June 4th, 2012
01:20 PM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
A few years ago I sat on a book prize jury and weighed the merits of the book "Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics" by Margaret A. Farley, a nun in the Sisters of Mercy order. I thought it was well-researched and well-argued, and I was not surprised when it won the 2008 Grawemeyer Award in Religion (and with it a $200,000 prize).
On May 21, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith forwarded to Sister Patricia McDermott, president of Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a Notification condemning Farley's "Just Love." On Monday, the Vatican published that Notification online.
Not surprisingly, the matter preoccupying the Vatican here is not poverty or hunger or oppression. It is sex.
“Among the many errors and ambiguities of this book,” concludes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “are its positions on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage."
"Just Love" surveys sexual ethics from various philosophical, historical, religious and anthropological perspectives before turning to its central topic: the ethics of love and sex.
When it comes to love, Farley argues, love itself is not enough. “The question ultimately is, what is a right love, and a good, just, and true love?” she writes.
Her answer? Love is just when it meets three criteria: “it is a true response to the reality of the beloved, a genuine union between the one who loves and the one loved, and an accurate and adequate affective affirmation of the loved.” In short, “persons are not to be loved as if they were things.”
Turning to the ethics of sex, Farley advances a parallel argument, though this time she articulates seven norms: “do no unjust harm,” “free consent of partners,” “mutuality,” “equality,” “commitment,” “fruitfulness” and “social justice.”
So if you are looking for a libertine line here, you are not going to get one. But as the Vatican noticed and Farley herself admitted in a statement Monday, this is not toeing the traditional Catholic line, either.
Instead of grounding her thinking here simply in scripture and tradition, Farley draws as well on secular perspectives and contemporary experience. And she is alive to the possibility that same-sex relationships can meet her criteria for justice, including that of “fruitfulness,” rightly understood.
Once again, I must admit that I cannot make sense of what the Vatican is doing here.
In recent weeks, the Roman Catholic Church has gone after U.S. nuns for fighting poverty rather than fighting gay sex. Now, the Vatican is targeting a nun individually.
A cynic might say that the Church is trying to distract us from a sexual abuse scandal that continues to fester. If so, it isn't working, and few are buying the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's claim that Farley is somehow a renegade Catholic whose writings must be shunned by the faithful.
Dozens of theologians are supporting her publicly, noting (among other things) that the Vatican didn't even do Farley the courtesy of meeting her argument with an argument of its own. Meanwhile, McDermott has expressed the “profound regret” of the Sisters of Mercy over the Vatican’s decision to issue a Notification against the book.
As I took "Just Love" down from my bookshelf Monday morning and paged through its arguments, what stopped me up short was this introductory passage:
Farley goes on to argue for the importance of thinking and writing about sex, since we "frequently harm or betray ourselves and one another precisely as sexual beings." But the point stands. As does this question: Why is the Vatican so focused on an issue Jesus himself almost entirely ignored?
I acknowledge the right of the Roman Catholic Church to police the thinking and writing of its own. But I will continue to be disappointed by the Vatican until it shows me that it is at least as concerned with economic and social justice as it is with masturbation and gay sex.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.