Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, the theological ethicist who wrote Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, said the church has “not gone far enough” on gender equality because “we still hear the cries of women, through the centuries and today.”
Farley’s comments are readily applicable to the movement for LGBT equality, too. After receiving the Catholic Theological Society of America’s (CTSA) Ann O’Hara Graff Memorial Award earlier this month, she told the gathered women theologians:
“Ideas oppress and repress. . .When the church’s secondary teachings cause sickness and death, there is something wrong with that teaching. . .Just as cultural practices may have been fine until they kill people, so the church’s teachings may have been fine, even harmless, until they kill people.”
Farley’s scholarship has greatly advanced efforts to expose and transform oppressive church teachings on sexuality and gender. For her efforts, Farley was censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012.
I wrote on Bondings 2.0 in April that, even more than ten years after her book was first published, Just Love is still a radical textthat challenges Catholics to reorient our church’s teachings and practices on sexuality towards justice. At CTSA’s 2017 meeting, Sr. Farley has once again spoke with precision and prophetic clarity about how Catholic theology can, should, and must serve better the people of God.
You can read a full report on Sr. Farley’s reception of the CTSA award at the National Catholic Reporter by clicking here.
This weekend, Catholics are gathering in Chicago for New Ways Ministry’s 8th National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” Today’s post reflects on Sister Margaret Farley’s groundbreaking work, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Farley, whose justice-oriented sexual ethic has greatly advanced the conversation on LGBT issues in the church, addressed Symposia in 1992, 1997, and 2007. She also received New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award in 2002.
Unsurprisingly, the 2010 Notification that Margaret Farley received from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about her book, Just Love, missed not only the forest for the trees; it missed the trees for the minutiae of their bark.
Far from engaging Farley’s vision, intentionally laid out as she weaves tradition with contemporary knowledge, the Notification issued is a poor, proof-texted engagement. But a reader more receptive to Farley’s work easily sees not only the forest, but the horizon to which this theological giant is leading, and gratefully joins the path towards it.
Questions of sexuality and gender have progressed rapidly in the decade or so since Just Love was published. Yet Farley’s insights, deeply drawn from her first section on traditions, still speak to new and emerging issues. [To read a summary of Just Love’s ethical principles, click here.]
One example of these issues is the Synod on the Family. The synod process made clear how inexperienced many Catholic bishops are at negotiating cross-cultural ethics.The Synod also raised an old question in a new way: In a truly global church, can the Vatican really pronounce on universal norms beyond the most fundamental of principles? In other words, are issues of family life, sexuality, and society today too complex and diverse for a one-size-fits-all approach?
Emerging churches, particularly in Africa, have resisted more permissive stances on sexuality with claims of “ideological colonization,” a term notably used by Francis, the church’s first pope from the Global South. Farley identifies the troubling dynamic driving many such claims: sexual control has been central to Western colonization and postcolonial regions are still grappling with this damaging legacy. Acknowledging these traumas is absent from magisterial discourse today, even as theologians have welcomed such necessary dialogue through international conferences such as Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church.
Another emerging issue is gender and its relation to sexuality, now hotly contested in many contexts due to the expansion of transgender rights. Farley’s technical treatment of intersex and trans identities needs some updating given new research in this area, but, more significantly, she remains open to the realities of such persons, writing that “[n]o one ought to pass judgement on any configurations of gender [emphasis added].” This outward-looking stance paired with compassion means her larger points retain their integrity.
No statement of Farley’s is more relevant for today, when “gender wars” are rapidly and harmfully intensifying, than when she observes that “[g]ender wars would cease if we saw that we are not ‘opposite’ sexes but persons with somewhat different (but, in fact, very similar!) bodies.” Farley’s sexual ethic, with its roots in justice, is wonderful for slowly shifting the conversation beyond a primary concern with whom one has physical intimacy (raising questions of sexual and/or gender identity) to a primary concern about how one has sexual intimacy (raising questions of bodies, abilities, pleasures, and participants).
Finally, though Just Love can and should speak to many emerging questions, conversations about consent could benefit greatly from her just sex framework. To the detriment of healthy sexual relationships, consent has been reduced to saying “no,” or under affirmative consent thinking, the absence of an active and enthusiastic “yes.” While such models are being used to educate youth and young adults, particularly in higher education, as correctives against society’s historical failure to address sexual violence, they are not adequate.
Despite their good intent, such models are actually doing harm because they employ a mechanical understanding of sexual acts that excludes context and relationality. Farley is clear that free consent and respect for bodily autonomy are minimal norms for just sex, but she is equally clear that sexual justice means more. She insists that sexual acts cannot be separated from the contexts in which they happen, and the foremost context is relationality. Incorporating Farley’s theory of sexual justice into understandings of consent would both help curb sexual violence and promote healthier relationships.
Ten years on, it is clear that Just Love’s relevance has only grown, and that Christian ethical reflection has yet to receive fully its wisdom. Farley’s writing is precise and thorough, reflecting the years she spent laying the foundations for her sexual ethic. Behind her clear argumentation are complex layers of meaning with which the reader must repeatedly grapple. Her closing section on contexts for just love, addressing matters like same-gender relationships and persons who are divorced and/or remarried, is really the springboard Farley provides for Christians to employ her framework in their own research, contexts, and lives.
But what may be most clear of all is that Vatican’s fears were, in one way, fully warranted. Just Love is a truly radical text, which, received more and more fully by Christians, has and will continue to alter radically our lives and the life of our churches. It lays before us a road to full equality for LGBT people, one recognizing the beauty of diverse sexual and gender identities, the goodness of same-gender sexual intimacy, and the gift that every family is to our church.
According to The Detroit Free Press, Sister Farley spoke to a group of 400 people at Mercy Center, Farmington Hills (a suburb of Detroit), at an event sponsored by “Elephants in the Living Room,” an organization of Detroit priests, lay people, and religious who provide forums for various contemporary topics.
Sister Farley’s theological work allows for approving committed sexual relationships between two people of the same gender, one of the reasons that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith censured the book in May 2012.
During her recent talk, she expressed hope for change in the pontificate of Pope Francis:
“ ‘He seems teachable,’ she said, and hoped he will listen to the many Catholic women who call for change.
“ ‘I think that women at this juncture are in some way key, because, for example, we do have the problem that there are not enough priests,’ Farley said. ‘I think that eventually it will be necessary to ordain married men and women, married or not. But how that development will finally take place, what the evolution will be, I don’t know.’ “
Sister Farley commented on her ability to speak on sexual ethics topics after having been censured by the Vatican:
“You just can’t back down and say, I apologize, because it would contradict one’s integrity. I didn’t decide never to talk again about the things that were problematic.”
Although she stated that the censure of the book was “minor, minor, trivial in a way,” she did acknowledge that it sends a discouraging message to other theologians. The Detroit Free Press article stated:
“The book’s censure perpetuates an atmosphere that stifles debate and ignores how changing human experience shapes the views of Catholics, she said.”
During her talk, she explained how her gay nephew, now deceased, was a role model for her:
“I have a beloved nephew who was all those things — wise, holy. And I’m absolutely certain that he was all those things because he grew up in our family. Our family could never have condemned him.”
Despite the Vatican’s censure of her book, Sister Farley was supported by an enormous outpouring of public statements from prominent Catholics. You can read about these statements here, here, here, and here.
Sister Farley has been a frequent supporter of New Ways Ministry, having spoken at three of our national symposiums and having given several workshops/retreats over the years. In 2002, New Ways Ministry presented her with its “Bridge Building Award” which recognizes people whose scholarship or pastoral leadership help to promote dialogue in the church on LGBT issues.
In June, Sister Farley was cited in a Notification from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for holding positions on various sexual matters, including same-sex relationships, which differ from the magisterium.
” ‘different from those currently taught by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church,’ theologians ‘communicate their findings not only to members within the Church but also to many others seeking to live justly in the pluralistic societies in which they live’ .”
” ‘In committing themselves to the theological task of faith seeking understanding, theologians frequently pose difficult questions in light of the lived experiences of the people of God,’ the statement continues.
“The statement also notes that ‘among the most challenging aspects of exploring such questions’ are ‘the deep divisions which plague not only our society but also our Church.’ ”
” ‘To heal the divisions in our polarized Church, we urgently encourage Catholic bishops and theologians to improve the ways in which they communicate with each other, and to collaborate in developing better structures and more transparent procedures to discuss theological differences in a more just and respectful manner,’ the statement concludes.
” ‘We, the Board Members of the CTS, have identified this important task as a priority in the coming year and look forward to discerning constructive ways forward.’ “
You can read the full statement, along with the names of the 12 signatories on the CTS website.
The NCR story notes that the CTS statement is the second one from an association of U.S. Catholic theologians in support of Sister Farley:
“On June 7, the board of the other membership society for theologians, the 1,500-member Catholic Theological Society of America, released a statement supporting Farley, saying the board was ‘especially concerned’ that the Vatican’s criticism of the theologian presents a limiting understanding of the role of Catholic theology.
“The statement was later endorsed by the society’s entire membership at its annual meeting June 8 in St. Louis.
“The statement said the Vatican’s move regarding Farley’s book ‘risks giving the impression that there can be no constructive role in the life of the Church for works of theology’ that attempt to:
‘give voice to the experience and concerns of ordinary believers’;
‘raise questions about the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions’; or
‘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,’ that statement continues.
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.”
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.”
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has issued a Notification which claims that the book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, professor emerita at Yale Divinity School, contains “erroneous propositions.” In particular the CDF notes that her positions on masturbation, homosexual relations, same-sex unions, and divorce and re-marriage are not consistent with official Catholic teaching. (You can read the full text of the Notification here.)
In her response to these charges, Sister Farley has stated:
“I appreciate the efforts made by the Congregation and its consultants, over several years, to evaluate positions articulated in that book, and I do 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.”
She explains her book’s genesis and general outline:
“Growing out of my work as a professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School, this book was designed to help people, especially Christians but also others, to think through their questions about human sexuality. It suggests the importance of moving from what frequently functions as a taboo morality to a morality and sexual ethics based on the discernment of what counts as wise, truthful, and recognizably just loves. 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. Whether through interpretation of biblical texts, or through an attempt to understand “concrete reality” (an approach at the heart of “natural law”), the fact that Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality seems to require that we at least examine the possibility of development in sexual ethics. This is what my book, Just Love, is about. “
Additionally, she highlights a general problem with the CDF’s critique, which shows how incomplete and unpersuasive their statement is:
“Again, I appreciate the work that the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have done. I only regret that in reporting my positions on select “Specific Problems” in sexual ethics, the Notification does not also consider my arguments for these positions. Nor does it render my positions in terms of the complex theoretical and practical contexts to which they are a response. Hence, I fear the Notification–while clear in its conclusions–misrepresents (perhaps unwittingly) the aims of my work and the nature of it as a proposal that might be in service of, not against, the church and its faithful people.”
The National Catholic Reporter is carrying the following news article on this story:
New Ways Ministry stands solidly behind Sister Margaret Farley’, whose combination of intelligence, compassion, and eloquence have been a gift to the Catholic Church and to all Christians who, with sincere hearts, are trying to understand the great gift of sexuality with which God has graced humanity. Her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, lays out a religious framework which mixes the best of our faith tradition with the most moral and humane forms of information that come from contemporary sources, including the lived experience of people.
Sister Farley’s vision is one that makes no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, noting that what is morally good for one group should be applied equally to the other. Moral emphasis in her theology is given not to the nature of any individual sexual act, but the quality of the relationship in which sexual activity is performed. She has corrected a long-standing error in theological approaches which has ignored the quality of relationships when discussing sexual activity. Her approach is not only ethically sound, but it also more accurately reflects the way that human beings experience sexuality, rather than relying on outdated, abstracted notions.
As a teacher and scholar at Yale University Divinity School, she has educated several generations of scholars and ministers, and her work will have a lasting influence in Catholic and Protestant churches long after the current leaders at the Vatican are out of office. As a frequent speaker at New Ways Ministry symposiums and events, she has made her theological acumen accessible to thousands of Catholics who are concerned about LGBT equality and justice. Our ministry has been greatly enriched by her presence and participation. We were delighted and proud to present her with our Bridge Building Award in 2002.
The Vatican’s trend over the last few decades of attempting to silence theologians and other thinkers whose ideas provide an opportunity for the church to grow is not a fair, Christian, or sustainable practice. It is a practice based in fear, which harms, not helps, the church. Dialogue with thinkers, not censure of them, is the method that will benefit our church and our world. Attempting to silence thought is a futile activity, as generations of tyrants and dictators have long since learned.
You can read statements in support of Sister Farley from the following people by clicking on the link: