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The Vatican has once again sharply criticized a nun, this time for writing on sexual ethics. The Vatican has accused Sister Margaret Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order and professor emerita of Yale Divinity School, of publishing a book that posed “grave harm” to the faithful.
The book title? “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.”
“Just Love” is a work that sets out to find “ethical guidelines and moral wisdom for our sexual lives” taking on the task of discerning issues of “character and virtue” in relationship not just to behaviors but also to the “large questions” of what human embodiment and sexual desire mean in a moral sense. (p. 15) Our sexual relations, Margaret Farley ultimately concludes, after a cross-cultural and historical exploration, must be founded on both love and justice in an integral sense. “I propose, finally, a framework that is not justice and love, but justice in loving and in the actions that flow from that love.” She seeks to help us all define a sexual ethics that is not abstract, but “morally good and just” in reality, in actual relationships. (p. 207)
If ever there were a method of moral reasoning on sexual ethics that is desperately needed in the Catholic Church today, it is the one proposed by Margaret Farley.
Perhaps it is fitting that the attack by the Vatican on Farley’s work has come just after the Sunday of Pentecost, the time when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles (Acts 2:1-4). The major spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit is wisdom. And, as noted above, the search for moral wisdom on sexual ethics is the overarching goal of Margaret Farley’s work.
The Catholic Church desperately needs to gain moral wisdom in its sexual ethics. The church around the world has been wracked by scandals over child sexual abuse, and the crisis is far from over. The Catholic Church’s continues to reject homosexual unions in marriage as one of the gifts of God’s creation and therefore good, and the full equality of women in ordination to the priesthood has not yet been achieved.
Yet, in recent months, instead of focusing on these crucial issues, the Vatican has chosen to target Dr. Margaret Farley’s work, as well as ministry of the largest umbrella group of American nuns, a group known for its work with the poor. The Vatican has subjected these nuns to investigation and criticism for “radical feminism.” These charges, the Catholic nuns have now maintained, are “unsubstantiated” and “flawed.”
This is an important moment not only for Catholics, but also for all those people of faith who care about the world-wide Catholic communion. The question really is whether, finally, the Vatican even belongs to the Catholic Church as it is emerging in this dynamic time. This was, in fact, a question considered very seriously by the Catholic Church in the 1960’s. In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) not only to bring the Church’s message more directly into dialogue with the modern world, but also to rethink the nature of the Church, the world and the relationship between the two. During the conference, the church redefined its role; the church was now to be seen as the “People of God.”
The Vatican II concept that the church is the “People of God” continues to be important for the Catholic Church according to Fr. Richard McBrien, Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. An important ecclesial lesson from Vatican II is that church is thus not defined as the hierarchy, or even just the clergy or the members of orders of religious. It is the community of all who are baptized. This is a rich and diverse group in terms of gender, race, class, social status, sexual orientation, ethnicity and culture.
Thus, Fr. McBrien writes, “One of the council’s most important affirmations, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, known by its Latin title as Lumen gentium, declared that charisms, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, are available to all the faithful, “of every rank” (n. 12).”
I believe that the writing of Dr. Margaret Farley, the work of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group of 1,500 orders that represent about 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the United States, as well as that of other Catholics today working for love, justice and charity are the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the Catholic Church in this time.
The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing moral wisdom is, without a doubt, mysterious and hard to discern. But in the New Testament, love and the works of love in treating each other justly are often found together as marks of the work of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22)
And as the prophet of the Hebrew Bible, Micah says, “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God (Micah 6:8).