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. chuckchook

    The Catholic Church has every right to hound nuns over their various intelligent, devoted and insightful efforts at outreach, continue to treat them shabbily as compared with priests, while at the same time protecting priests who abuse congregants including children, giving pedophiles and other criminals safe haven. They have the right (except where it falls into criminal conspiracy, aiding and abetting etc), but it only furthers their slow inexorable progress towards irrelevancy.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • HA25

      My only argument with you, Sir, is your use of the word 'slow'...

      June 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  2. Amanda Hugginkiss

    Interestingly, the only way for the Catholic church to evolve is essentially Darwinism. People in disagreement will leave the church in increasing numbers, and the church will either evolve or it will die off.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Choice for everyone

      Actually then it dies off either way....congregation leaves then the church dies out. If it evolves it becomes Anglican or some other christian denomination.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  3. Robert Guercio

    I don't understand why Catholics continue to be Catholics considering the continuous nonsense shown by the Catholic Church. I would be embarrassed to call myself a Catholic nowadays.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Bill

      I totally agree. I was raised a Catholic but when the church couldn't adequately explain the rational of "the annulment" process in a 15 year marriage that involved three children, I began to loose faith in this religion. They were also the publishing of your annual "gifts" for all the world to scrutinize and although parishioners were required to attend church ever Sunday many wealthy families were never seen but twice a year. Their "gifts" were enough to grant them absolution forever. The Catholic Church is simply the Mafia of Italy and does everything that is expected.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Nilkinggary

    What the hell is wrong with generic comments, moderator?

    June 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Amanda Hugginkiss

      I hate to break it to you.... The "moderator" isnt actually a human. (imagine trying to manually moderate the thousands of posts going up every minute). It is simply a computer program that looks for keywords. Slightly change the wording (or modify a particular word) and your post should go up with no problem.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  5. Amanda Hugginkiss

    If I were an employee of a company and wrote a book that openly challenged company policy and practices, I would simply be fired. The nun is essentially an "employee" of the Catholic church. It sounds like she needs to seek a different employer.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • HA25

      Amanda, a much more appropriate metaphor is a slave. The chuch expects a nun's service for life; controls where she can live, who she can marry (or not..) and what she wears. Which also explains why she can't seek a different "master"...

      June 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  6. magesterium

    Look folks, the Church is not a democracy. She is a dictatorship. Jesus did not ask the disciples–he told them. It wasn't up for a vote. If "sister" Farley wishes to write a book on any subject matter whatsoever, she is more than welcome to do just that. But, if she is writing from the position of a Catholic Nun, which implies that she is speaking as someone who is in line with Catholic teaching and she does not follow Catholic teaching, the Vatican has the right to call her on it. I have to beg the question: Why do these renegade women insist upon becoming nuns so they can challenge Church teaching? Please don't join my organization with the intent of changing it. Instead, form your own. Then, you can have women priests, gay marriage, divorce and any other condemned thing your heart desires. The Church speaks with the Voice of Truth, that is The Voice of Jesus Himself who said "what you declare bound on Earth shall be bound in Heaven and what you declare loosed on Earth shall be loosed in Heaven." His commands are good enough for me.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • HA25

      I do not think you know what the word "Truth" means.

      Furthermore Sister Farley has been studying for over 40 years and has her Ph.D from Yale Divinity School and now holds a chair there. Your assertion she joined the church with any intent to change it is without merit.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • commonesnes


      Whether Sister Farley joined the Church with the purpose of changing it is not relevant. She took a vow of obedience. She cannot in her capacity as a Catholic Nun write a book which is in direct contravention of the beliefs of the Church and not expect to get repudiated. The Church has every right to let the world know that Sister Farley's positon on the matters in question are not acceptable to the Church. It also has a right to chastize her for violating her vow of obedience.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  7. dmaldana

    She's not going against the Vatican. She's going against the Magisterium. To Catholics, the Magisterium is the word of God.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  8. DaveinIL

    What didn't the author understand about what being a "nun" means? I don't know whether I agree or disagree with what she wrote, but you can't be a nun or priest and openly advocate positions that are contrary to the religious doctrine of the church.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  9. John Blackadder


    Christianity especially seems out of line with mature, emancipated and educated people. It even seems out of date with itself. After all, Christ said, rather plainly, "There are but two commandments...and the second is 'Love thy neighbor as thyself'". He doesn't leave much wiggle room for having Old biblical commandments and rules. And he doesn't have much time for priests either (or them for him!). We need to get back to basics, which is what Sister Farley is trying to do.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  10. Jim Hahn

    Welcome to the sad world of Catholic paternalism.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Joe Rockbottom

    The question is, who, exactly, is the "Vatican" leading? It has become glaringly obvious that the vast majority of the catholic laypeople catagorically reject much of the "church teaching" that the Vatican promotes. These days catholics simply pick and choose which of those "teachings" they will follow and leave the rest to the dustbins of ancient history. The vast majority of catholic women use birth control (99%), get abortions (65%) at higher rate than the general public, accept gays (70%) and even gay marriage (55%). So, it has become very clear that the ONLY people the Vatican is "leading" is the small group of old, white, celibate men who control the church. In otherwords, no one but those who essentially perform intellectual masturbation with arcane, ancient and irrelevant "teachings' that no one else cares about.

    One more question: Why on earth do catholics stay in the church? It has become increasingly irrelevant to their lives, so wha tis the point?

    June 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • dmaldana

      Where did you get your stats? They are waaaaay off.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Ari Feldman

      I prefer the Catholic doctrine to your Jewish intellectualism. How's the weather in Tel Aviv?

      June 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • HA25

      The answer to your question, Joe – is that the catholic church in particular is very heavy on ceremony and family and ritual. They attempt to tie membership to family and begin at a VERY young age so that catholic children grow up thinking that if they don't agree with this teaching and perform these rituals, they will lose everything they know including the respect of their own family. Catholics refer to the church as part of "who they are". So they continue to be catholic in name only but also end up supporting this regime.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  12. Amanda Hugginkiss

    This is silly. I'm not religious and/or a member of any church, but very much believe in other's rights to do so. (as long as those rights dont try to infringe upon mine.) Religious views aside, the problem is not with the Catholic church; it is with some of its dissenting members. The Catholic church can and should (all jokes aside) believe what they want and espouse church doctrine accordingly. If someone disagrees with church doctrine, its leadership structure, etc., they should simply leave the church and find something (or nothing) that is more in line with their personal beliefs. If you dont agree with Catholicism, clearly its time to not be Catholic.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • BioHzrd

      Let's just call this for what it is. It's hand waving. Looks over here at these crazy nuns that espouse love, but don't pay attention to the fact that we don't give a crap what happens to children we abuse. That's my problem with all this.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • HA25

      Amanda, you don't understand cult psychology. Unfortunately, it's not "SIMPLE" to leave the catholic church. They get you at a young age and your family and make it seem like if you leave, your family won't love you anymore and you'll have nowhere to go. Oh – and burn in hell. It's harder to leave the church then moving addresses, changing employers, even changing spouses. And that's how the church wants it.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Choice for everyone

      It isn't that "simple" to leave the Catholic faith? I beg to differ, coming from a large Catholic family myself my siblings, parents and extended family all have diverse beliefs and political views. If someone doesn't believe that is their right and though many family members would strongly argue in support of the church (when pushed) no one was ever ostracized for choosing to leave the church or for lack of faith. In fact I have far more respect for anyone choosing to leave the church then those who want to call themselves Catholic and gripe against the pope and church teachings.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  13. chrism

    I pity the students with mountains of student loans who actually pay one of the most expensive universities in the country to hear Stephen "religious scholar" Prothero preach, and no doubt get graded on how well they conform to his personal, tangled, dishonest web of opinions he calls his religious beliefs. If this article is any indication you can see why universities harm the faith of many young people. Stephen is a staunch anti-vatican, like many liberal university professors, trying desperately to hide in the sheep's clothing of his seemingly thoughtful words. And he's found himself a champion – an opponent of the church, who preaches gay love, free love, modern love. Oh, it's all about what feels good, and label it under words like consent, two consenting adults. It must be nice to get paid to make up anti-Christian opinions, call oneself a scholar, self-promote noting one agrees with "dozens of theologians" who even hand out big money awards to those so liberal to take a shot at the church. In the time it took Stephen to write this trash, catholic social services has no doubt helped countless poor, homeless, in need in the US and throughout the world. Meanwhile, Stephen is enjoying the latest Macbook, courtesy of the paycheck that comes on the backs of young people with massive student loan debt.

    For anyone who however cares about the Truth, Jesus Christ made clear in the gospels that marriage is for man and wife. For better or worse til death does one part.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  14. Michael

    I say that if you are Catholic and don't agree with what the Catholic Church's stance is on any number of topics, go become an Anglican, Methodist or anything else your heart desires. So many choices out there – you are sure to find something that makes you feel comfy at night when you sleep; it's a free world people.

    Nobody is forcing you to stick around.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Check out the statistics on the numbers of priests and nuns in the US over the last 40 years. Apparently lots of people are taking your advice.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Lena

      Done – almost 25 years ago. And I'm happy as a lark (and very active) in my Methodist church. Any other suggestions, Michael?

      June 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  15. JoeP199

    The RCC as it exists today persists in straying from Jesus' teachings regarding justice and charity for all in favor of defending its hierarchy and those priests who have stained their cassocks by victimizing children.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Amanda Hugginkiss

      There may be a few, but I'm having a hard time coming up with any church that hasn't likewise strayed......

      June 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  16. Salvador

    Didn't the Vatican put an iron faceplate on Giodarno Bruni (they didn't want him speaking at trial) then burn him alive for saying the Earth revolved around the sun? Being surprised or angry that religious organizations don't do the logical thing is like being angry at the rain for being wet.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  17. Bob

    Catholicism is a religion with well defined tenets. Those who don't believe in them or don't wish to adhere to them should leave the religion. They are free to leave and live their lives any way the see fit, it's not Islam. Any individual who thinks they are going to change the basic foundation of the Catholic Church's teachings to fit their own lifestyle is deluded. Stephen clearly doesn't get it.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • JoeP199

      I believe that the trends regarding membership in the RCC, as well as the declining number of nuns and priests, tell you which way the RCC is headed.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  18. SlayFalseGod

    They condemn women while the Men are living in a culture of Pedophilia

    June 5, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  19. Mark

    "they vowed to obey their superiors and do God's work"
    Carol, Did our God state that these men in Italy are superior to these women in the US? No, he didn't. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say this. Prior to the enlightenment by Christ the Torra(Old Testament) said women were property, again written by earthbound men. The Men in Italy declaired that they are superior to women everywhere. Are they also superior to the souls of women who have gone on to heaven before them? A person's soul is gender free. It's time you started thinking for yourself.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Bob

      "A person's soul is gender free" Based on what ?

      June 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  20. Bob the Cat

    Religion, also known as the thought cops.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:40 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.