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My Take: Vatican is unjust to condemn nun's 'Just Love'
The Vatican publicized its condemnation of Sister Margaret Farley on Monday.
June 4th, 2012
01:20 PM ET

My Take: Vatican is unjust to condemn nun's 'Just Love'

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:

In Western culture, at least since its Christian formation, there has been a perduring tendency to give too much importance to the morality of sex. The sexual has threatened to take over the moral focus of whole generations of persons. Everything about the “sexual” is considered “moral” or “immoral,” and “morality” is almost reduced to “sexual morality.” All of this is to the detriment of concerns about economic justice, the oppression of whole peoples, political dishonesty, and even theft and the taking of life.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Ethics • Homosexuality • Opinion • Same-sex marriage • Sexuality • United States • Vatican

soundoff (577 Responses)
  1. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Would you debate with someone who argues that the sky is yellow, up is down, left is right, a tree is a lamp, or black is white? You debating with this person would leave both parties looking like fools. Christians please stop wasting your time on people who argue that our world and galaxy was made from nothing/has no Creator. I honestly believe that many years ago no one predicted that the world would get bad to the point that people are debating that this perfect system of life is a coincidence. Christians dont indulge in foolishness.
    Romans 1:20-"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
    John 3:16-"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
    “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.” Albert Camus

    July 9, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  2. justinstl

    The church is just a business,,,full og greed and corruption. Look at the chuch's wealth....if the chuch cared about people or their souls there would be NO HOMELESS OR HUNGRY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD PERIOD! God does not need money people do!

    July 8, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  3. MRS

    It's not the Vatican that condemns her, it's God. Church leaders don't assemble somewhere and discuss right or wrong in an attempt to control people. They teach the truth of God's Word. Anyone who asserts that the Church is condemning anyone simply doesn't understand that God is the arbiter through His Son Jesus Christ. God has set before us what is right and what is wrong and Jesus is worthy to judge us since he gave His life to atone for our sin. If we choose against what the Bible teaches without confession and repentance we gamble with our soul. Church officials, including nuns are held to a higher standard and this woman's teaching against God's Word puts her in awful peril.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Well it seems god's word likes to change a lot.

      July 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • justinstl

      The problem with that statement is that you assume what the church and bible tells you is Gods will/law. There is no proof or truth to any of the bibles writings. The bible was written by man thought up by man. Just because they say that's how it is does not mean that's how it is.

      July 8, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • J

      The unfortunate fallacy here is that you equate the pronouncements of the Catholic Church establishment, or any religious organization's leadership (depending on your denominational tendency), with divine truth, which simply cannot be the case. The Church, as defined in the Bible, is simply the whole body of believers, the head of which is Christ. Therefore, unless you are proclaiming a certain individual is Jesus, it is logically and theologically impossible to say that the judgments of an individual are those of God.
      Without going into the merits of this nun's theology, every Christian must needs to caution him or herself about the infallibility of a single person's teachings. The pharisee's and sadducees of Jesus' day firmly believed they were preaching the word of God as well. And yet, if you are a Christian, you have already disavowed them as false teachers. Test everything with fire, so that only that which is good and true remains. It may be that this nun is mistaken, but you should not presume that either you, or the leaders of the Church, ANY denomination, are right in doctrine or theology. The simple fact that the Church has undergone immense reform/revolution on its own is evidence of this. (For instance, Papal supremacy and infallibility did not emerge until well into the history of Christianity, after the splitting of the Roman Empire forced the Patriarch of Rome to abandon the traditional consensus model of decision and pronounce theological decrees on his own)

      July 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  4. Dorothy

    The Sisters of Mercy have a long history of being advocates for social justice, of being scholars, of being educators, of caring for the poor and disenfranchised. The Catholic hierarchy has a long history of being an embarrassment to the Church – from the recent scandals to the inquisition to the crusades to the condemnation of empirical evidence such as the work of Galileo........and oh yeah, the work of Sister Margaret Farley. I think I would throw my lot in with Sister.

    June 26, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  5. Joshua Richardson

    I was watching the news cast and I noticed that instead of saying religous they were saying catholic. I am catholic but to keep on saying what is it like to be converted into a catholic why couldn't they say becomeing religous, Christianity is not the only religion.

    June 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Infidel83

    Im sure if the ol pope sold off some of that huge estate he has and property, investments, etc... it would fund a lot of irrigation programs in 3rd world countries. But then again you cant argue with a fanatic so I'm sure this post will get slammed by someone.

    June 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Amanda Wolf

      i AGREE WITH YOU, THE FANATIC CHISTIANS AND MORMONS ARE CORNERED AND ALL UP IN ARMS, THE LISTEN TO NO WISE REASONS.

      June 21, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  7. jone

    Easy solution, if you don't like the Catholic Church then don't join it. THere are plenty of other faiths out there, but I suspect this is just that sublte brand of CHristian bashing that liberal journalists love to engage in.

    June 16, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Amanda Wolf

      RATHER, THE VATICAN IS VERY DEFENSIIVE AND OFFENSIVE, THAT SHOWS THEY ARE AT THE BRINK OF THE PRECIPICE AND THEIR OWN FALL 😉 THEY SEEM DESPERATE.

      June 21, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Amanda Wolf

      NOT AT ALL, THE WRITER EXPRESSED HIS FREE OPINION, THAT IS HIS CIVIL RIGHT TO GIVE HIS OPINION, PLUS HE INFORMED US ABOUT THE POPE'S RESPONSE TO DISSENT FROM ANOTHER CHRISTIAN. SO WE REALIZE HOW THE VATICAN DEALS WITH PEACEFUL DISSENT. YOUR POPE IS FORBIDING A BASIC FREEDOM LIKE A THIRD WORLD TYRANT WOULD. SHAME ON THE POPE, I THOUGHT HE WAS SMARTER THAN THAT.

      June 21, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • sam stone

      jone....feeling a bit put upon? too bad, so sad....

      June 27, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  8. girl

    this article states, "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 s e x."

    wow. I'm just sitting here thinking about all the Catholic charities, hospitals, schools etc. that are trying to deal with the worlds problems.... like hunger and illness and social justice. But all you hear is the churchs talk about s e x u a l morality. wierd.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Veritas

      It seems, girl' that you only hear what you WANT to hear! Year in and year out Popes, including Pope Benedict, chastise the world for not doing enough for the hungry; for not sharing their wealth with poor countries; for unjust wars and persecution; for their lak of human rights. Have you even LISTENED to the Pope's Urbi et Orbi every Easter? Or the speeches when visiting other countries?

      No I don't suppose you have. You missed everything bar S-E-X which is what you're accusing the Vatican of. Silly girl.

      June 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Amanda Wolf

      IT IS ALL A FAKE CHARITY ACT THAT GIVES WITH ONE HAND, BUT TAKES WITH THE OTHER HAND. I KNOW, I GREW UP IN A THIRD WORLD NATION. PERMANENT 'RELIGIOUS CHARITY POVERTY AND MISERY 😦

      June 21, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  9. girl

    ok cnn. you post when my comment is "test" but you won't post my comment about this article. it's in no way offensive. very strange

    June 14, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Veritas

      One less piece of rubbish for us to read then,eh!

      June 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Amanda Wolf

      NO, WHEN THAT HAPPENED TO ME, IT TURNS OUT I HAD NOT REGISTERED PROPERLY. PLUS ONE NEEDS TO REGISTER AGAIN WITHIN TWO OR THREE WEEKS.

      June 21, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  10. girl

    test

    June 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  11. Steven

    Dear CNN, stop wasting my time with ignorant "religious" articles and go back to reporting the real news.

    June 14, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • sam stone

      This is a belief blog. Do you complain about CNN reporting about last night's baseball game in the sports section?

      June 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Amanda Wolf

      MY HUSBAND AND I FOUND IT VERY INTERESTING AND LAUGHABLE.. YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY VIEWER ON EARTH!

      June 21, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Amanda Wolf

      ALTHOUGH RELIGION ADVANCES LIES AND NON-PROVABLE FANTASIES, MILLIONS OF HUMANS HAVE FALLEN FOR ITS DOGMA AND PROPAGATED MUCH DESTRUCTION AND WARS. THE SPANISH INQUISITION HORRIBBLY TORTUREED AND KILLED HUMANS ALL OVER THE EARTH. JUST THE WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST KILLED AND MAIMED HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF INNOCENTS 😦 SO THE DAMAGE THE CHURCHES HAVE CAUSED IS GRAVE AND DUE TO DESTROY AND FORBID BY SANE AND POSITIVE GOVERNMENTS.

      DISMISSING AND ALLOWING DOGMAS IS CRIMINAL.

      June 21, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • shootmyownfood

      You can avoid this by not reading the "Religion" section. Easy.

      July 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  12. Jim

    Sounds like most of the "Catholics" I know, They sleep around with whomever they want, drink and enjoy just about every form of debauchery confess to a priest say their hail mary's like that will help them and go out and do it again. No wonder the world thinks the church is a joke!! You cant tell the difference between a catholic or a heathen anymore. And I dare say most if not a very large % are nothing more than Atheists. Maybe if the church spent more time watching their flock instead of counting the money maybe the wolves wouldnt make it in to the fold!! The church is getting its just deserts.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:52 am |
    • Veritas

      Your group of imaginary friends doesn't represent the Millions of Catholics who practice their Faith!

      Just a note: Catholics do NOT do as they like; go to confession; say a few prayers and go out and repeat it – you ignorant man. In order to be forgiven, you have to undertake NOT to re-offend.

      I suggest that if you're going to babble about the Catholic faith, you do so with informed argument!

      June 15, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  13. TheMostWise

    Why would we seek the counsel of "Mother Goose" or "Peter Pan" or "The Easter Bunny" for guidance on any matter???
    The same applies to the mythical god of catholocism. This is just far too silly to even contemplate.

    June 12, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • sam stone

      As opposed to the other mythical gods?

      June 14, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Veritas

      As Isaac Newton said of atheism:

      "Atheism is so senseless. When I look at the solar system I see the earth at the right distance from the sun to receive the exact amount of light and heat. That did NOT happen by chance."

      He unlike you, was a very intelligent man. And it does take intelligence and logic to wotk out that there is a God. I hope you find Him.
      "

      June 15, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Amanda Wolf

      EXACTLY. LET US GET RID OF THE SLAVERY THE CHRISTIANS IMPOSED WHEREVER THEY CONQUERED.NUMEROUS HISPANIC HISTORIANS HAVE EXACTLY EXPLAINED HOW THE SPANISH CHURCH HELPED THE CONQUERORS INVADE, SLAVE AND STEAL THE LAND OF POOR NATIVES. IN GUATEMALA, A BISHOP WHO LATER FELT GUILTY OF HAVING DONE SO, TURNED INTO THE PROTECTOR OF THE OPPRESSED POOR INDIANS. HIS NAME: FRIAR, bARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS.

      June 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  14. Ray

    The means which Christ left for His Church to determine matters of morality (among other things) are Sacred Scripture viewed in light of Sacred Tradition as clarified by the Church's Magisterium.
    Whatever Sr. Farley came up with when she woke up last St. Swithin's Day is
    not included among the means which Christ left us. As she admits, she runs afoul of Magisterial teaching. Of course, that would only be important to an orthodox Catholic. So CNN and Boston University might not be persuaded. But that is a sublime irrelevance.

    June 10, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Rob

      Perfect answer

      June 12, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Veritas

      Wonderfull response. God Bless you, my friend.

      June 15, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • CrystalPrism

      Right on, Ray! I like the way you put that. Following Jesus and His teachings are all that is really important. Everything else is insignificant and irrelevant. And, it doesn't matter what other people think. All that matters is your own relationship with God. The Church was given to us by Jesus to help us with that relationship and therefore know how to get to heaven.

      June 19, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  15. jone

    Still waiting for CNN to do a pot stirring article on Islam and America's Imams...chicken much?

    June 10, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  16. Kathryn

    To the Vatican Nuns are Nuns – not to be writing books on thought.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  17. swohio

    I truly wonder....does the Eastern Orthodox Church have all these issues? I mean, truly....I can't figure out if I want to convert to Catholicism or not. Who could I trust within the church to tell me the truth without leading me astray?

    June 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Elian Gonzalez

      Saul Alinsky is who the current administration loves... that is why they enjoy terrorizing medical marijuana patients in the 17 States that legalized its use... stop the spread of communism in America. Stop the Democrats before they stop you...!

      June 9, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      I don't know if you should convert or not. I can tell you that there are ways to discern at your local parish which are low key and low pressure. Should you decide to enter the Church, you will find an inexhaustible depth of tradition and history of spiritual seeking mixed with a fair measure of failed humans both now and from the past. Many people will condemn and ridicule you but He will be with you always. It's the most beautiful thing I have ever found.

      June 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Veritas

      Bill – what an absolutely beautiful comment. As a Catholic I couldn't agree more.

      To swohio – if you want help with your decision say the "Hail Mary" " Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in You" 3 times a day for one week. I'll pray for you too.

      June 15, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • CrystalPrism

      I agree with Bill. I add that you will find some sort of "issues" in every religion. The reason the Catholic Church is so full of turmoil is because it is fighting a spiritual war with evil. Evil is attacking her because she is Jesus' true Church. Satan knows this. The Bible explains this war in great detail. The Orthodox Chruch is in Schism with the Roman Church. This schism will end when God decides it is time. I believe we are getting close to this time for the schism to end. Satan attacks all Christianity, but more so the Catholic Church because the Pope, Jesus' vicar, is present in her. It is through His vicar that He continues to lead us with a visible human presence. Satan knows this. The Catholic Chruch knows this. The Pope knows this....most of the world, however, deny this. In this denial, Satan gains his power for more deception and continued persecution of Jesus' followers. Jesus told us that we would be persecuted, because He was persecuted. If you are looking for a Church without "issues", you will find one that Satan is not attacking. That will mean that he has no interest in trying to "bring it down". Does this help you decide whether to join the Catholic or Orthodox church?

      June 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • rftallent

      Dang, Crystal, you really make me glad that I'm Episcopalian (although I am also a Benedictine Oblate).

      June 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • fintastic

      Convert to "no church" and think for yourself.

      No god, no heaven, no hell.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  18. i'm back!

    According to CNN the catholics are always wrong. Dammed if you do and dammed if you don't.
    Who cares about your slanted bashing of the Catholics? *rollseyes*

    June 7, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • sam stone

      awwww....feeling a bit put upon?

      June 14, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  19. Bill Deacon

    Nii,

    I took your comments out of context. My apologies.

    June 7, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Nii

      BILL
      I accept your apology! I love u as myself!

      June 8, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • Veritas

      Bill I love you because you apologised.

      Nii- I love ou because you forgave generously and without reservation. Peace be with you both.

      June 15, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  20. Nii

    WHICH???
    De Holy Roman Emperor Carolus Magnus was de one who ordered his subjects 2 convert on pain of death. De Romans who were educated converted 2 Xtianity on their own voluntarily n de Emperors b4 Constantine tried to stop de conversions! De letter of Pliny to Tiberius Caesar says it all! Read!

    June 7, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Jiminy can we at least get into the 19th century with the bashing? I suppose the 20th is too much to hope for. Your talking about a time before the Magna Carta, before the Reformation, before the Great Schism, before the printing press (invented by a Catholic). Before the Industrial Revolution, hell before the French revolution. I mean really, did you know that cavemen drug women around by their hair!

      June 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.