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Courtesy Yale Divinity School
Margaret Farley .
Wow, that’s some powerful PR.
Twenty-four hours ago news broke that the Vatican had condemned the book “Just Love:A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” a publication by a prominent nun-theologian that disagrees with church teaching on same-sex marriage, masturbation and remarrying after divorce. Monday morning, the book’s reported ranking on Amazon: 142,982
Tuesday afternoon, after a day of furious news coverage of the Vatican censure: It’s at #16.
Sister Margaret Farley, a longtime Yale scholar who recently retired, barely surfaced Monday, except to issue a statement saying she knows her views go against official teaching but is trying as a theologian to raise the “possibility of development in sexual ethics.” The positions of church leaders have shifted over history on subjects from usury to slavery to religious liberty, but issues related to the definition of human life remain in a different and less open stratosphere.
The censure by the Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is rare, but did not include any penalty for Farley, who is past president of both the Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society of America.
A building in Silver Spring, which houses the office for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The leader of a group of U.S. Catholic nuns on April 21, rejected condemnation from a Vatican report that said it defied Church doctrine. “We haven’t violated any teaching,” Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, told AFP, insisting the group would not stop “caring for the least among us on the margins of society.”
Regardless, the Farley censure piled on other news that has divided American Catholics this year: U.S. bishops declaring their top priority opposing a White House mandate for employer-backed coverage of contraception and the Vatican’s announcement last month that it would overhaul the country’s largest group of nuns due to what an official report called ”radical feminism.”
Many will be watching next week when two leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — whose members represent the vast majority of U.S. nuns — head to Rome to meet on the proposed overhaul. The women surprised even supporters on Friday when they issued a statement saying the Vatican report caused “scandal and pain” among already-polarized Catholics.
Farley’s book resonates as a debate point because it embodies the core divisions among Catholics: Whether their faith calls them to obey their hierarchy or question it, and whether one can be a good and devout Catholic while also rejecting bishops’ views on everything from abortion to Obama. Some Catholic theologians said the Vatican censure pushed the question of what is the role of a theologian. Is it to be something akin to a lawyer for the pope, coming up with ever-better arguments in line with church leaders? Or an independent Catholic, holding oneself responsible to the tradition, but to call for revisions if they seem necessary?
The book argues in the face of church teaching on several topics, concluding that, for example, it’s more in line with Christian ethics to allow, for example, same-sex marriage, since it can “be important in transforming the hatred, rejection and stigmatization of gays and lesbians that is still being reinforced by teachings of ‘unnatural’ sex, disordered desire, and dangerous love.”
On same-sex relationships, Farley writes: “My own view… is that same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities. Therefore, same-sex oriented persons as well as their activities can and should be respected whether or not they have a choice to be otherwise”
Masturbation, she writes, “usually does not raise any moral questions at all. … It is surely the case that many women… have found great good in self-pleasuring – perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure – something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers. In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them.”
On point after point, the Congregation’s “notification” was clear. This statement does not conform to Catholic teaching. This opinion is not acceptable. This opinion is in contradiction to Catholic teaching. The notification aims to “warn the faithful” that the book “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”
Some conservatives were pleased to see the Vatican take up the writing of such a prominent theologian and clarify where she parted ways with official teaching. Her order, the Maryland-based Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, issued a long list of supportive quotes from theologians, Catholic and otherwise, as did Yale University School of Divinity.
Cathleen Kaveny, a University of Notre Dame professor of theology and law who studied with Farley at Yale, said the sister is the product of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, when church leaders instructed Catholics to open the church up to the world.
“Margaret is trying to engage this broader culture and say something helpful. You can give people Catholic teaching, but what if they say, ‘no’? Is there anything else you can say to them? You can present all of Catholic sexual morality and many people will look at you as if you’re coming from another world,” Kaveny said. “Margaret isn’t a rebellious person, she loves the church but thinks she’s doing her job by thinking as best she can.”
Meanwhile, the Vatican process reflects the measured pace of Rome; the book came out in 2006.
Via Google Books, read sections of Farley’s book, embedded below.