could the Church Have Gotten It Wrong? Let’s Look at the Facts

Conclusion: Tradition and Transformation

Suggestions for Further Reading
About the Author


"Kaveny is interested in bringing the threads of different traditions together in order to illuminate nuance, depth and colour as well as the problematic areas of each tradition. This kind of interaction and interrelation is what she understands by ‘culture of engagement’."—The Way

"There is tremendous power in seeing [the essays] together and in being able to trace the many sources, themes, and issues that inform Kaveny's 'culture of engagement.'"—Horizons

"Kaveny is a skillful teacher. Where something is well known, she moves swiftly from the familiar to a fresh insight about it. Where her readers might be less aware of something, she lingers longer in the setting or context of her texts. . . . Kaveny does not offer a thin guide to complex issues too often reduced to superficial slogans. She is a Sherpa who can take us to the top of the mountain."—America

"The author makes her points succinctly and accessibly. . . . Both supporters and critics of religious liberty arguments will benefit from Kaveny's careful review of the law."—U.S. Catholic Magazine

"Those who have followed Kaveny's writing know she is not afraid to express an opinion—followed by the evidence to back it up. One may argue with her conclusions, but her writing is always thoughtful and thought provoking."—Catholic Health Assembly

"Provocative collection."—Reviewer's Bookwatch

"Kaveny's prose is clear and concise. . . . This collection of perceptive essays provides insight into how one theologian addresses the complex moral, legal, and political issues of a pluralistic society."—Foreword Reviews

"Cathy Kaveny is, simultaneously, one of our country's most important religious intellectuals and one of our most rigorous legal scholars. She writes with great care and understanding, but also with passion and an uncommon humanity. A Culture of Engagement is a superb introduction to her thought. No matter where you stand, she will challenge you, and inspire you, too."—E. J. Dionne Jr., Senior Fellow, Brookings Institute

"In this collection from her columns and blog posts for Commonweal magazine, Cathleen Kaveny draws on her mastery of both legal and moral thought to lead us beyond both the more liberal culture of openness and the more conservative culture of distinct religious identity toward a culture of discerning engagement. The precision of her language matches the precision of her judgment in one urgent chapter after another, and by the end of the book you will have had a master course on how general principles and particular situations mutually inform each other."—Leo J. O'Donovan, SJ, President Emeritus, Georgetown University

"This is a bold and brilliant engagement with the fundamental questions of faith, freedom, and family—crisply written, cogently argued, and constructively casuistic. Building on her earlier masterwork, Law’s Virtues, Cathleen Kaveny now shows us even more clearly how the law can teach us how to live a life of virtue as communicants and citizens in a world of ever-growing complexity."—John Witte, Jr., Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor, Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University

"Cathy Kaveny's A Culture of Engagement offers a highly instructive collection of her essays on law, religious liberty, American culture, Catholicism, and a host of contemporary social-ethical issues. Her voice is always calm, measured, and fair. Her thesis—that American Catholics should strive for a culture of engagement rather than merely openness or identity, resonates deeply. And it is consistently evidenced in her approach to a wide range of issues. This collection helps solidify Professor Kaveny's role as one of American Catholicism's leading public intellectuals."—David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics, Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, Mercer University

"I would argue that [Kaveny] accomplishes a more ambitious goal in [A Culture of Engagement]: further establishing herself as one of the foremost and impactful scholars in the fields of law and religion, theological ethics, and law."—Journal of Law and Religion


Supplemental Materials


Runner-up for the 2017 CPA Book Award for Faithful Citizenship of the Catholic Press Association

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is Darald and Juliet Libby Professor at Boston College, a position that includes appointments in both the department of theology and the law school. She holds a joint PhD/JD from Yale University and is the author of Law's Virtues: Fostering Autonomy and Solidarity in American Society (GUP, 2012). The author of many columns and articles for Newsweek, the Washington Post, Commonweal, and other publications, she appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2012.

320 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-62616-303-4
Mar 2016

320 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-62616-302-7
Mar 2016

320 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-62616-304-1
Mar 2016

Moral Traditions series
David Cloutier, Darlene Weaver, and Andrea Vicini, SJ

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