The New York Times styled it a “denunciation.” The National Catholic Reporter saw it as part of the Vatican’s supposed “war on women.” The ever-reliable Paul Lakeland of Fairfield intoned that it was “a black day in the history of the Church.”
What triggered this outrage? In early June the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican bureaucracy responsible for weighing in on questions of faith and morals, put out a “Notification” that censured Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, a 2006 book about sexual ethics by Sr. Margaret Farley.
In her effort to formulate a substantive sexual ethic, Sr. Farley makes arguments for conclusions that contradict the established teaching of the Catholic Church. For example, she argues: in most cases masturbation is not a moral problem; divorce can sometimes be okay; homosexual acts can legitimately express human love; and support for gay marriage can be an important way of promoting social justice. By and large, in Just Love Sr. Farley presumes that the Church’s current teaching on sexual morality is unworkable, and in some cases unjust.
Rome’s conclusion therefore follows directly: “The Congregation warns the faithful that her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church. Consequently, it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical or interreligious dialogue.”
Is this an explosive revelation? When considering a book that contradicts the Church’s teaching, the Church says . . . it contradicts Church teaching. Sr. Farley says as much herself. “I do not dispute,” she wrote in response to the Vatican’s assessment of her book, “the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching.”
This forthrightness fits with what I know of Sr. Farley. She was one of my teachers in graduate school at Yale. There were no politically correct denunciations of the dead white men of the past. On the contrary, she taught a class on the history of Christian ethics that treated St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Martin Luther, and others with accuracy and sympathy. I was expected to know what the tradition taught.
But Sr. Farley disagrees with some of what the tradition has taught about sexual morality, and she says as much in her book. She doesn’t think it works very well, at least not with contemporary men and women. As she puts it: “Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality.”
The sorts of people who go to Yale Divinity School think this way. Lots of people think this way, perhaps a supermajority in certain circles. And so she wrote a book for them, trying to develop “sexual ethics based on the discernment of what counts as wise, truthful, and recognizably just loves.”
Fine. It’s a good thing for them to have a moral discipline for their sexual lives. And Sr. Farley is certainly entitled to follow her conscience, which in this case led her to positions at odds with the Catholic Church, and for that matter at odds with the larger Christian tradition, as well as the testimony of many other religions.
The authority of conscience is something the Church affirms unequivocally. But this does not create the “right to dissent” insisted on by the Catholic Trade Union for Dissent, also known as the Catholic Theological Society of America. All baptized Catholics are responsible to the Church. This is all the more true of those who hold official roles as priest, teachers, and members of religious orders.
Sr. Farley is not only a scholar and teacher whom I came to admire as a student. She is not only a women of great integrity and personal warmth whose opinions I respect. (More than twenty years ago I refrained from publishing a paper on the death penalty that I had written because of her comments.) She is a nun, and a Catholic professor. Her dissent cannot be merely personal. It has a corporate dimension that entails a corporate responsibility.
Sr. Farley believes that her contradictions of Church teaching reflect a continuing loyalty to what she sees as the deeper truths affirmed by the tradition. That’s why she regards her dissent as loyal.
While I disagree with her ethical reasoning in Just Love and think the Vatican's censure entirely fitting, I agree that her dissent is loyal. As a teacher she never took the usual liberal Catholic approach, which imagines that arguing for conclusions contrary to the teachings of the Church reflects the only true and genuinely Catholic way of thinking. Think Fr. James F. Keenan. Nor has she tried to wage an all-out public relations campaign in the popular media. Think Fr. Charles Curran and many other clerics who have turned dissent into a professional identity. On the contrary, she has refused to lend her voice to the various efforts to turn the Vatican’s censure into a cause célebre.
The Church will always face dissent, which, properly governed by prudence, she rightly censures. That’s the Church’s spiritual responsibility as our teacher. Meanwhile, if our consciences draw us into dissent—and there is no guarantee that they won’t—we have a very different responsibility. Will our dissent, however wayward its arguments and false its conclusion, be ordered toward the service of the Church—or will our dissent serve our egos? I admire Sr. Farley for answering that question the way I hope I would.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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