Most of you, by now, will know about the book by Sister Margaret Farley, R.S.M., whose 2006 book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, which rocketed from a ranking of 146,982 on Amazon to 16 (number 1 in religious studies) and sold out in three days (according to a Guardian report). Though delivering a stinging rebuke to Farley, now retired from her position as professor of Christian ethics a Yale Divinity School, the Vatican, through the Inquisition (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), issued a condemnation of the book, its many divergences from Catholic teaching and Sister Margaret’s “defective understanding of the objective nature of the objective moral law,” but does not intend any further discipline, since Sister Margaret has now retired from teaching (and, presumably, can do no further damage).
The quotation comes from the official “Notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.,” 04.06.2012. The primary author of the notification is William Cardinal Levada, whose name appears on the Notification, who, before being raised to the cardinalate in 2006 was the Archbishop of Portland (Oregon) (1986-1995) and Archbishop of San Francisco (1995-2005). Now, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (also known in the past as the Holy Office of the Inquisition), the present pope’s former position under Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła, and making pronouncements about Catholic sexual ethics, it is probably appropriate that we recall that, in 1985, Levada was presented a report compiled by a priest, Tom Doyle, head of a three-man panel, dealing with (according to Wikipedia) the “medical, legal, and moral issues posed by abusive clerics.” Doyle asked that the report be presented to a meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and was turned down. Levada himself, in an 2008 interview, stated without qualification:
I personally do not accept that there has been a broad base of bishops guilty of aiding and abetting pedophiles… If I thought there were, I would certainly want to talk to them about that.
Father Doyle said, in response:
I vividly recall briefing Levada in May, 1985 when he was an auxiliary bishop, about the sexual abuse crisis. I also have seen volumes of documents and sworn testimony from depositions that clearly shows that most, probably all, bishops clearly knew that priests were raping and otherwise sexually abusing kids as far back as the 40′s….and I limit it to that era because I have not gone beyond that in studying documents. So, Levada’s statement is either an outright lie or evidence of a very narrow understanding and perception of reality.
Yet this is the man who now presumes to condemn Sister Margaret Farley for her stand on various aspects of sexual ethics! It is only fair to remember this, and to recall that, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine the Faith, the man who is now pope joined cause with Levada in covering up the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests and other religious in worldwide Roman Catholic Church. There is scarcely a country in which this abuse did not happen under cover of the pretence of sanctity.
Yet now, Levada, one-time participant in one of the largest criminal conspiracies in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, dares to speak of the objective moral law, and Sister Margaret Farley’s defective understanding of it! The mind reels at the thought! What is more serious, if anything, is the church’s continued misunderstanding of ethics, and its foundation. Borrowing its ethical system from Aristotle, by way of Aquinas, the Roman Catholic Church believes that there is an objective moral law that we can not only know, but know with absolute certainty, and that this law never changes, and cannot change. In the Roman Catholic natural law theory of morality, moral laws are written into the structure of the universe just as surely as are the laws of physics. There can, therefore, not be even a shadow of turning in the moral law. It stands forever, and is known by the Church’s Magisterium, which is, according to the Notification:
the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter, which guides the Church’s ever deeper understanding of the Word of God as found in Holy Scripture and handed on faithfully in the Church’s living tradition. (sec. 1. General Problems)
Immediately the Notification goes on to say that
Sister Margaret Farley either ignores the constant teaching of the Magisterium, or, where it is occasionally mentioned, treats it as one opinion among others. [my italics]
Note the juxtaposition of ‘living’ and ‘constant’. The Church’s living tradition is constant, that is, it does not change, and yet the Magisterium guides us to an “ever deeper understanding of the Word of God.”
Something is seriously amiss here. Either the tradition is a living one — that is, it takes place within a living community of discourse, where disagreements, corrections, new approaches, reasoned arguments take place — or it is a dogmatic one, where the tradition never changes, and can be used, at the whim of those with the authority, to condemn any teaching of which they disapprove. For instance, in the matter of sexual ethics, the position of the Magisterium seems to be fixed and immovable. It is simply impossible, on any grounds, to argue for something that has been determined to be a part of the Magisterium. In consequence, it seems to the guardians of the Magisterium that Sister Farley chooses
to argue on the basis of conclusions selected from certain philosophical currents or from her own understanding of “contemporary experience.” This approach is not consistent with authentic Catholic theology. [Ibid.]
Well, that puts an end to that, doesn’t it? According to a New York Times article about the Vatican scolding of Sister Margaret (who is, as it happens, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America), Sister Margaret says, quite simply:
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.
The NYT report goes on to say that, according to Sister Margaret
the book offers “contemporary interpretations” of justice and fairness in human sexual relations, moving away from a “taboo morality” and drawing on “present-day scientific, philosophical, theological, and biblical resources.”
Note that last bit carefully. Drawing on “present-day scientific, philosophical, theological, and biblical resources,” the book offers expression to contemporary interpretations of justice and fairness in sexual relations.
If the Catholic tradition claims to be living, then it ought to be able to accommodate contemporary understandings of what is just and fair in sexual relationship. Many things have changed since Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles, and other works which, after an initial finding of heresy, qualified him to be named a Doctor of the Church, and his theology to be regarded, even now, as the basis of Roman Catholic theology as understood by the Magisterium. The organisation which was able to accommodate Aquinas, and accept his theological findings, based on his contemporary experience of understanding and knowledge, can no longer accommodate “present-day scientific, philosophical, theological and biblical resources.”
Incidentally, it is worth remarking here that when people like John Haught or Frances Collins suggest that there is no conflict between religion and science they simply ignore realms of critical discourse, such as philosophy, biblical and other textual studies, history, and so much else. It’s easy to put a religious gloss on science, to give the appearance of a détente between religion and science, when it is anything but that, but it is impossible to give free rein to critical study that pertains directly to those disciplines upon which the church’s faith is based. In other words, accommodationist nonsense is approved, but critical thought about the church’s teachings cannot be approved unless it meets rigorous standards, based on already defined conclusions. A church claiming that its faith is consistent with science cannot be allowed to get away with simply dismissing other forms of critical thought without that dismissal colouring its claim to the consistency of faith and science. While philosophy, the historical and textual study of the Bible, and the study of history are themselves not sciences (in the common understanding of that word), they are continuous with science in demanding epistemic justification for their conclusions. If the church does not permit the free play of intelligence and argument to apply to theology, then its much vaunted claim to the consistency of theology with science must be considered empty. It cannot pretend to consistency with one area of critical discourse, without accepting the legitimacy of critical thinking in respect of those things that underlie faith. Critical thinking trumps dogmatism, especially if the church wants to claim consistency between faith and reason or science.
An example of the church’s dogmatism can be seen in its claim to papal primacy, and the basis upon which this claim is made. Thus, despite the fact that the Donation of Constantine was known to be a forgery, nothing changed with respect to the pope’s claim — and his continuing claim — to plenary spiritual authority. Of course, the popes also claim to be successors of St. Peter, but there is no evidence that Peter was ever bishop of Rome, or that, despite the supposition that Jesus said “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” (Mat 16.18) there is simply no evidence whatever that (i) Jesus intended to found a church, and (ii) that Peter was ever the head of it. This is unquestionably a later interpolation, when the presumed Parousia (Second Coming) did not occur as expected. Without the forged “Donation” the pope’s claim to primacy really as no basis. The only thing left is the Jesus myth, and a completely unhistorical claim that popes receive their primacy through direct descendence from Peter. The apparatus of papal authority, though it looks impressive today, was simply the outgrowth of the fact that Rome was the capital of the Empire (until Constantinople was built and the Empire was split into an Eastern and a Western part ruled by separate Caesars), and the lucky accident that some of the early bishops of Rome were men of commanding stature. The pretence of papal supremacy, and the even more ridiculous claim that the pope is the Vicar — the stand-in – of Christ on earth, is not only a source of corruption and lust for power, it has virtually frozen the Vatican in time, making it incapable of being a living part of culture, or responding to new understandings of human relationships, or of what contributes to human flourishing.
This is clear in its condemnation of Sister Margaret. Unable to adapt itself to new situations, it holds on for dear life to conceptions which were never genuinely helpful to people in living out their lives with care and responsibility. The objections of the church hinge on the belief that sex is for procreation — full stop. The use of sex and sexuality for any other purpose is considered to be disordered, and the suggestion, by a Catholic ethicist, that there may be some justification for other uses of sexuality is not only confusing but, in the view of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dangerous: it risks, as we have seen, “grave harm to the faithful.” Sister Margaret was given a list ”erroneous propositions,” with an invitation “to correct the unacceptable theses contained in her book.” We are told that Sister Margaret’s response, “having been examined by the commission of experts,” “did not adequately clarify the grave problems contained in her book.” As a consequence, this expert opinion, having been put before the Congregation, the Congregation “decided to proceed with the publication of this Notification.” We are not told whether there was any attempt to clarify the positions, or whether the experts used reason in dialogue with Sister Margaret. It seems, rather, that the opinions expressed in the book were judged by the experts to be not only erroneous, but such as to demonstrate “a defective understanding of the objective nature of the natural moral law.”
It has to be said that there is scant support for an objective natural moral law in contemporary ethical philosophy. The claim that morality is grounded in the nature of things, especially since the things which pertain to morality, namely, human life and society, are in a process of constant change, even sometimes of genuine moral progress, is to make a claim to be in possession of a form of reasoning which is superior to all the reasoning which takes place on the basis of the evolving nature of human beings and human societies. It is as much as to suggest that there is no change, and can be no change, between, say, a feudal society, and an early 21st century democratic, capitalist one, a claim that is, on the face of it, ridiculous. Trying to impose ancient systems of moral law on contemporary human relationships is a recipe for moral disaster. The fact that the church itself has been at the centre of a moral maelstrom over the sexual abuse of children, and the multiple failures of the church’s leaders to deal effectively, and morally, with the problem of sexually abuse, is a clear sign that the church has lost its moral way. Blaming the problem on the devil, or on modern relativism — going so far in this direction as to suggest that in the 1970s child porn was considered almost normal – as the church has done, is ridiculous. It is the church’s failure to recognise that morality is a human, and not a divine project, that is chiefly at fault. And it was Sister Margaret Farley’s recognition of the humanity of the ethical project, and its concern for fairness and justice that distinguishes her ethics from the calcified product of the Vatican.
I know that I am pressing the limits for length, so let me bring his quickly to a close. What errors did Sister Margaret commit in her book? She suggested, for one, that masturbation might be, not “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” as the Notification says, and the Magisterium teaches, because it is essentially contrary to the purpose of “the sexual faculty” to be used outside of marriage. Even within marriage, as we know, the Magisterium holds that in the act of sex no obstacle to conception may be employed. Sister Margaret, on the other hand, holds that masturbation, by familiarising the person with what is actually sexually pleasing to him or to her, might actually serve “relationships rather than hindering them” (from sec. 2. Specific Problems; Masturbation).
As to homosexuality, Sister Margaret wrote:
My own view… is that same-sex relationships can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities. Therefore, same-se oriented person as well as their activities can and should be respected whether or not they have a choice to be otherwise. [sec 2. Specific Problems: Masturbation]
The Catechism of the Catholic Church,however, states clearly that homosexual acts are “acts of great depravity” and “contrary to the natural law,” as the Notification goes on to say. At the same time homosexual persons ”must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” [CCC, 2358] No one has yet pointed out how you can accept someone with respect, compassion and sensitivity while considering that to act according to their nature would be to be depraved and contrary to natural law. And Sister Margaret goes even further and say that whether or not it is a choice or a given, the same-sex acts should be respected, and not only should they be respected, but the union of two persons of the same sex should be provided for by legislation, and that such legislation
can also be important in transforming the hatred, rejection, and stigmatization of gays and lesbians that is still being reinforced by teachings of ‘unnatural’ sex, disordered desire, and dangerous love. [sec. 2. Specific Problems: Homosexual Unions]
This should be obvious to anyone, even to members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but apparently it is not. They still think that you can speak about the unnaturalness of same-sex sexuality, of disordered desire, and yet accept gay and lesbian persons with respect. They really are just that silly.
I shan’t spend much more time on Sister Margaret’s book. The conclusions to which she comes contemporary society arrived at some time ago, and for most people they will occasion no surprise. She thinks we should acknowledge that sometimes, the bond of married people, who have pledged themselves each to each for life, “may cease to bind.” Love, as the Notification says, may “seek to be definitive,” but through the changes and chances of ordinary life this does not always happen. Too much has changed. People grow apart. Sometimes they learn, too late, that they do not like each other. The Notification says that this does not matter, because marriage is modelled on “the fidelity of God to his covenant, in that of Christ to his Church.” (sec. 2: Specific Problems: Indissolubility of Marriage) The Notification even says that Jesus insisted on the indissolubility of marriage, even though Matthew 19.9 quotes Jesus as saying that anyone who divorces his wife (note the assumed patriarchy behind this saying), except for unchastity, and then marries another, commits adultery. Of course, this doesn’t give any scope for other forms of marriage breakdown, but it is untrue that Jesus insisted on the indissolubility of marriage. But we have moved a long way, morally, from the time when people were bound to each other for life, no matter what. Again, the Notification takes the hard line: those who divorce and remarry “find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law.” (sec. 2: Specific Problems: Divorce and Remarriage)
I have met women who have been divorced by their partners, who want to remain faithful to their church and its teachings, and yet are prevented, by the teachings of the church, to remarry. The only option to them — and it is almost always an option — is to have their earlier marriages decreed null and void. Many of them, with children, and after many years of marriage, are not prepared to do this. The sensible answer, it seems, would be to leave the church, but for some this is simply not an option, but the church itself will conspire with them to declare something that is not true: that they were never married. This allows them to marry again without the stigma of adultery hanging over them, and without the excommunication which such remarriage would bring in its train. So the church will permit divorced partners, male or female, to lie about their former marriage, and the church will lie too, in order to fulfil the letter of the law, if not its meaning or purpose. The church knows that human relationships sometimes fail, and when they do there appears to be sufficient reason to declare that their was no marriage, regardless of the years of marriage, or the children born to the marriage. The solution is unfair and unjust, and yet the church prefers this to recognising that the church itself has been in error all these years. Better to burden lay people with its mistakes than to accept that even the church can be wrong.
But of course the church can be wrong, as it has been revealing in spades over the last few years. Indeed, the indefectiblity of the church is a myth. It is known to be a myth, but it is such a fruitful myth that it dare not tell the truth about itself. The devil may be still at work, but the church remains the spotless bride of Christ until the day of his return. It’s all a monstrous scam. Does Sister Margaret, I wonder, see this now?