Just Love, Margaret Farley, and the Vatican
June 4, 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) released a Notification about Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Dr. Margaret Farley, R.S.M. A “notification,” for those who are unfamiliar with Roman Catholic doctrinal disputes, is the way the CDF makes public its judgment on matters related to doctrine.
As both a student and now colleague of Dr. Farley, I know firsthand that her scholarship and teaching are marked by precision, thoroughness, and a deep concern for the future of Christian ethics as well as faithfulness to the Roman Catholic community. In this context, she was not writing a Roman Catholic sexual ethic. Though, astute readers will most likely question how well their own faith tradition responds to the claims Farley makes in the book. Is that what the Vatican wants to prevent?
In my mind (and that of others) there is no doubt the Notification is yet another step by the CDF to reign in Roman Catholic religious women who produce superb theology that questions (directly and indirectly) the patriarchal, heterosexist doctrinal teachings. The Notification is problematic because it misses the aims of the book altogether. As we can see from Farley’s response to the Notification, the CDF misrepresents the intention of the book. She says, “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.”
And second, the Notification embodies contradictory practices within the Vatican as so ably pointed out by Michael Peppard at Commonweal. He raises similar issues pointed out by Farley with regard to naming legitimate sources for theological discourse, most especially, use of contemporary experience. Both note how well the book fits, even when not intended, within the Roman Catholic tradition of scholasticism and natural law. But M. Peppard takes it one step further to question “Who gets to say what?” He comments, “Pope Benedict XVI — writing under his scholarly name, Joseph Ratzinger — has published two books on Jesus of Nazareth. In the introductory pages and throughout the text, he makes clear that he speaks in these pages as an individual scholar . . .” Why does this not apply to all other moral theologians?
Farley is gracious, but direct in her response when pointing out, “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 aims of her work and the nature of its proposal are indeed a great resource for the church and its faithful people. That is why so many other academics have spoken out today, myself included, in response to the Notification. Our churches and seminaries desperately need examples of insightful, balanced, and grounded writings on sexuality and sexual ethics that do not dismiss, but take seriously current developments in the sciences, theology, and philosophy. Just Love does that! Is that what the Vatican wants to prevent?
Farley’s work influences many thoughtful people of faith across religious traditions. For example, Caroline Kline uses the book to consider Just Love in Mormon Marriage. I have used the book in over ten classes in ecumenical contexts, all yielding fruitful discussions. With regard to sexuality and sexual ethics specifically, the book models how to take seriously the obligation of moral discernment for the development of an informed conscience. Is that what the Vatican wants to prevent?
My hope is that the Notification will have the exact opposite effect the Vatican intends:
The book will get publicity.
More people will buy it.
More professors will teach it.
More of us will live into relationships of Just Love.