Holy See Censures Mercy Sister’s Book

Content departs from Church teaching on sexual ethics.

WASHINGTON — The Vatican June 4 issued a strongly worded critique of a sexual ethics text written by Mercy Sister Margaret Farley, a retired Yale Divinity professor.
The five-page notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) regarding Just Love: A Framework for Christian Social Ethics (2006) determined that the book departed from key principles of Catholic sexual ethics and thus “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”
On March 16, Pope Benedict XVI approved the notification and ordered its publication.
Released June 4, the official statement noted that a series of letters to Sister Margaret, facilitated by the previous and present leaders of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, did not resolve the CDF’s efforts to stem the potential confusion generated by the author’s treatment of masturbation, same-sex relationships and divorce and remarriage.
The notification stated: “Sister Farley either ignores the constant teaching of the magisterium or, where it is occasionally mentioned, treats it as one opinion among others.”
It also stated that the author “manifests a defective understanding of the objective nature of the natural moral law, choosing instead to argue on the basis of conclusions selected from certain philosophical currents or from her own understanding of ‘contemporary experience.’ This approach is not consistent with authentic Catholic theology.”
The notification was signed by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF. The Vatican also released June 5 a statement by the cardinal, dated March 30.
“Among the many errors and ambiguities of this book are its positions on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage,” read Cardinal Levada’s statement.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas were prepared for the release of the CDF notification. The order’s website provided a number of statements responding to the news and included expressions of support for Sister Margaret by Yale colleagues and Catholic theologians.
The author is the past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
In her statement posted on the Sisters of Mercy website, Sister Margaret said she “did not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching. In the end, I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching. It is of a different genre altogether.”
In her statement, Sister Margaret expressed respect for the Vatican congregation, but suggested that it had misinterpreted the intent of her work.
The CDF, for its part, provided a wealth of hard evidence — specific examples culled from the book, accompanied by page citations — to bolster its critique of the author’s departure from received teaching on sexual ethics.
The CDF also challenged Sister Margaret’s treatment of homosexual acts and same-sex unions.
In Just Love, Sister Margaret stated, “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” (p. 295).
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith critique noted that Church teaching does distinguish between homosexual “tendencies and homosexual acts” and calls on the faithful to show “respect, compassion and sensitivity” to persons with same-sex attraction.
But the CDF reminded the faithful that “tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
Further, Just Love stated that same-sex “marriage” and civil unions “can also 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.”
But that stance, noted the CDF, offers a sharply contrasting vision of human sexuality from the continuity of Catholic teaching, which states that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
The Vatican document also cited the book’s problematic statements on divorce and remarriage. Just Love summarized the author’s “own view” that divorce “need not include a prohibition of remarriage — any more than the ongoing union between spouses after one of them has died prohibits a second marriage on the part of the one who still lives” (p. 310).
The Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have issued statements about a number of Catholic theologians. Last year, the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine released a statement criticizing a book written by Fordham University theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, expressing concern that her theology textbook was used in many undergraduate classes and could sow confusion about the faith.
Continuum is the publisher of Just Love, and Kara Zavada, the head of U.S. academic marketing for the publishing house’s works of theology, confirmed that it had “been used in college courses,” but could not provide sales numbers.
Meanwhile, the breaking news story has already fueled a new round of headlines. In a contentious election year, the Vatican’s censure of Catholic theologians is grist for partisan forces eager to frame such disputes for their own purposes.