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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. raidel

    hey, when is my post going to show?

    June 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  2. MJoseph

    "Once again, I must admit that I cannot make sense of what the Vatican is doing here." I think that is your problem – you have not studied and/or do not understand the actual teachings of the Catholic Church. Common mistake.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Bravo! Well said.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • bigdil

      Right. And if you ask the Vatican to explain those teachings they will quickly explain that the Vatican is always right and that's all you need to know.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      bigdil – So sorry you were forced to show your ignorance. The Church publishes volumes on volumes explaining it's thoughts and teachings. Parishes hold retreats, workshops and small groups that focus on central issues. Mass is celebrated daily where homilies can be heard which give meaning and life to teaching. So go thou and learn!

      June 5, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • ernestly

      Bill deacon – So sorry you were forced to show your ignorance. The Church publishes volumes on volumes rationalizing its inexplicable dogma. Parishes hold retreats, workshops and small groups indoctrinating their followers on the latest vatican media spin. Mass is celebrated daily where homilies can be heard that further entrap the small minded adherents into believing whatever lies are usefull to the hierarchy at that point in time. Do yourself a favor – think about it – don't just beleive it.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      ernestly You have no idea how much I might have thought through my own beliefs. You are content to stigmatize and entire population as small minded because you disagree with them. I think they call that contempt prior to investigation

      June 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • ernestly

      Bill Deacon - you are right I shoudn't have used the words "small minded" and i regret that and am sorry. Actually I think the people who think about these things are in fact maybe thoughtful/discriminatinig/"large minded". But many of the followers of most (or probably all) religions don't seem to be thinking about these things – rather they just follow what they are told – those are the ones I meant to label with "small minded".

      June 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  3. Jon

    So male priest can sodomize little boys but nuns can't fall in love with any one else. I seems to make sense , it all religious fair tales any ways...

    June 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  4. mom

    You go sister!! As a convert to Catholicism with several nun's for friends I agree with this analysis whole heartily. This Pope has been so far away from the "people" it isn't funny. The previous 4 Popes were ten times more progressive and interested in the 'people' than this medieval fossil. My parish recently had to purchase 'precious metal' goblets and communion bowls because the Vatican deemed that the most worthy. The less expensive and more beautiful cut crystal ones were no longer 'appropriate'. This Pope seems to be 'all show and no substance',

    June 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      mom if you are new convert you may want to reconsider. the Church does not mold itself to the present whim of people's desire. It teaches the truth of God's revelation.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • bigdil

      Correct, the Church molds itself strictly to the whims and desires OF THE CLERGYwhich have been the same for 2000 years, i.e. to control the Church and it's fortune without any possibility of a challenge to their self-serving doctrine.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Bigdil – Ok suppose the Church were to magically transform itself into just exactly what you think it ought to be today. What should it do when your ideas fall out of fashion? My central question to you is this; Is there truth? Where then is it held?

      June 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  5. Taking Flight

    The Catholic Church, like it's thinking, is an old antiquated sentiment that does little to accommodate mainstream ideals.

    The churches continued ignorance to modern times will ultimately be it's down fall. Parishes are closing and there is no line for new priests or nuns forming...they are a dying breed.

    When the church ordains women, allows priests to marry and have children and recognizes that they themselves are part of the LBGT movement...perhaps then, and only then, deaf ears will hear again.

    Any organization that denies women equality should not be teaching what a man and a woman can and can't do!

    June 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You seem to know nothing about which you speak

      June 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  6. onestarman

    The PROBLEM is that The VATICAN has Interjected an Ethic into american Politics that ONLY is Shared by a Very Small Group of Old Men wearing Robes who think Women are 'Icky'. The Association of Catholic Nun live IN the WORLD while NOT being OF the Power of Oppression of the WORLD – While the VATICAN is NOT in The World WE Live In but Operates with the Politics of CORRUPTION and DECEIT and PERVERSION and Lust For POWER that is the WORST Of The WORLD.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  7. duh

    These articles show ignorance on the writers part.

    A nun, being a representative of the Catholic church, writes a book that conflicts with the official, stated teachings of the church. Of course she is going to get a letter. This is called heresy and you used to get a whole lot more than a letter.

    I agree that the Vatican should also put a focus on economic/social injustices, but that doesn't mean you should expect to get reprimanded for a book that is clearly and indefensibly at odds with the church's teachings.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  8. Clint

    It's really because the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy is nothing but an inhumane chunk of garbage desparately trying to impose its moral caste system on Catholics. It is so completely out of touch that it will die as it relegates itself to fanaticism.

    Absolute garbage and trash – the biblical expression, I believe, is, "And from the fruits of their works shall you know them." And that, is why the Vatican is garbage. QED.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  9. tony

    Time to tax the crooks. Back taxes for a few centuries would probably be in order too.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Aidan

      Amen.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Mary says

      If you take away the tax exemption, you free them to say whatever they want from the pulpit. Now, they can say "abortion is immoral", and hope people understand that they should not vote for any pro-choice candidate. Without the tax exemption, churches will be free to say "vote for Romney". Forcing the church to pay taxes was threatened once, back in the 60's, and immediately dropped, when the bishops said "Go ahead! We'd love to be able to speak freely!"

      June 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Many are saying whatever they want anyway.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  10. Mrs. Katz

    This is a disgrace. They need to leave that nun alone.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yeah she should be able to subvert any teaching she wants! On anything!

      June 5, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  11. Ryan in Texas

    "Social Justice"??????
    As part of the "ethics" of s ex?
    She should be condemned by all for trying to inject politics into ethics.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Drew

      You realize that Jesus was concerned with social justice, right? Amazing how little you people know about your own beliefs

      June 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Alverant

      How about after the world condemns the pope for injecting religion into ethics?

      June 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      Justice isn't Social Justice. That's the problem. Jesus never said anything about taking money from one person and handing it to another.
      That's politics.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Drew

      That's not what social justice means either, Ryan in Texas. An example of social justice would be preventing a prost itute from being stoned.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  12. modvoice

    Does this mean Jesus can divorce her?

    June 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  13. Su Lynn

    The catholic church has been out of step with reality for a very long time.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Mrs. Katz

      When was it ever IN step with reality?

      June 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Mary

      “The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example” – Mark Twain

      June 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  14. Steve

    The Church only cares about the Church; that has been shown throughout the centuries. People come in second.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Drew

      As is the case with all other soulless corporations

      June 5, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • HappilyCatholic

      The people are the Church. The Vatican cares about the congregation as it cares about the church, because without one there cannot be the other.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Mary

      The "dogma" is more important to the church than its followers.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Mary says

      No, the Church cares about everyone's immortal soul. So the Church tells people not to do things that will harm their immortal souls. People don't like to hear that – they wanna do what they wanna do, and they don't like anybody telling 'em not to. "Seek the narrow way. For wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be who go in there." The reason the Church doesn't conform to current trends is because what was immoral for your great-grandmother is immoral for you, too. These things don't change. The Church will always be counter-cultural.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  15. J

    So this guy is basically applauding this nun for having secular beliefs instead of those of the Catholic church and Gods teachings, which she commmitted her life to. Any chance the media can point out that a Christian has secular beliefs or goes against the church they do.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Drew

      The issue is more the Catholic Church's seeming obsession with se x, and apparent lack of concern for corruption within its own midst

      June 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Paul Dahlinger

      Well said. If this nun wants to start her own religion, then should should leave the Catholic church and start her own religion. Secular commentators and secular readers will never understand this point.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • HA25

      Because, Paul – it's a stupid point. It's akin to saying if you don't agree with your spouse you should leave him/her and find another. Instead, this person and many like her are, out of love & concern, trying to make the church better and more relevant – still within God's teaching (maybe not that of the Doctrine..). That's called sticking it out with someone / something you love.
      What's confusing is why you will never understand this..

      June 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Mary

      I don't think Catholic Church follows Christ's teachings. Didn't Christ say "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone"? Church has forgotten Christ's teachings so much that if Christ came down to earth, he would condemn the church.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  16. Drew

    The last sentence of this article is dead-on

    June 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • What

      The Catholic Church has tens of thousands of charitable organizations, hospitals and schools around the world to help the less fortunate. It did not criticize the charitable works of nuns, just the departure from Catholic doctrine of Catholic nuns.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Drew

      The Catholic church could also do far more if it wasn't so obsessed with it's own splendor and dogma. The pope's clothes could probably pay to feed a small african country for a week

      June 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Alverant

      The RCC has been keeping the status quo instead of improving things. They've done more hurt than help.

      June 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  17. DefyTheGods

    Sister Margaret Farley denounced by the Vatican? She must be doing something very right!

    June 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  18. DefyTheGods

    You go, Sister!

    June 5, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  19. rftallent

    It is arrogant of the pope to criticize the work of the sisters who are "on the ground" doing the work of Christ, while he sits in his ivory tower surrounded by servants. He has lost touch with, not only the needs of the people, but also what his priests are doing behind closed doors. The nuns are "in the world", while the pope is "of the world". It's time for him to focus on the problems that need to be cleaned up and cleared out, and stop bringing grief to the sisters who tirelessly serve the people with genuine love.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  20. Tom

    The trouble with the sisters is: They ain't getting none!! LOL, get it?

    June 5, 2012 at 2:06 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.