Vatican Publishes Judgment Against Sexual Ethics Book

Sister Margaret Farley’s text ‘cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching,’ states a notification likely to fuel debate over the obligations of Catholic women religious.

Sister Margaret Farley
Sister Margaret Farley (photo: CNA US Catholic News)

WASHINGTON — The Vatican today 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, published in 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.”

In the wake of the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s notification will likely stir further debate about whether members of the Sisters of Mercy and other congregations of  women religious should obey the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops (as many solemnly vow to do) or embark on an autonomous path.



The notification was signed by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF. The Vatican also released today 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 today’s 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."

“[T]his book offers contemporary interpretations of traditional meanings for the human body, gender and sexuality. It aims to take account of both traditional and present-day scientific, philosophical, theological and biblical resources,” read her statement.

“Although my responses to some particular sexual ethical questions do depart from some traditional Christian responses, I have tried to show that they nonetheless reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights of these theological and moral traditions.”

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 notification quoted the author’s suggestion that masturbation “usually does not raise any moral questions at all. … It is surely the case that many women … have found great good in self-pleasuring — perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure — something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers. In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them.

“My final observation is, then, that the norms of justice as I have presented them would seem to apply to the choice of sexual self-pleasuring only insofar as this activity may help or harm, only insofar as it supports or limits, well-being and liberty of spirit. This remains largely an empirical question, not a moral one” (p. 236).”

The author’s position, the CDF concluded, “does not conform to Catholic teaching."

“Both the magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose,” read the Vatican notification.


‘Hatred of Gays’

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).

Sister Patricia “Pat” McDermott, the current president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, issued her own statement marking the CDF notification. She expressed “profound regret” that the document had been released, but made no attempt to explain her role in the two years of discussions between Sister Margaret and the Vatican, nor did she directly engage the concerns outlined in the CDF document.

“Sister Margaret has given witness to the highest quality of academic work and compassionate presence. She assiduously attempts to present the Catholic tradition as formative of her own rich experience while recognizing the ecumenical audience she often engages. While being faithful to her own faith tradition and commitments, her sensitivity to the varied circumstances, realities and needs of her students is the context she consistently honors,” read the statement.

The strongly supportive response noted that for “more than 50 years Margaret has given her life in exceptional scholarship and remarkable pastoral service to those who are most in need.”

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.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.



The Catechism Teaches …

Masturbation — “By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. ‘Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.’ For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of ‘the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved’” (2352).

Homosexuality — “Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, 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” (2357).

Divorce — “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:

If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery, and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another's husband to herself” (2384).

“Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.” (2385)

Formation of conscience — “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (1783).

“The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart” (1784).

“In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church (1785).


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