June 9, 2012
Bungles Response to Sexual Ethics Book
By MARY E.
Margaret A. Farleys fine theo-ethical work causes grave
harm to the faithful, Catholics live very graced lives.
War, poverty, ecocide, racism, colonialism, sex and gender injustices
of all sorts come to mind in the grave harm category.
But not in the wildest imagination of anyone other than a Vatican
bureaucrat would Dr. Farleys sexual ethics qualify. How
fortunate we are to have a scholar of her caliber, and how appropriate
that she is appreciated widely. Recent attention to her work only
serves to deepen her impact and broaden her audience; 24 hours
after news broke of the Vatican censure the book was propelled
from an Amazon ranking of 142,982 to 16.
The June 4th
Notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
(CDF) titled Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for
Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.,
left many scandalized by the intellectually embarrassing and morally
tawdry work of a group that obviously needs a permanent vacation.
William Cardinal Levada and company at the CDF are simply out
of their league theologically when it takes them 6 years (the
book was published in 2006) to comment on an important workand
they still get it wrong.
graduate student could have handled the analysis in a week. S/he
would have figured out that Dr. Farley was dealing with ethical
methodhow we frame and approach moral questionsnot
defending the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Grawemeyer
Award committee that chose Margaret for that prestigious and generous
prize ($200,000 is real money in the theological business) realized
Margaret was doing an outstanding job as a moral theologian in
the broad interreligious conversation that is now the gold standard
in the field.
who obviously have no clue about such matters, only embarrass
themselves by publishing their ignorance in six languages. They
leave the distinct impression that they are oblivious to the fact
that postmodern ethical analysis emerges from multi-disciplinary,
multi-religious discussions grounded in concrete actions for justice.
of Margaret Farleys stature must terrify the staff of the
CDF. She is, after all, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita
of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School; a past president
of the Catholic Theological Society of America which gave her
its highest award in 1992; as well as a past president of the
Society of Christian Ethics. Dr. Farley holds 11 honorary degrees.
In addition to 7 books, she has contributed more than 100 chapters
and papers to the field. Her lengthy resume of lectures, workshops,
and consultations attests to the fact that this modest woman of
quiet confidence is simply an excellent scholar.
Love is a standard ethics textbook
in many seminaries and universities
scholarly work is characterized by a careful, reasoned, realism
about the human condition. She brings a thorough grounding in
the Christian tradition with an emphasis on Catholic thought to
her books on commitment, embodiment, respect, and, the most recent
and controversial one, on love. Rather than embrace her project
and explore, as she does, the range of ways that good people try
to lovewith an emphasis on the demands of justice in every
intimate relationshipthe CDF theologians boiled down her
opus into five cherry-picked nuggets on sex and marriage that
reflect their priorities, not hers. They missed the forest for
the trees. Their statement is deeply insulting, not to mention
morally suspect, in that such a stellar scholars reputation
is impugned. As my mother would say, Consider the source.
I do not traffic
in ulterior motives, nor is it especially productive to speculate
on why Margaret Farley, like Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, a Sister of
St. Joseph of Brentwood and a theologian at Fordham University,
was singled out for scrutiny. But their canonical vulnerability
as members of an Institute of Consecrated Life plays
a significant role in their selection for negative attention.
There are other women theologians who are not members of congregations
whose views parallel, and in some instances outdistance, Dr. Farleys
on contested issues. They/we are simply not canonically vulnerable
in the same way.
men are hell-bent on reining in American nuns, if only to prove
that they can rein in somebody in a world that pays them increasingly
little heed. They fear that such intellectually powerful and theologically
persuasive women, who identify with the institutional Roman Catholic
Church through their membership in canonical communities, will
trump them in the public arena.
This is what
happened when Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, and
Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, parted company
with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops not once,
but twice, in the health care debates. Their Catholicism trumped
the Catholicism of the bishops in the minds of legislators and
perhaps of the President himself. So it is with Margaret and Elizabeth
that their well-reasoned, experience-encompassing, pastorally
sensitive work simply trumps the bishops tired repetition
of their own outdated thinking.
5 little points need no rehearsal. Her critics simply miss the
fact that Margaret Farley does not do ethics the way that they
do. She does not share their ethical priorities on what Catholic
moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire calls matters of the pelvic
zone. Her scope is justice writ largebeginning in
places where people are oppressed, violated, and demeaned. That
the Vatican places masturbation at the top of its list highlights
its perverted priorities in a deeply troubled world.
It is impossible
to imagine the discourse as the men took under their scholarly
consideration Margarets understated, but nonetheless robust,
affirmation of women finding great good in self-pleasuring
many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary
sexual relations with husbands or lovers (p. 236). I am
confident that this came as unwelcome news to many of the men
gathered. But the fact that they would dwell on it speaks volumes
about their ethics and their rapidly eroding power. Sexual power
is power, and more and more women have it. Apparently the struggle
to wrest it back is high on the agenda of those who live on the
110 acres called the Vatican.
A more adequate
understanding of Farleys theological project can be gleaned
by looking at 3 elements by which every scholar is measured: work,
students, and impact. Farleys work speaks for itself. Just
Love is a standard ethics textbook in many seminaries and universities.
Ironically, as noted earlier, it became a bestseller courtesy
of the Notification. Thanks, guys. Even in retirement, she is
a much sought after lecturer and writer whose wisdom has influence.
influence is on her countless grateful students. While I never
had the privilege of studying with her, many of my friends and
colleagues who did speak of her with just love. She
is rigorous to a fault, generous with her time and insights, and
encouraging of her student colleagues to think for themselves
outside the many boxes that litter academe. She is possessed of
a rectitude they seek to emulate.
Two such students,
Marie M. Fortune and Kate Ott, are sterling examples of Margarets
influence. Marie studied for the ministry at Yale Divinity School
in the early 1970s. Encouraged by Margaret, she branched out beyond
the parish to engage in specialized work with women who experience
violence. Dr. Fortune founded the Center for the Prevention of
Sexual and Domestic Violence, now the FaithTrust Institute, in
Seattle, Washington, a national, multicultural training
and education organization with global reach working to end sexual
and domestic violence. It is the go-to place for work on
religion and violence. Dr. Fortunes book, Love Does No Harm,
shows the strong influence of her professor and friend, Dr. Farley,
who preached at her ordination and encouraged her to work toward
a safer world.
who graduated from YDS in 2000 with a Master of Arts in Religion,
is another example of Margarets kind of scholar. She went
on to do a doctorate in Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological
Seminary, then joined the staff of the Religious Institute, whose
mission is to change the way America understands the relationship
of sexuality and religion. She directed a study entitled
Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health
and Justice, a very helpful push to schools to upgrade their
offerings in sex education. Dr. Otts current work on childrens
moral agency is founded on the kind of just love that
she learned from Margaret. The pattern is clear.
of Margaret Farleys work will be measured in many ways,
but none will be more accurate than an assessment of her long-term
commitment to women who live with HIV/AIDS in Africa. In 2002,
Margaret met with a group of African women theologians to discuss
the pandemic in sub-Sahara Africa where women are the vast majority
of those who suffer. The result was practical, not theoreticalthe
founding of a now-flourishing NGO, All-Africa Conference: Sister
to Sister, with support from Margarets community, the Sisters
of Mercy. She still makes regular visits to Uganda and Cameroon
to teach and learn as a collaborator.
brings together women religious so that they may address
the crisis of HIV and AIDS by listening to, learning from and
empowering one another to collaborate in strategies for prevention
and care in response to the pandemic. The essence of the AACSS
is the bonding that exists between Sister to Sister. Workshops,
retreats, classes and solidarity in country-specific forms all
strengthen women to break through the fear and shame and cope
with the pandemic both medically and spiritually. This work embodies
just love, and it has a broad, life-giving impact.
the Vaticans Notification has been forgotten, generations
will recognize that the HIV/AIDS pandemic occasioned a seismic
shift in moral theology. Real world experience drives the discussion.
Margaret Farleys name will forever be associated with Catholic
moral theology that does justice. Notify that!
this page to a friend!