“Do they know who she is?” My friend, a strongly committed Catholic law professor from the Midwest, almost burst out as we strode down 10th Ave. last night on the way to dinner. Did they know she is one of the most influential and most respected intellectual leaders in the America church? Do they realize the effect it has among enlightened Catholics when a condemnation comes out of the blue from Rome, when the target is revered by a network of students and professors from Africa to here? Especially in the wake of the feedback to the knuckle-rappng delivered to America nuns.
The she of course is Sister of Mercy Margaret Farley, former professor at the Yale Divinity School and author of Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006), whose book, as reported in the New York Times (June 5) and National Catholic Reporter, has been denounced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology and should not be used by Roman Catholics.” Their argument is that the theology of the book does not conform strictly with the theology of the magisterium. Farley would reply that she does not purport to present strictly Catholic theology, but to employ years of social and cultural, as well as Christian theological, research in order to strengthen the marital commitment by applying principles of justice.
While outrage on behalf of Sister Margaret Farley, as in the treatment of Sister Elizabeth Johnson some months ago, may be appropriate, great good has emerged from both experiences. In both cases, rather than strike when the books were published, church authorities waited several years before they pounced. My guess is that they don’t really pay that much attention to theological books as they come out. Rather they wait for them to catch on, have influence, and be taught in the colleges. The someone somewhere writes to Rome warning high officials that the church’s truth is in danger.
Then the crackdown becomes a public event, the media tell the people in the pews what is happening. Students who have loved the books and teachers speak up. I worked on the Fordam campus for four years without meeting Elizabeth Johnson. Now I have read her book and have joined her fans. I have heard of Margaret Farley, but now I’ve had a long talk with one of her graduate students, her book Just Love is on my desk, and I’ll read it this weekend. The Washington Post today reports that overnight her Amazon sales ranking soared from 142,000 to 16. Thousands are talking about Farley’s ideas who had never of her before. This public reaction demonstrates that there is a great hunger among Christians and others for a sexual ethic that is grounded in the human experience of the 21st century as well as in the tradition of the church.
That sexual ethic will emerge when the whole church, not just the official magisterium, begins listening to itself and evaluating its own experience. The church has forfeited much of its capital in its handling of the sex abuse crisis. It can regain that moral authority by listening to the Spirit wherever or in whomever He/She may speak — including the theologians who love the church and have devoted their whole lives to study and teaching.
But how can we protect ourselves from error? It will take more effort. When a book containing some controversial material comes out, go after it right away with signed articles in legitimate publications. Not in backstage anonymous whispers and end-runs to authorities in Rome. Authorities must read the books they intend to condemn, read the reviews, sit down with the authors, give them a chance to explain themselves and then, if necessary, publish their reasons why they don’t want Catholics to read this book. Allow the author space to answer. Somehow the truth will emerge.
Meanwhile I recommend two readings: Lisa Sowle Cahill’s review of Just Love in America, December 11, 2006, and James F. Keenan, S.J.’s “Can We Talk? Theological Ethics and Sexuality,” in Theological Studies (March 2007, vol 68, especially his summary and appraisal of Farley). As Keenan says, “there is a great desire to host a variety of conversations on sexual ethics that at once uphold long-held traditional claims while at the same time promoting calls for a responsible sexual ethic in a different key.” I have the honor of presiding at three weddings this year, all involving families whom I love. The Catholic vision of Christian marriage is sublime, but the challenge of living out its ideals can seem overwhelming. The young couples deserve all the help the church can give; but they are not helped by shaking our fingers at scholars who share our goals.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.