Vatican criticizes ethicist nun for unorthodox book

Published June 5, 2012

Doctrinal watchdog has criticized the liberal opinions in Just Love by Yale’s Sister Margaret Farley. Photo: Shutterstock

For the second time in as many months, the Vatican has lashed out against an American nun. Critics are starting to ask if the Holy See is deliberately trying to muzzle women religious.

On Monday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog, published its “Notification Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley.” Farely is a member of the Sisters of Mercy.

The document, published online by the Vatican News Service, warns the faithful that the book-published in 2008 and written by a prominent U.S. theologian and former professor of Christina ethics at Yale Divinity School-“is not in conformity with the teaching of the church. Consequently it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counselling and formation, or in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.”

The Vatican began looking into the book’s contents in 2010 and in June 2011, a commission of experts confirmed that the “book contained erroneous propositions, the dissemination of which risks grave harm to the faithful.” Farley received a list of the erroneous propositions but her responses, did not adequately clarify the grave problems contained in her book.” Hence, this week’s notification.

According to the Vatican release, “Sr. Farley manifests a defective understanding of the objective nature of the natural moral law” regarding homosexuality as well as “…homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage.”

Farley writes that same-sex relationships can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities. Calling this opinion unacceptable, the Congregation document maintains that while homosexual people must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity and treated without discrimination, homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and contrary to the natural law. “They close the sexual act to the gift of life…Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

As for the indissolubility of marriage, Farley holds that a marriage commitment is subject to release. Not so, says the notification-even though the Sermon on the Mount allows a man to set aside his wife in the case of adultery. “By its very nature, conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses…Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice.’ The intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children, demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable union between them.”

The notification also challenges Farley’s position that divorced people may remarry: “This view contradicts Catholic teaching that excludes the possibility of remarriage after divorce…In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ…the church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was.”

In her response to the notification, Farley stated 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.

“Growing out of my work as a professor of Christian ethics at Yale University Divinity School, this book was designed to help people, especially Christians but also others, to think through their questions about human sexuality. It suggests the importance of moving from what frequently functions as a taboo morality to a morality and sexual ethics based on the discernment of what counts as wise, truthful, and recognizably just loves.”

She regretted that the Congregation did not take into account her arguments for her unorthodox stances.


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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