Sister Margaret Farley, RSM
Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, the theologian whose 2006 book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics was recently censured by the Vatican, has been receiving an outpouring of support from various quarters in the Catholic Church. The Vatican’s criticism was due in part to the fact that Sister Farley argues for heterosexual and homosexual committed relationships to be treated equally in the moral sphere.
Most recently, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), the professional organizations of theologians in this country, issued a statement of support for Sister Farley at their recent national meeting.
The statement first supports her work and teaching ministry, recognizing her great influence:
“We, the undersigned members of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America, wish to note that Professor Farley is a highly respected member of the theological community. A former President of the CTSA and a recipient of the Society’s John Courtney Murray Award, she has devoted her life to teaching and writing on ethical issues and has done so in ways that have been reflective, measured, and wise. Her work has prompted a generation of theologians to think more deeply about the Christian meaning of personal relationships and the divine life of love that truly animates them. The judgment of the “Notification” that a number of Professor Farley’s stated positions are contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium is simply factual. In our judgment, however, Professor Farley’s purpose in her book is to raise and explore questions of keen concern to the faithful of the Church. Doing so is one very legitimate way of engaging in theological inquiry that has been practiced throughout the Catholic tradition.”
The second part of the statement questions the Vatican’s presumptions in their Notification which condemns the book, seeing these presumptions as dangerous to the theological enterprise:
“The Board is especially concerned with the understanding of the task of Catholic theology presented in the “Notification.” The “Notification” risks giving the impression that there can be no constructive role in the life of the Church for works of theology that 1) give voice to the experience and concerns of ordinary believers, 2) raise questions about the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions, and 3) offer alternative theological frameworks as potentially helpful contributions to the authentic development of doctrine. Such an understanding of the nature of theology inappropriately conflates the distinctive tasks of catechesis and theology. With regard to the subject matter of Professor Farley’s book, it is simply a matter of fact that faithful Catholics in every corner of the Church are raising ethical questions like those Professor Farley has addressed. In raising and exploring such questions with her customary sensitivity and judiciousness, Professor Farley has invited us to engage the Catholic tradition seriously and thoughtfully.”
Sister Farley had addressed the CTSA last week about the Vatican’s criticism against her. A National Catholic Reporter article quotes the gist of her argument through the following excerpts:
“We clearly have grown in many spheres of knowledge — about humans, about the way the universe runs. It seems reasonable … that if we come to know even a little bit more than we knew before, it might be that the conclusions that we had previously drawn need to be developed. Or maybe even let go of.
“Because it would be a contradiction to Roman Catholic frameworks for doing moral theology to say that we can’t. That would be to imply that we know everything we can know and there’s nothing more to be done. . . .
“My reasons for thinking its important for everyone to think about these issues is because people are suffering. All over the place, people are suffering.”
“Ending her talk, Farley asked what she called ‘profoundly important’ questions.
“ ‘The issue is, finally, in our tradition, is it a contradiction to have power settle questions of truth? Or to say we all have a capacity to know what we ought to do?’ asked Farley.
“We can make mistakes, we can disagree — but is it the case that natural law is let go when we really only know the answers because of grace of office? This is a profoundly important question in our tradition today.”
Fr. Charles Curran
In a National Catholic Reporter essay, another eminent Catholic theologian, Fr. Charles Curran, put the censure of Sister Farley into the wider context of the direction in which certain bishops and Vatican officials seem to be taking the Catholic Church:
“What is happening here is that the pope and the Vatican are more and more defending the idea of a remnant church — a small and pure church that sees itself often in opposition to the world around it. It seems as if church authorities are not concerned at all about those who leave the church. Any other organization would take strong action to remedy the loss of one-third of its members. But the remnant church sees itself as a strong church of true believers, and therefore is not worried by such departures.
“This concept of the church is opposed to the best understanding of the Catholic church. The word “catholic” by its very definition means big and universal. The church embraces both saints and sinners, rich and poor, female and male, and political conservatives and liberals. Yes, there are limits to what it means to be Catholic, but the “small ‘c’ catholic” understanding insists on the need to be as inclusive as possible. Many of us were deeply impressed by the gestures of Pope Benedict at the beginning of his papacy by reaching out for dialogue with both Hans Küng and Bishop Bernard Fellay, the head of the group originally founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Unfortunately, today, dialogue is still going on with Bishop Fellay, but not with Hans Küng.
Fr. Curran offers three important lessons from this case about how to understand authority in the church:
“First, the primary authority in the church is the Holy Spirit, who speaks in very diverse ways, and all others in the church, including office holders, must strive to listen to and discern the call of the Spirit.
“Second, the church has to put flesh on the understanding of Thomas Aquinas that something is commanded because it is good and not the other way around. Authority does not make something right or wrong. Authority must conform itself to what is true and good.
“Third, the danger for authority in the church is to claim too great a certitude for its teaching and proposals. Margaret Farley developed this point in a very significant essay, “Ethics, Ecclesiology, and the Grace of Self-Doubt.” The grasp for certitude too easily shuts the mind and sometimes closes the heart. The grace of self-doubt allows for epistemic humility, the basic condition for communal and individual moral discernment.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry