Yesterday’s news that the Vatican has censured Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, the groundbreaking theological work of Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, a retired professor at Yale Divinity School, has evoked numerous responses in support of this theologian.
Perhaps the most telling response came in a tweet from Commonweal magazine’s Grant Gallicho, who posted the following message on Twitter yesterday:
“And now the Vatican-condemned book by Sr. Margaret Farley has reached 138 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Up from 147,982 just a few hours ago.”
According to another one of his tweets, the book eventually reached the #21 position.
The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) carried an article about the confidential letter (which they received from several anonymous sources) that Sister Patricia McDermott, President of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, sent out to Mercy nuns. The text of the letter is compassionately supportive of Sister Farley. NCR reports:
“Acknowledging that many will be ‘deeply saddened’ by Monday’s announcement of the Vatican’s criticism of Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, the head of the global Mercy order has asked her sisters for their ‘careful and compassionate accompanying’ of those discouraged by the move.
” ‘I am sure that some of you will be angered and frustrated by this news and I totally understand your feelings and thoughts,’ writes Sr. Patricia McDermott, the president of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, in a letter addressed to all Mercy sisters and lay associates.
” ‘I have no doubt that many in our Church — including theologians, ethicists, pastoral ministers and concerned laity — will also be distressed with the public statement by [the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.]
” ‘I ask for your careful and compassionate accompanying of Margaret during this time as well as for those who will be saddened and discouraged by this announcement.’ “
Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, co-founder of New Ways Ministry and someone personally familiar with Vatican censure, offered this response to the news:
“The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) may have determined that Sister Margaret Farley’s book, Just Love, is a source of confusion to the Catholic faithful, but my 40 years of pastoral experience in working with lesbian and gay Catholics and their families contradicts this judgment. This book and Sister Margaret’s other writings and presentations have brought common sense and balance to a world in which sexuality is treated either too casually or too rigorously. Farley’s work has put sex in the human context of relationship, instead of hedonism or narrow functionalism.
“What a pity that Vatican II did not complete its work of reform of the Roman curia. The CDF could serve the Church as an international body that would draw together the world’s leading theologians to discuss pressing social and ethical issues. How tragic that its power is being wasted and abused.”
NCR columnist Jamie Manson, who served as Sister Farley’s research assistant for two years at Yale, has published an essay which gives an excellent and thorough explication of the theologian’s method and positions in Just Love. For those interested in learning more about Sister Farley’s thought, this piece is an excellent introduction. Manson concludes with the statements:
“It is tragic that the bishops cannot accept the spirit in which Margaret Farley wrote Just Love. The book addresses moral questions that affect not only all members of the faithful, but the ethical dilemmas that affect members of the hierarchy themselves.
“If members of the CDF had the courage to read book with an open, honest understanding of their own human reality, they might recognize that Farley’s intention was not sow seeds of dissent, but to offer the fruits of love and justice to those seeking a fuller integration of their bodies and spirits.”
Equally Blessed, a coalition of faithful Catholics who support justice and equality for LGBT people (comprised of Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, New Ways Ministry) issued the following statement:
“We are saddened, but not surprised that the Roman Catholic hierarchy has found fault with the valuable work of yet another female theologian.
“The Vatican’s legalistic parsing of Sister Margaret Farley’s work will only enhance her well-deserved reputation as a gifted scholar. Rome’s attempt to steer Catholics away from Just Love will serve instead as a recommendation for all those who seek a sexual ethic rooted in justice and mutuality, rather than in platitudes and abstractions. The positions Sr. Margaret articulates resonates with many Catholics, who seek to live out the values of our faith in the context of real life.
“We applaud particularly Sister Margaret’s understanding that “same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships.” As always, when differing with the hierarchy she makes it clear that this is purely her personal opinion. Yet the scholarly care with which she reaches it will be persuasive to Catholic readers who do not believe the Vatican’s claim that intellectual inquiry is unnecessary because the truth is what the Vatican says it is.
“We are hopeful that Sister Margaret’s strong body of work will inspire and encourage other Catholic theologians to continue this kind of research.”
In a blog post on the dotCommonweal blog, Michael Peppard, a professor of early Christianity, offers a good chronology of the investigation of Sister Farley’s work and also a critique of the Vatican’s comments on it. His conclusion:
“If even the Pope — whose every word and move is watched globally — is permitted to step out of his office and write as a spiritual seeker and theologian, what about a woman religious with a Ph.D. and forty years’ experience in the classroom? The Pope draws from contemporary philosophical currents (historical criticism derived from an Enlightenment consciousness) and contemporary experience (of anti-Semitism and its horrific effects) in the course of his presentation of Jesus. Just as with the Pope’s books on Jesus, attentive readers of Sr. Farley’s book on ethics know that she clearly states when she is speaking her own opinion about the principles of just relationships. It’s hard to imagine how Catholic readers would be in danger of mistaking her assessments for those of the Catechism. And after over forty years as a professor at a prominent seminary, Sr. Farley knows that she is not giving the faithful questions that they don’t already have. The faithful know what the Catechism says, and if we don’t, it’s easy to find out. But the faithful also have close, personal experiences with faithful Christians who, for example: divorced a spouse because the relationship was unjust and causing grave harm; or lived in a relationship of vastly unequal power and wanted to end it but couldn’t; or were raised from childhood to be men or women of stalwart faith and morality by their faithful parents, who happened to be of the same sex. Sr. Farley’s book results from years of study and witness to the questions raised by men and women who tried to live their Christian lives with faithfulness and righteousness.”
On America magazine’s In All Things blog, Fr. James Martin, SJ, writes the following praise of Sister Farley in his most recent post:
“Margaret Farley is an immensely well respected theologian and scholar, and is a revered mentor for many Catholic theologians. It would be difficult to overstate her influence in the field of sexual ethics, or the esteem in which she is held by her colleagues. With this stinging critique, the Vatican has again signaled its concern about theologians writing about sexual morality. This Notification will certainly sadden Sister Margaret’s many colleagues, her generations of students, and those many Catholics who have profited by her decades of reflection on the faith. It will also, inevitably, raise strong emotions among those who already feel buffeted by the Vatican’s Apostolic Visitation of Catholic sisters in the US, and its intervention into the LCWR”
These recent statements supporting Sister Farley join the chorus of theologians who responded yesterday as the news broke.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry