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.

 

Comments

Mark Burke | 6/10/2012 - 5:26pm
This post raises a number of important and interesting questions. Some of them make me wonder what sort of journal America intends to be, and what its standards are.
Fr. Schroth asks why the CDF notification on Sr. Farley’s book appeared so long after its appearance. He answers: “my guess is…” This is a legitimate question, and raises a host of others. I, for one, wonder why the CDF chooses certain books and theologians to investigate, and not others. Surely, Sr. Farely’s work is not the only one published in the last ten years which advances the same, or similar, theses. Why was hers chosen? How long do such investigations generally take? Do all investigations end in formal decrees? In some cases, authors are forbidden from teaching Catholic theology or publishing. Why were these penalties not imposed?
Certainly, before I wagered an opinion of this particular case, I would want to have an informed answer to some of these questions. Fr. Schroth, on the other hand, proffers his opinion based upon a guess. Is this what journalism has come to? One expects such sloppiness from the mainstream media. I would have thought America had different standards.
At another point, Fr. Schroth says “the media tell the people in the pews what is happening.” Where is this taking place? In covering “the knuckle-rapping delivered to American nuns,” most journalists have failed to make distinctions between the LCWR, the CMSWR, the ministries of individual sisters, and the orders to which they belong. Background information has been lacking, and sweeping, unfounded, generalizations have been made. Is it unreasonable to ask writers for America to be somewhat more sophisticated?
The commentary fails victim to an attractive, but utterly facile and superficial, narrative. The idea seems to be that there is a single entity, “the official magisterium,” which refuses to listen to “experience” and is trying to foist its own views on the unsuspecting “enlightened” Catholic. But, might it not be equally valid to say that the CDF is actually giving voice to experiences which are countercultural and are, now, rarely heard (at least in the pages of the mainstream Catholic press)? All of us who have engaged in parish work have met them. There are, for instance, young adult Catholics who believe sexual activity is an expression of a permanent commitment sacramentally made, and are mocked by their peers for it. (Often they believe this because of frank and honest discussion with their parents, and by witnessing their love). Are they unenlightened?
Anyone trained in post-Kantian moral theory, or even post-modern theories, cringes when the word “experience” is used in an attempt to justify a moral claim. It covers over and denies the hard work necessary for getting from an “is” to an “ought.” Or, at worst, it’s a rhetorical strategy to justify the status quo. In any event, harping on the need to “listen to experience” will get us nowhere. We need reasoned, balanced analysis which seeks with charity to go beyond stereotypes and rhetoric. 
Craig McKee | 6/9/2012 - 7:35pm
Advice for Sr. Farley from Napoleon Bonaparte:

''Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake!''
Carlos Orozco | 6/9/2012 - 7:01pm
Anne (#18):

Please refrain from disrespecting Blessed John Paul II. Any comparison between him and Sr. Farley is amusing and reminds me of a Vice-Presidential debate in the eighties:

"I knew Jack Kennedy (Pause). Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
KEN LOVASIK | 6/9/2012 - 10:24am
As one who was a Friar Minor for almost 30 years - and I continue to cherish my sharing in their brotherhood even now - I am proud of the couragious and prophetic statement of the OFM Leadership in the US. 
I cannot help being reminded - as I witness the conflict that occasioned the Friars' statement - of the men and women of the earliest Church as they are described in the Gospel accounts of the first Easter Sunday.  As "the men" were cowering behind the locked doors of the Upper Room and fearing for their lives, "the women" were at the tomb to care for the body of the Lord ... and they became the first ones to know that He had risen!  Mary Magdalene is venerated in the Christian East as the "First Evangelist" to announce the Risen Lord!  (It's interesting, isn't it, that Western Christianity (including Roman Catholicism) venerates Magdalene as the "sinful woman"!)

That description of "the men" and "the women" of that day of Resurrection, in my opinion, is still applicable as we look at the institutional Church at the beginning of second decade the 21st century:  the Sisters have taken Vatican II very seriously, and if you ask them, they will tell you what it has cost them to leave behind "the way things were always done" and to move into an unknown future because the Church at the Second Vatican Council asked them to.  They are still ministering to the body of their Lord among the poor and disenfranchised, in body and in spirit ... still finding  Him risen and walking among us ... and still proclaiming that He is very much alive and among us! 

I can only imagine the hurt they must feel when "the men" - like their counterparts on that first Easter - feel the need to "investigate" their lives and ministries and "question" their faith and their loyalty ... from the safety and security of their "Upper Room."  It seems to me that things haven't changed much in twenty centuries.
david power | 6/9/2012 - 9:38am
Abe ,

I celebrated my limited membership by watching Seinfeld "I'm telling you for the last time" and reading sections from S.J Perelman.
Tonight, as a former Jew, I will be watching the Marx brothers. 
Anne Chapman | 6/8/2012 - 10:47pm
#18 - David Power, you made me laugh out loud with this one - "Sr Farley seems as "enlightened" on sexuality as Wojtyla was.That is to say she does not know her knee from her elbow."  So very true. Excellent point to keep in mind during this discussion.



Kang Dole | 6/8/2012 - 9:00pm
David, you're an honorary Jew tonight. I've been thinking the same thing the whole time this brouha has been playing out.
david power | 6/8/2012 - 8:16pm
Jim,

I am making my way through Joyce and catholicism at this very moment.
He stayed with the Church even if he asserted as did a Priest friend of mine that Ireland was of no interest to the papacy compared to England.Papal visits would give credence to both Joyce and Fr Paul.
But a Saint will come who will love both Joyce and  not feel the need to nuzzle the neither regions of royalty  .
Pope James they will call him.     
JIM MCCREA | 6/8/2012 - 7:02pm
Re #13:   James Joyce also had these to say about the church:


“There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to the church as a human being.”
 Letter to Augusta Gregory (1902-11-22), from James Joyce by Richard Ellmann (1959) [Oxford University Press, 1983 edition, ISBN 0-195-03381-7] (p. 107)
 

“I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against the English tyranny while the Roman tyranny occupies the palace of the soul.”
 "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages," lecture, Università Popolare, Trieste (1907-04-27),printed in James Joyce: Occasional, Critical and Political Writing (2002) edited by Kevin Barry [Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-192-83353-7], p. 125
Rick Malloy | 6/8/2012 - 6:29pm
I inivite all to ponder this thought by Bernard Lonergan.  
Religion... in an era of crisis has to think less of issuing commands and decrees and more of fostering the self-sacrificing love that alone is capable of providing the solution to the evil of decline and reinstating the beneficent progress that is entailed by sustained authenticity (Lonergan, "The Dialectic of Authority," in Third Collection, 1985:10-11).
Anne Chapman | 6/8/2012 - 5:51pm
#11.  Sr. Farley specifically states that her work does NOT represent official Catholic teaching. She did not write the book as a catechist but as a scholar and theologian. Few outside the academic world of christian ethics would have even been aware of her book if the Vatican hadn't given it so much free PR.

 I have not read her book, only brief summaries of the main points of contention. I don't know that I would agree with all of her conclusions but I am grateful that there are theologians out there who try to clear away the debris of thousands of years of misunderstandings, prejudices, cultural biases etc in the attempt to clairify thinking on these issues. They may be wrong, but they may also be right.

Refusing to question, refusing to explore ideas, silencing and shutting down discussion is not a defining characteristic of ''truth-seeking''. If the church and the world are to continue on the ill-defined path, full of rocks and bumps and wrong turns, towards greater understanding of truth (greater understanding - it does not and cannot define ''Truth''), its best thinkers must be free to think and free to explore and free to question and free to pose possible answers. Once posed, others can weigh in with positive and, yes, negative critiques. This back and forth, the open and honest debate in the open square is what eventually leads to greater understanding, brings us closer to truth, even though human beings will never be able to fully define ''Truth.''
Anne Chapman | 6/8/2012 - 5:29pm
#1 - Snarkiness doesn't begin to describe it. The author clearly reveals his own misogynst mindset (which was not in much doubt anyway) with this - ''I fear that this paternal and salutary admonition is likely to fall on deaf ears on the girls at Yale''

Yes indeed. The ''girls'' at Yale are incapable of independent analysis and need a firm ''paternal'' hand to protect them. But, of course one can assume that the Yale ''boys'' are not susceptible to being corrupted by Sr. Farley's  ''misunderstandings'' because they are, well, male. The church repeatedly reminds us that males are intrinsically superior to females in the ecclesial and marital realms, so, obviously the paternal males are actually obligated to shield the ''girls'' from the ideas of anyone who thinks outside the Vatican box. Especially from the ideas of an ''old woman''.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly comments at dotcommonweal's blog.

http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=19333
David Nickol | 6/8/2012 - 3:04pm
I went to Catholic school in the 1950s and early 1960s, and numerous times we were explicitly told, ''This is what you have to believe.'' I remember one time my classmates and I had a very lively discussion with our religion teacher, a Christian Brother, arguing with him about (as best I can recall) Catholic teaching on masturbation. We challenged him to the point where, to his credit, he said he would do more research and continue the discussion in another class. A couple of weeks later, he came in armed with his research, and once again the class raised all kinds of objections. At the end of the discussion, he said, ''Well, I can't explain it, but this is what you have to believe.'' 

Now, here we are in 2012, and one of the most important and respected American Catholic theologians has said that ''masturbation usually does not raise any moral questions at all.'' The Vatican has criticized her for saying that, and the Catholic Theological Society of America is coming to her defense.  

Now, I am much more likely to agree with Sister Margaret Farley than I am with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on this matter, but that's because in rejecting the idea ''you have to believe this'' I rejected Catholicism too. I have a feeling that many ex-Catholics today left the Church not because they didn't take Catholicism seriously enough, but because they took it more seriously than those who decided they didn't ''have to believe,'' and didn't feel obligated to go to mass every Sunday, and thought cohabitation before marriage was really okay, and didn't struggle with the concept of transubstantiation because they didn't accept the idea of the Real Presence in the first place.  

So I am really rather confused, and I think a lot of other people are too. Is it only theologians who don't ''have to believe''? Did we ''have to believe'' in the 1950s but not now? Did Vatican II somehow do away with ''have to believe''? I don't think so. So it seems to me Catholic defenders of Sr. Farley have some explaining to do. And we need to get this all settled before 2015, the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation, in case I attend the reunion, find Brother K., and we can finish that discussion about whether we ''have to believe.''
Rick Fueyo | 6/8/2012 - 1:56pm
Let s/he that has never committed these most grievous sins such as masturbation cast the first rhetotrical stone
Tim O'Leary | 6/8/2012 - 12:11am
Jim #1
Thanks for the link. I didn't know how explicit Sr. Farley was going against the faith. This information should be more available in the stories about her. At the very least, this is a case about ''Truth-in-Advertising'' as Sr. Farley and her supporters are acting like she is teaching Catholic doctrine, when these teachings are not even Christian. It was telling that she used the  the qualifier ''current'' before ''official catholic teaching.'' She has also been attacking the Magisterium long before the CDF got to this heterodoxy. And, she supported the abortion-promoting ''Catholics for Choice'' group. So, this is an open and shut case. The only criticism I have of the CDF is - what were they waiting for???

Maria #2
This is a beautiful video, very devotional and contemplative. Thanks for sharing.
Rick Malloy | 6/7/2012 - 9:36pm
Well said Ray.  The issue is that a sexual ethic derived from simply parroting church teaching is having little to no efficacy in helping people live their lives.  Margaret Farley's approach asks what is just, i.e., in right relationship, in order to evaluate moral choices.  Pedro Arrupe said faith without justice is a farce.  The same can be said about a sexual ethic.  A sexual ethics that ignores issues of justice is a farce.
Here's something from an article I wrote a while back( http://bustedhalo.com/features/just-sex )
**************
Margaret Farley, in her magisterial book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics locates love in real relationships and challenges us to live our sexual lives with others, according to the norms of justice.
Farley writes,

I propose a framework that is not justice and love, but justice in loving and in the actions that flow from that love. The most difficult question to be asked in developing a sexual ethic is not whether this or that sexual act in the abstract is morally good, but rather, when is sexual expression appropriate, morally good and just in a relationship of any kind.