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. Satan

    As I recall, Jesus never condemned the Jewish faith, nor the Jewish Temple. I do recall that he offered salvation to those who did unloving things. To be a Catholic, appears to be.... uhm.... a Catholic. To be a Protestant is to be a .... protestor. That is the natural thing.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  2. Blame Bush

    1. All, each, and every deity are fiction. There is NO god. Never was.

    2. The white male power structure running all "religions" are ever-more desperate to maintain hegemony over all others.

    3. Nuns are vastly better people than virtually all priests, they are the backbone of the church.

    4. Everyone needs to grow up, think for themselves, and set aside the books of mythology that are bibles, korans, torahs.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • echotrain

      An evangelical atheist is as obnoxious as any other intolerant proselytizer.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Matthew

      Rarely have I read such laughable and ludicrous statements in a single place.

      Which, pray tell, are the white male leaders in power in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Shintosim?

      "Nuns are vastly better people than virtually all priests, they are the backbone of the church." I laughed out loud when I read that. Like to exaggerate much?

      When you can sit at the table and have a calm discussion like a big boy, you may come back. Until then, stop wasting our time.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  3. Plato

    Love it, the liberal snarks under the guise of being traditional catholics put out antichristian bs.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  4. MiddleWay14

    See, it's great to grow up a Catholic. It makes it easy to realize how big of a farce ALL religion really is. I didn't have to make dumb, painful transitions from one religion to another to another. I skipped that boat completely and went straight to the healthy combination of ignosticism and atheism.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Blame Bush

      But....but....big daddy snapped his magic fingers 6000 years ago and that's why we're here. Isn't it?

      Truth is, you are right on the mark; I came to this same realization decades ago.

      Sad to see so many people so willing to believe whatever they're told by a man in a suit and tie, or a "collar."

      People should see the truth, as in this great video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeSSwKffj9o

      June 5, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Melanie

      I agree with you 100%. Now we just have to wait for the bashing to start. Strange, how the "Believers" are so threatened by the Agnostics/Atheists.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • historygeek5

      I've had this question for some time. Why is it not enough to be secure in the knowledge that you are one of the fortunate ones to escape the clutches of religion? Why is virtually every article and opinion piece throughout CNN's belief section inundated with such vicious and insulting attacks on people who do believe? In other words, why is it clearly not enough to "just leave them to their stupidity"? As a believer I would very much like an intelligent response! For what it's worth, my assumption is that the venom is an outgrowth of having been hurt by religious people. From my perspective that makes religious people bad, not religion. No?

      June 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • 2011 Eyes

      Middle & B.Bush-people that believe in God are not as gullible as you think, and we are not threatened by a man with a collar. I prefer not to insult you about your thoughts and beliefs.

      Melanie-it's so wrong to make fun of people that have a difference of opinion, thought or belief; and you don't have to be religious to know that.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  5. doc doc

    When I was young, I was told, "if you don't play the game, you cannot make the rules". This holds true here. Why not ask a vegetarian how best to cook a steak, or a blind person their favorite color... go ahead, quote me on this.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  6. FishFries & Bingo

    The Vatican... just another secret Italian organization that likes to make its problems "disappear".

    June 5, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  7. Drobat

    Just confirms how ass backwards the church is on modern issues, and how they turn a blind eye to more pressing matters.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  8. Leucadia Bob


    June 5, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Melanie

      Thanks for the laugh.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  9. Matt S

    I can only now appreciate how scary the church must have been hundreds of years ago when people died regularly to protect their views. As ignorant as the church is today, its not as bad as the 'dark ages,' is it?

    June 5, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Recovering Catholic

      pretty much so. but America's so-called 'conservative" politicians, and their ignorant right-wing religious fundamentalist supporters, are as bad or worse – conducting pogroms against science and knowledge

      June 5, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Choice for everyone

      Really ? Because Catholics are so much more radical than baptists, evangelicals, muslims and orthodox jews?!

      June 5, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  10. Wonder

    Please resist conflating the Church with its hierarchy. The Church, as defined by the voice of The Spirit during Vatican II, is the People of God and we are blessed to share a universal priesthood. The hierarchy continues to resist that voice, as demonstrated by their recent pogrom against holy women following Our Lord's teachings on loving and ministering to the poor and neglected among us. John XXIII opened the window and they have been attempting to slam it shut ever since. Our "shepherds" have gone far astray. That they continue to fight against the voice of The Spirit brings to mind Our Lord's admonition that all sins will be forgiven except the sin against the Holy Spirit. Woe unto you scribes and pharisees, and thank God for the holy nuns.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • NSL

      Why do you people always slam Jews in everything you write, as if they have something to do with Vatican injustice. This issue has only to do with the Catholic Church. You're just another bigoted slob.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Choice for everyone

      Who is "slamming" jews?

      June 5, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  11. Wildfawn

    All the religions would do better to focus a little more on how to live right than telling others how to live.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Didn't you just contradict yourself?

      June 7, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  12. Barry G.

    Jesus taught that not everyone could be celibate. As he said in the Gospel of Matthew, only those to whom it [this ability to remain celibate] is given can be celibate.

    Why impose a burden on anyone, who does not have this special ability?

    June 5, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • commonesnes

      Jesus said that s-ex outside marriage is a s-in and that marriage is between a man and a woman. He also gave us confession so we can get absolution for s-ins we are truly repentant for commiting. Truly repentant means that we will try our best not to commit the s-in again. He gave us confession because he knew as humans we are frail. Jesus did not, however, say that because you are frail it is ok to sin and that you are foregiven for sinning if you do not try to stop from sinning.

      G-ay marriage, assuming the partners do not intend to remain completely celibate, is the equivaltent of giving up trying not to s-in. Ther Catholic Church teaches that it is absolutely wrong and sinful for g-ays to enter into a marital relationship with the intention of having g-ay s-ex. The fact that humans are frail does not justify the ongoing intent to s-in.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  13. azhermit

    Another worldly muse bloviating with sentimental half truths, omissions and sophistic emotional appeals to the anti-Catholic moon howlers... Margaret Harley's heretical zeitgeist view of reality is embraced by a depraved world that loves to smear its sentimental carnal skat among its herd of ill informed and spiritual pygmies... yawn.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Inglourious

      If only the rest of us could be as enlightened as you.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Joe

      Keep on believing, nut job.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Frank

      Take a xanax...yawn.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Oscar Pitchfork


      June 5, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Jtaps

      Yeah...what they said....yawn.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Joe

      Thesaurus overload.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Punisher2000

      This post shows how some try to impress upon others their vast (non) culture. In ordinary terms, this is called verbal diarrhea.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:13 am |

      Thou speaketh much garbage.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  14. ellid

    And once again, that traditional clerical misogyny comes to the fore....

    June 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  15. ipmutt

    More anti chatholic rants from mainstream media. This group holds a lot of hate for the catholics and this bias makes nearly everything you read or hear from them tainted and unreliable.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • ellid

      You do realize that if the Vatican actually focused on ministering to the poor and oppressed instead of trying to hide its own sins and its distressing tendency to scapegoat anyone to the left of Pius X, this would not be an issue?

      June 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Mike

      wow, someone's feeling super-defensive.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Frank

      Then keep your gold hording pedophile infested cult out of the morally superior secular environment. As long as I'm having to pay taxes on behalf of your tax exempt cult I'll say anything I want to about your cult.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Pat F

      Correct. Frank, your "taxes" (I doubt you pay any, living in your parent's basement) are not supporting the church or any other tax-exempt organization.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      ellid and Fran have volunteered to take over the social ministry of the Church. All Catholic volunteers, priests, nuns and others take the day off!

      June 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  16. SoloLupo

    They need to take the Vatican, install some rides and turn it into a theme park.

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


      June 5, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Punisher2000

      Lupo: bravissimo!

      June 5, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Derigible

      Alter boy merry go round.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  17. Jim

    Hers was a book of philosophy, written under the guise of religion – and she exploited her role in the church to publicize it. She gave up her worldly life for the church, not for the publisher. The church is well within its rights to condemn what she has done, and she is well within her rights to leave and become a civilian like the rest of us.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • ellid

      The same could be said about Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, and a host of other theologians whose works drew on philosophical concepts as well as Scripture and the magisterium. Of course, they were male....

      June 5, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • anxietyjunkie

      Religious figures have been writing philosophical texts for centuries; remember that for the majority of the Church's history, the only literate people WERE monks and priests. Almost every phliosophical text until the 1600's was written by a monk. If anything, she was continuing a long tradition, not bucking it.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Primewonk

      If folks like Galileo and Bruno had kept quiet would you ignorant fundiots still believe the sun revolves around the earth?

      June 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  18. julieme

    Yet another example of why I became a protestant

    June 5, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • chemmajor

      As a Protestant, another reason to say nope to the pope.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Choice for everyone

      Perfect response! I am Catholic, and belive that if you don't agree with church teaching/doctrines etc leave. Thank you for not being a hypocrite and possesing the more elusive gifts of reason and objectivity. Live and let live.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Recovering Catholic

      yet another example of why I gave up on all religions – they are the same bunch of power-hungry men trying to use fear to protect their personal positions of power and prerogatives, like diddling little boys

      June 5, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • NSL

      The problem is "Choice for everyone" the Catholic Church doesn't believe in "Live and let live," as you put it. The Catholic Church keeps working to impose its doctrine of how one should live one's life on everyone, not just Catholics. It's clear the Catholic church and many Catholics are willing to live and let live only if you live the way they want you to live. Frankly if the Church went out of business the world would be a better place.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Choice for everyone

      They impose it on Catholics. The vatican doesn't expect a muslim or an athiest to adhere to it's teaching. To disagree with the vaticans opinions is fine, to disagree that they have the right to an opinion would make you.....

      June 5, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Primewonk

      Choice for everyone wrote, " They impose it on Catholics. The vatican doesn't expect a muslim or an athiest to adhere to it's teaching. "

      This, of course, is pure, unadulterated bullshît.

      Who leads the fight against equal rights for gays? It's the religious îdiots, especially the Catholics. They don't seek to prevent just Catholic gay folks from having a civil marriage, they seek to prohibit <b<ANY gay person from having a civil marriage.

      Who leads the fight against having insurance companies cover contraception? It is the Catholics. They don't seek to prevent just Catholics from using contraceptives, they seek to prohibit ANYONE from using contraception.

      Who leads the fight against a woman's right to control her own body? It is the Catholics. They don't seek to prohibit just Catholic women from getting an abortion, they want to prohibit ALL women from having the right.

      Who leads the fight worl-wide against using côndoms to prevent the spread of HIV? It's the Catholics. They don't want to prevent just Catholic men from having côndoms, they want to prohibit access to ALL men.

      Seriously? Why do you fundiots lie like this?

      June 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Choice for everyone

      @ Primewonk – The Catholic church is against, birth control gay marriage etc. and I'm sure if the vatican could ban abortion for everyone they would. However the Vatican is not the head of state and can only ask it's voluntary members to adhere to it's doctrine. If the Catholic church speaks publicly in support of it's own agenda it is only exercising it demorcratic right. The same as many other special interest groups some of which I'm sure you support. If you would like me to clairify a point, or simply disagree with a point I've made, go for it but please don't be as presumptuous as to assume anyone's opinion here is important enough to me, to lie to make a point.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  19. Hot Carl


    June 5, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Derigible

      *** If the Catholic church speaks publicly in support of it's own agenda it is only exercising it demorcratic right.

      The pope is not elected.
      He is "selected" .
      I do like that part about "ITS OWN AGENDA".

      June 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  20. derp

    Don't the catholic hierarchy have some pe doph iles to hide. How do they have time to deal with unhappy sla ves...I mean nuns...when they have so many pe doph ile priests to find hiding places for.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      They have the time because less than 2% of the clergy is implicated in child abuse claims. There are other issues besides pedophilia in society as well as in the Church.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
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