By David Kerr
The Vatican has declared that a book on sexual morality written by a controversial American sister runs so contrary to Church teaching that it cannot be considered Catholic.
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expresses profound regret that a member of an Institute of Consecrated Life, Sr. Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M., affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality,” says the notification, issued in Rome on June 4.
The decision follows a two-year audit of Sr. Farley’s book “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” which argues against the Church’s teaching on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions and marriage. The Sister of Mercy and emeritus professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School published her book in 2006.
The audit found that “Just Love” did not present “a correct understanding of the role of the Church’s Magisterium as the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter” but, instead, presented it as just “one opinion among others.”
It further concluded that Sr. Farley’s work rejected “the objective nature of the natural moral law,” choosing instead to argue “on the basis of conclusions selected from certain philosophical currents” or “from her own understanding of ‘contemporary experience.’”
The issuing of a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is both significant and infrequent.
Highlighting some specific areas of concern, the congregation noted that Sr. Farley argued in her book that masturbation “usually does not raise any moral questions at all.”
She also suggested that homosexual acts “can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships,” while homosexual civil unions “can also be important in transforming the hatred, rejection, and stigmatization of gays and lesbians” that is reinforced by “teachings of ‘unnatural’ sex, disordered desire, and dangerous love.”
On marriage, Sr. Farley’s book proposed that re-marriage should not be prohibited “any more than the ongoing union between spouses after one of them has died prohibits a second marriage.”
Despite discussions that lasted three years, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded that Sr. Farley “did not adequately clarify the grave problems contained in her book,” which would have prevented the publication of today’s notification.
In response, Sr. Farley said June 4 that she “appreciated the efforts made by the Congregation and its consultants” and did “not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching.”
She also stated that her book “was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching” but as a way of offering “contemporary interpretations of traditional meanings for the human body, gender and sexuality.”
Her religious congregation, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, also expressed its “profound regret” at the decision against the work of “a highly respected and valued member.”
“While being faithful to her own faith tradition and commitments, her sensitivity to the varied circumstances, realities and needs of her students is the context she consistently honors,” said the order’s president, Sr. Patricia McDermott, in a June 4 statement.
Today’s ruling means that the book “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation,” as the dissemination of such ideas “risks grave harm to the faithful.” The book also cannot be used in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues.