Vatican notification draws criticism, support from Catholic theologians
By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON - The Vatican criticism of Mercy Sister Margaret Farley’s 2006 book, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” reflects a misunderstanding of what a Catholic theologian should do and is both ill-timed and unfair, according to theologians at a variety of U.S. Catholic universities.
“All persons who care about the Catholic intellectual tradition and the vocation of the theologian should be saddened by this notification,” said Jesuit Father Brian F. Linnane, president and theology professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.
But William E. May, senior research fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation and professor emeritus of moral theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, said the Vatican was “100 percent correct” in its assessment of Sister Farley’s book.
Father Linnane and May were referring to the June 4 notice from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Sister Farley’s book contains “erroneous propositions” on homosexual acts, same-sex marriage, masturbation and remarriage after divorce that could cause confusion and “grave harm to the faithful.”
In its five-page notification, the congregation said the book “is not in conformity with the teaching of the church” and “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”
Sister Farley, who taught at Yale University Divinity School from 1971 to 2007 and now serves as Gilbert L. Stark professor emerita of Christian ethics, acknowledged that some of the positions taken in the book “are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching” but said it was designed “to help people, especially Christians but also others, to think through their questions about human sexuality.”
The notification seemed to boost sales of “Just Love,” which had been listed at No. 142,982 among all titles sold by amazon.com. By 3 p.m. EDT June 6, it had reached No. 15 on the list of Amazon best-sellers.
May said the Vatican was “perfectly right” to warn against what he called an “atrocious” work.
Quoting from a review he wrote for the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly in 2008 when “Just Love” came out in paperback, he called the book “incompatible both with the teaching of the church on human sexuality and sexual ethics, and incompatible too with sound philosophical ethics.”
Father Linnane, who studied under Sister Farley as a graduate student, said he was “hard pressed to think of a more careful, thoughtful and knowledgeable Roman Catholic working in the field of moral theology.”
He said the Vatican congregation seemed to have “little appreciation for the role of history and for the vocation of the theologian, particularly moral theologians.”
“Our task in the view of the authors of (the) notification is to simply transmit the authoritative teaching of the church, without critique, questions or suggestions for enhancement or correction,” Father Linnane added. “It seems there is no room for creative and faithful theological reflection.”
M. Shawn Copeland, an associate professor of systematic theology at Boston College, called the Vatican action “deeply disappointing and most disturbing.”
Describing Sister Farley as “a reasoned, responsible and deeply compassionate voice urging ethical, indeed, moral behavior in human relationships,” she said the Mercy nun’s work has been known for “rigor, clarity, nuance, depth and meticulous distinguishing of practical and speculative questions from magisterial or official teaching.”
But Stephen Miletic, a professor of Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, said that “any time someone who is publicly Catholic” - a nun, priest, deacon, for example - “pursues a moral theory that is contrary to revelation and tradition, there is a problem.”
Miletic said it is “the role of the theologian to push the envelope, absolutely, but which envelope?” Without a grounding in natural law, “you can justify anything,” he added.
William O’Neill, an associate professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in California, quoted from a recent statement of the International Theological Commission that “investigation and questioning is justified and even necessary if theology is to fulfill its task.”
He called Sister Farley “deeply faithful to the church,” and said many Catholics - “already disturbed” by the congregation’s “treatment of religious women” - “will find the notification to be neither just nor loving.”
Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said “Just Love” was not intended as “a work of specifically Catholic moral theology” but rather “to offer perspective and guidance to a broad range of persons who struggle with questions of sexual morality.”
“The Vatican has missed an opportunity for dialogue when it failed to see Margaret Farley as an important ally in critiquing problematic practices ranging from the hook-up culture to sexual slavery, rather than as a threat to the integrity of Catholic moral teaching,” Kaveny said.
Lisa Cahill, a theology professor at Boston College, defined theology as “a process of inquiry and exploration in a dynamic and critical relation to other theological positions” and said, “Theologians do not see or present their work as ‘official church teaching’ and few of the faithful are confused about this fact.”
But she said the Vatican notification could “create the unfortunate impression that ... condemnation of her book was predetermined and the investigation a mere formality.”
According to the notification, the congregation first wrote to Sister Farley about its concerns through her superior, the president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, more than two years ago. Urged to “correct the unacceptable theses contained in her book,” Sister Farley sent responses in 2010 and 2011 that “did not adequately clarify the (book’s) grave problems,” the congregation said.
Cahill also said it was “incredibly and ironically bad” timing for the notification to be published at a time when the Vatican and the U.S. bishops “are already attracting an enormous amount of negative press over their prosecution of American nuns.”
“They have just thrown another log on the fire,” she said.
Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops