Vatican Censures Sister Margaret Farley's Theology of Sexuality

Sister Margaret Farley, RSM

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has issued a Notification which claims that the book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, professor emerita at Yale Divinity School, contains “erroneous propositions.”  In particular the CDF notes that her positions on masturbation, homosexual relations, same-sex unions, and divorce and re-marriage are not consistent with official Catholic teaching. (You can read the full text of the Notification here.)

In her response to these charges, Sister Farley has stated:

“I appreciate the efforts made by the Congregation and its consultants, over several years, to evaluate positions articulated in that book, and I do not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching.  In the end, I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching.  It is of a different genre altogether.”

(You can read the full text of her response here.)

She explains her book’s genesis and general outline:

“Growing out of my work as a professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School, this book was designed to help people, especially Christians but also others, to think through their questions about human sexuality.  It suggests the importance of moving from what frequently functions as a taboo morality to a morality and sexual ethics based on the discernment of what counts as wise, truthful, and recognizably just loves.  Although my responses to some particular sexual ethical questions do depart from some traditional Christian responses, I have tried to show that they nonetheless reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights of these theological and moral traditions.  Whether through interpretation of biblical texts, or through an attempt to understand “concrete reality” (an approach at the heart of “natural law”), the fact that Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality seems to require that we at least examine the possibility of development in sexual ethics.  This is what my book, Just Love, is about. “

Additionally, she highlights a general problem with the CDF’s critique, which shows how incomplete and unpersuasive their statement is:

“Again, I appreciate the work that the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have done.  I only regret that in reporting my positions on select “Specific Problems” in sexual ethics, the Notification does not also consider my arguments for these positions.  Nor does it render my positions in terms of the complex theoretical and practical contexts to which they are a response.  Hence, I fear the Notification–while clear in its conclusions–misrepresents (perhaps unwittingly) the aims of my work and the nature of it as a proposal that might be in service of, not against, the church and its faithful people.”

The National Catholic Reporter is carrying the following news article on this story:

Vatican criticizes US theologian’s book on sexual ethics

Theologian’s book a wide-ranging study

New Ways Ministry stands solidly behind Sister Margaret Farley’, whose combination of intelligence, compassion, and eloquence have been a gift to the Catholic Church and to all Christians who, with sincere hearts, are trying to understand the great gift of sexuality with which God has graced humanity.  Her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, lays out a religious framework which mixes the best of our faith tradition with the most moral and humane forms of information that come from contemporary sources, including the lived experience of people.

Sister Farley’s vision is one that makes no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, noting that what is morally good for one group should be applied equally to the other.  Moral emphasis in her theology is given not to the nature of any individual sexual act, but the quality of the relationship in which sexual activity is performed.  She has corrected a long-standing error in theological approaches which has ignored the quality of relationships when discussing sexual activity.  Her approach is not only ethically sound, but it also more accurately reflects the way that human beings experience sexuality, rather than relying on outdated, abstracted notions.

As a teacher and scholar at Yale University Divinity School, she has educated several generations of scholars and ministers, and her work will have a lasting influence in Catholic and Protestant churches long after the current leaders at the Vatican are out of office.  As a frequent speaker at New Ways Ministry symposiums and events, she has made her theological acumen accessible to thousands of Catholics who are concerned about LGBT equality and justice.  Our ministry has been greatly enriched by her presence and participation.  We were delighted and proud to present her with our Bridge Building Award in 2002.

The Vatican’s trend over the last few decades of attempting to silence theologians and other thinkers whose ideas provide an opportunity for the church to grow is not a fair, Christian, or sustainable practice.  It is a practice based in fear, which harms, not helps, the church. Dialogue with thinkers, not censure of them, is the method that will benefit our church and our world.  Attempting to silence thought is a futile activity, as generations of tyrants and dictators have long since learned.

You can read statements in support of Sister Farley from the following people by clicking on the link:

Sister Patricia McDemott, President, Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Theologians and academics, including Harold Attridge, Dean, Yale Divinity School

We continue our steadfast gratitude for her work and pledge our prayerful support to her during this period of trial.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. Marian Ronan
    Marian Ronan says:

    Does anyone seriously think that the Vatican would have issued this notification if Margaret Farley were not a Catholic sister, a sister of Mercy, that it is not coordinated with the current attack on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, of which the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas is a member?

  2. anne connolly
    anne connolly says:

    dear margaret
    i look very much forward to reading you Just Love and am certain there is much for me to learn there to add to what i can bring to my ministry. peace and love to you, anne connolly, mid-atlantic/bolivia

  3. Cherune Clewley
    Cherune Clewley says:

    It would seem that the Vatican ‘dost protest too much’ particularly when it comes to the feminine side of the Catholic Church. For centuries they have closed the eyes, and placed their heads in the sand to what they, the Cardinals, Priests, Bishops, Brothers and Monks have done until this century when the world is holding them accountable. Now they feel as if they must turn on the women who have been the real teachers and spiritual leaders, showing the love of Christianity for what it is, for these women have shown that they are the ones who have truly touched the faithful. I have already written to the Vatican, as a result of their sanctions in April. It seems as if they are frought with turbulence and are literally running around like chickens with their heads cut off, instead of sitting in prayer and meditation and looking to God for forgiveness of the thousands of years of transgressions by those who have sat in the Vatican, giving mixed messages to the faithful, i.e. do as I say, not as I do.

  4. Martin Grochala
    Martin Grochala says:

    I have the CDC to thank for bringing this book to my attention. It sounds like a wonderful examination of human sexuality placed squarely in the context of right relationships. I look forward to reading it and hope its sales sky-rocket!

  5. Vern Smith
    Vern Smith says:

    Ultimately, this is not about theology. It is about power. Why this notification against a sister who dares to think honestly? Similarly, why the current actions against the LCWR? The men in power fear losing it. How sad that they do not realize that authentic power, based in love, honesty, and justice is something that cannot be lost. Their fear, manifested by these recent actions against American women religious, only exposes further the weak ground upon which they stand. Want to make Rome really scared? Just ignore them. Keep doing, writing, speaking, and being as your conscience dictates. And just ignore them. I know, easier said than done. But there is nothing more disempowering than collectively to ignore inappropriate behavior. Of all topics, sexual ethics . . . the hierarchy has so little credibility. What can they do if nobody pays attention? Vatican pronouncements met with crickets chirping will make their lack of authentic power crystal clear. Hmmm . . . maybe a new rallying cry: “Fight Silencing with Silence! Ignore them!”

  6. Al Risdorfer
    Al Risdorfer says:

    Anything the men in the vatican condemn goes to the top of my reading list. I personally will buy a few dozen copies and ask all my friends to do the same. I’ve been looking for a lucid guide to real love-based sexuality and it would seem Sister Farley may have produced just that. Typical of Rome to be afraid of such a thing. They become more and more irrelevant every day.

    Write On Sister!


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