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. Al

    I'm not a Catholic and I certainly don't agree with all their beliefs. But to be fair, they have the right to define what they believe. No one is forced to be a Catholic. If this woman doesn't believe what the church believes, she should do what I do: Not be a Roman Catholic.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Frank

      I agree. You become a member of a cult to follow that cult's rules.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • BP

      Again, nicely said!!!!!

      June 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • DearbornGuy

      Exactly Al. Clear thinking.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Mmmm. And suppose an American colonist chooses not too allow the Brits to tax him without allowing him representation?

      Just shut up and take it? Secede? Or tell the powers that be to stick it up their fundaments?

      June 5, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  2. Hot Carl

    The only meat a priest can eat is nun.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  3. Common Sense

    because either you subscribe to a religion or you don't.You don't make up rules as you go along.Either you're Catholic or you're not.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Sunflower

      Why not? The church made up rules as it went along......

      June 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • BP

      Nicely said!!!!!!!

      June 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  4. Amherst NH

    Give me one sound theological argument as to why one religion is 'better' than another and I may start going to that church/mosque/synagogue/etc. In the meantime, I applaud the efforts of intelligent individuals such as Sister Farley to write a well researched, objective literary work.

    Remember the golden rule of 'love thy neighbor as thyself.'

    June 5, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      I wouldn't argue religion with you but I would emphatically state that no person who has ever lived taught a better way of life Than Jesus. No person who ever lived has been without fault except for Jesus Christ. No person who ever lived chose to take on the sin of the world so that all men might be free except for Jesus Christ. If one actually considers these facts, he will find some church somewhere that provides a place to offer praise and worship to Him and serve His people.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  5. mk045

    All in positions of Christian leadership should read the four gospels again, and focus on the problems that Jesus talks about. They are timeless problems that should concern both the religious and the secular. Everything else is distraction.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  6. Tzedekh

    "I acknowledge the right of the Roman Catholic Church to police the thinking and writing of its own." I don't. Catholics do not have, and never have had, the obligation to follow the dictates of the magisterium, only to be informed of them. According to Church teaching, individual conscience is the ultimate arbiter. Sadly, the magisterium has manifestly forgotten that principle. It's all too apparent that the Vatican doesn't know or care how foolish and corrupt it now looks.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • mk045

      Sadly, this is incorrect. The individual conscience is subservient to the intervention of the priesthood. This was a debate early in the history of the church, and the individualists lost. As people in later times felt the pull of individual conscience, you wound up with schisms, pogroms, heresies, and the Reformation (and its wars).

      At no point in Catholic theology does a believer have the right to make these decisions, thus the role of the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith". In no uncertain terms, they are the "thought police" of the Vatican. It's the whole reason there is this discussion, their theoretical authority in earthly matters. It's also a primary basis for the discussion of the relevance of the Vatican leadership, since so many "believers" clearly go their own way.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |

      Jesus said the way to god is through your heart.
      So why do we need a church ?
      It always comes back to the money plate.
      The real "Jesus" is not the "Jesus" that the church is peddling.
      The mafia makes money off drugs and weapons.
      The church makes money off your soul.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  7. DCMAN

    The Catholic Church runs orphanages all over the world and cares for more orphans than any other organization. The Catholic Church runs hospitals all over the world and takes care of more people with AIDS than any other organization in the world. I could go on and on but the point is, Mr. Prothero is deeply ignorant all the Church does for the poor all over the world and has for almost 2000 years. Google Mother Theresa of Calcutta and see all the work she and her sisters have done and then come back to this forum, Mr. Prothero.

    By the way, the Sister in question picked this fight by writing a book contrary to Catholic teaching. What organization tolerates a member writing a book that says fundamental principles of the organzation are completely wrong? The only reason she thought she could get away with it is specifically because the Church is generally too busy with more important things than bother with stuff like this.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Alice

      DCMan – agreed

      June 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |

      From government donations, not out of the Vaticans pocket book.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • truth1063

      From Gov't donations? Don't be daft, fool.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  8. Scott

    The Catholic church is making itself irrelevant. Are they capable of critical thinking or can they only follow blind, mindless, archaic dogma? Great job, Sister Margaret! By condemning your book, they gave you some great, free publicity and advertising. Thanks to them, more people than every will buy and read your book. "One often meets one's destiny on the road he takes to avoid it."

    June 5, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  9. Bill

    The Vatican is no longer in a position to condemn anything anymore. They have been exposed for what they are and need to begin mending fences and building bridges to get some credibility back and become a part of the genuine Christian community.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  10. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    Time for another Reformation.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  11. Bob

    The Catholic Church is an international crime syndicate set up for the sole purpose of robbing the gullible and molesting the innocent.

    They have no moral authority to pass judgement on anyone.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  12. mary

    Once again the Catholic Church shows how out of touch it is with world and how much it wants to control the very thoughts of its membership.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      This is a continuation of the undermining of Vatican II since Pope John Paul II appointed the then Josef Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. head of the Holy Office of the Inquisition – amazing how a change of name reduced some peoples' anxiety). Since then every reform promulgated by John XXIII and Paul VI has been overturned, ignored and trampled upon. The function of the laity in parish operations has been negated. The inclusion of women at all levels of discussion has been removed. All-in-all, the Catholic Church is regressing back to the pre-Tridentine days.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • SyGood

      "Out of touch" is just another key phrase for moral relativism. You folks have a distorted view of the real Jesus. As if He would say "hey, if society changes then your behavior can change to the social norms". What the Catholic Church has taught and always taught is that if society moves away from these teachings, it isn't the teachings that have run afoul, it is society. As Matthew 18 explicitly says, "he who does not hear the Church is to be as a Gentile or Tax Collector". Hate the Church all you want, it isn't going away folks. Hasn't for 2,000 years and won't until the end of time.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • KMW


      Great point and I totally agree with you.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  13. Tai N.

    Sister, you are right! Vatican should apologize to you! I don't think half the cardinals in the world can match your thinking. You're genius.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  14. Prophet

    Serve no God that is petty! Worshiping idols that hate-on the "human condition" is just ludicrous. Wake up slave people your church is holding you and the rest of the world back in the dark ages of fear! Ask Why would a GOD hate? Why would a God Hate his own creation both mankind and sin? The answer is ... its impossible! You worship a false idea of a creator and give to much credence to an earth bound church that offers little to no answer.... on a good note (if that's possible) you are a good slave!

    June 5, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • BF

      I don't think they can hear. You can tell them whatever you wish but they prefer their church over God. A sun flare will soon reach us and all this shall make us think and be humble. Volcanoes will erupt but we shall accuse others of sin. Let it be known that it is our hardened hearts; our lack of love; our lack of humility; our greed and not what the crazies in these religions say. Hypocrites- when will they learn!

      June 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • 2011 Eyes

      Please don't insult people that believe in God.
      If the church and priests have faltered, it is not God that made them do it. Whether a person is religious or not, any sane person knows that a person who kills another person is wrong; any person who abuses a child is wrong; any person who deliberately tells lies about another person because of hate is wrong. Every living human being will have tragedy in their lifetime, whether you believe in God or you consider it coincidence. It happens and it should give pause and thought that maybe there is a lesson to be learned. There is a reason for everything that happens in life, and the greatest burden is never knowing why; religious or not.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  15. wilypagan

    It is past time for the nuns and thinking priests to break off and form their own church. Millions of ex and just fed up Catholics would follow them – those who want the church to follow in the the footsteps of Jesus, not the footsteps of the Pharisees. Down with the Nazi Pope.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  16. JP0

    What do you expect from an organization that is mired in the 12th century?

    June 5, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  17. Frank

    Priests raping children? No problem...just send the rapists on to other parishes to further their rape of other children. Nuns not following dogma to the letter? How dare they. Threaten them with excommunication and other horrors.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Bob

      Well said.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  18. Paul

    Hang in there, Sister!

    June 5, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  19. felix_in_Mass

    This sister should tell the irrelevant Vatican to shove it.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • NJ Beck

      Au contraire, this piece shows just how relevant the Vatican remains. One doesn't take the time to write scathing and misguided critiques railing against that which is "irrelevant".

      Sr. Farley–Wearing a habit might actually clue folks in to that fact–is not the first heretic the Church has seen in 2,000 years. Thankfully, she and her contemporaries are growing as old and tired as their futile rebellion as they are replaced by an orthodox generation of young Catholics, both lay and religious.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  20. paintpaintpaint

    Go Sister!

    June 5, 2012 at 10:11 am |

      *** Thankfully, she and her contemporaries are growing as old and tired as their futile rebellion as they are replaced by an orthodox generation of young Catholics, both lay and religious.

      You mean the next generation in mental bondage ?

      June 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
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