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. tradcatholic

    She looks and thinks like a feminazi. She should put on a habit and do what she's told. Otherwise, the door swings out as well. Some Protestant church would welcome her. Reply all you want, I don't read replies.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  2. TimHatesSuffering

    The Catholic Church does care for more Orphans and Hiv patients than any one else in the world. But with it's Policies againts contrception IT CREATES 100 times more human sufferage than it helps!! The Catholic Church IS THE SOLEY RESPONSIBLE FOR TENS OF MILLIONS OF HUMANS SUFFERING ON THIS PLANET!! STOP IT!!!!!

    June 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Drew

      True. Are religious beliefs to be respected even when they are demonstrably harmful to the quality of life on earth?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Tim hates suffering unless you are in your mother's womb

      June 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Thomas

      So if the Vatican allowed contraception this would stop all the suffering in the world?

      June 7, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  3. Jim in PA

    I'm sure the Church will come around. I mean, heck, it only took them 300 years to admit that Galileo was right.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  4. Nilkinggary

    Two days ago this book was unknown to the general audience. Now it's the #16 bestselling book on Amazon and rising rapidly. I want to write a bestseller, too. How much does the Vatican charge to send out Notifications?

    June 5, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Rising demand has wiped out Amazon's inventory. Now the best they can promise is to ship it in 1-3 weeks. I'm saying my prayers for a Kindle version soon. $20 a pop, and it's going like hotcakes.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  5. ScottH

    Economic Justice = Marxism. Prothero, quit using misleading words.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Drew

      Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

      June 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  6. mat

    Pedophile preists are no more christian than Obama or Pelosi. Anyone can call themselves anything apparently. Didnt the Obama admin say they are the most budget constrained gov in history? lol. After trying to pass billions onto Bush when he was out of office. No honesty on the left at all.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • scoobypoo

      funny how the catholic pedophiliac society is so conservative, eh?
      must drive you nuts.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  7. ccd08

    Sorry to have to explain it to you Prothero, but the Church is making sure that anyone who is Catholic that would follow this nun is aware that she is not following what the Church teaches about God and love. Prothero and the nun admits that she has entered into the secular world's beliefs on love, and so her authority as nun must be rebuked.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Frank

      True. She has entered the morally superior secular world and discovered a conscience. She's clearly no longer RCC material and should be ex-communicated.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      And let's not forget that she politicizes the ethics of s ex by saying Social Justice is part of it.
      Social Justice????
      As part of the ethics of S ex????
      Please. Take that garbage out, it's stinking.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Drew

      Social justice is not an inherently political concept. What leads you to believe it is?

      June 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      Social Justice isn't Justice where everyone gets treated exactly the same.
      It is a means to treat the successful as if they should be punished. It inherently involves treating people differently in order to achieve equal ends.
      If you treat everyone Equally and Justly, then you get wildly varying outcomes.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • mat

      Actually Frank she has abandoned her vows. She has no voice from her position because she never deserved the position in the 1st place. I can claim muslim and then go condemn them all day long, doesnt make me a muclim or expert on them.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Drew

      Social justice is more related to equal opportunity than equal ends. Not everyone starts with the same opportunities. Also, Jesus DID advocate redistribution of wealth. I ask again, how can the pope be so rich and yet supposedly follow jesus?

      June 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      Jesus advocated charity and voluntary giving.
      Redistribution is Gov't forced theft.
      If you do not have the consent of those you take from, then you are stealing.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Drew

      So what about the pope then?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  8. bigdil

    Just another gang of rich old white guys trying to bully the rest of the world to fall in line. Sad.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      If the Vatican excommunicates her, does she get to keep all the money she's going to make from the skyrocketing sales?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  9. ib42

    And where did my post go, please?

    June 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      Don't even try to requote the article – they erase those immediately. I guess their article is too offensive for their comments section.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  10. oldguy

    I suspect her agent put the Vatican up to this (sarcasm) because I think the sales will now skyrocket (truth)

    June 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  11. Mark

    Bob, You actuially think that the human soul, totally free of the body, is male or female? You must be one of those that thinks that God is really a "man". You need some serious therapy before your number is up.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Keith

      He isn't the only one who needs therapy, anybody who thinks that a god actually exists let alone thinks that such a thing as a soul exists is seriously disturbed.
      There are NO SUCH things as gods, ghosts, goblins or souls these are merely fictional characters invented by evil people to threaten and cow the weak minded sheep who flock to the sheep pens every Sunday.
      History is replete with thousands of gods all of which are useless and are NEVER around when they are needed. This can be proved very easily, we desperately need a cure for childhood diseases amongst many other diseases but I will start with the most heartbreaking sight anyone can imagine, A SICK AND DYING CHILD. Will all you believers ask your chosen god to reveal how to cure these diseases to the doctors and medical researchers who have laboured valiantly to find the answers.
      If I hear tomorrow that all these diseases have been cured then I will be the first to bow down and worship whichever god stepped forward to help. That is my pledge, so get on your knees and start asking.
      I can hear the whirlwind of excuses already, "that isn't how it works", "you can't tempt god", "you can't expect god to be everywhere", ""god will make a place in heaven for all those dead children".

      June 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  12. raidel

    the last statement of the article is unfair to the Catholic Church.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Drew

      How so?

      June 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • scoobypoo

      The Catholic Church is unfair to humanity. The sisters need to leave the cult.

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

      I just wished your pedophile infested cult were as concerned about their rape of children as they are about if someone is having sex and not trying to become pregnant.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  13. John N. Seattle, WA

    The Vatican is nothing more than a corrupt relic of the Dark Ages. The sooner people wake up and realize that their relationship with the Almighty doesn't need a mediator, the better!

    June 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Mark R

      AMEN BROTHER !!!!!

      June 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Inigo Montoya

      The Vatican was around loooong before the Dark Ages.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Drew

      Not that long. The vatican predates the dark ages by MAYBE 100 years

      June 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Aidan

      You are half right. "The Vatican is nothing more than a corrupt relic of the Dark Ages."
      "The sooner people wake up and realize that their relationship with the Almighty doesn't need a mediator, the better!" Wrong here, there is no almighty. To quote Richard Dawkins, "The god of the old testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction."

      June 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  14. raidel

    oh come on, I don't see my posts.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  15. JG

    Just another example of how ridiculous the "church" is. I'm glad that it's getting more and more watered down among the masses. Eventually, it will be history, like all other "religions" in the thousands of years before it.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I believe what you are witnessing is not watering down. This is precisely what the Doctrine of Faith is commissioned to prevent. What you are most likely witnessing is a distillation. The Church will undoubtedly become smaller though more devout. I believe this is central to Benedict's charge.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  16. seamus

    Catholic church, along with all churches and the belief in a magical god in general have really messed up our world. At the dawn of time when early humans walked the earth they probably thought that a drought was a god telling them that he was angry with them. Let's be honest, if someone claiming to be Jesus were to start working today he'd be outcast as a whacko just like every other cult leader that has emerged in recent memory. Unless of course that person performed some magic tricks to prove that he was the son of god like, maybe cause the apocalypse. Religion worked for centuries because people didn't know any better. Yet the stories of walking on water and changing water to wine and having a direct line to god persist and they are believed by the believers to the end. The fear of death makes people believe in this stuff, and the greed of eternal life. What is more greedy than wanting to live forever? Powerful stuff and the money machine that is organized religion just keeps on raking it in!

    June 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • oldguy

      Well, that had nothing to do with the article. But I guess anything about religion is an excuse to vent your frustrations

      June 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  17. Joshua

    Whether or not one agrees with the author of the book about thier conception of love,

    The dogma of the catholic faith is clear. If someone within thier order writes a piece of literature that does not adhere to thier standards, then they have every right to ban it, just like you and any one with sense as a right to ignore them....

    June 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • scoobypoo

      Yes, it is their right to ban it. However, it is also everyone else's right to be highly critical and vocal about that ban.

      Since when is discouraging masturbation more important than helping starving children? Oh yeah... when the pope says so.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  18. Ryan in Texas

    "Social Justice" is just another word for we take your money and hand it to someone who is to lazy to work for their own.
    This Nun is just a political tool.
    I guess in her mind, if she makes her politics into ethics then she can preach her politics and you are morally obligated to accept it.
    Nice try, but no, Neither Jesus nor God ever said equality of outcome is morality.
    Otherwise we simply punish the hardworking by taking their money and giving it to those too lazy to work. Did Jesus say we should punish work?

    June 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Drew

      "Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or inst itution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being."

      I guess I'm not surprised that a conservative Texan is ignorant about so many topics. And Jesus also advocated that his followers give all their money to the poor.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Sotzume

      What a hateful sorry person you are....to dismiss social justice, equality for all people, to your ignorant definition. How typical of a Texan...

      June 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Drew

      Everyone knows Jesus was a capitalist. Sort of like a bronze-age rockefeller. What F***ing morons the religious right are

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

      Hey wait a minute Sotzume! I'm a liberal, and believe in human rights for everyone, but what's this about Texas? I'm half Sicilian and half Texan, so be careful here.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • John N. Seattle, WA

      "And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." - Matthew 19:24

      "If there be among you a poor man of one of your brethren within any of your gates in your land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother." - Deuteronomy 15:7

      Tell me, do you even READ what you are supposed to believe in?

      June 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      So how is the redistribution of income about any of this?
      Charity is not coerced by the Gov't.
      And there is virtually no one in the US who is poor.
      Jesus said feed the hungry – our "poor" are obese!!!

      June 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Drew

      "And there is virtually no one in the US who is poor."
      What a clueless idi0t. There are currently millions of children living below the poverty line

      June 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Huebert

      @ Ryan

      Matthew 19:21
      Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      No, actual poor – I've travelled the world and seen real poor people.
      Real poor people are thin. They have no running water or indoor plumbing. Same with electricity.
      The average poor person in the US has a car, a cell phone, a big screen tv...

      June 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Drew

      That last line might be more impressive if it was actually based in fact and not hyperbolic nonsense. Also, no one even brought up government redistribution of wealth besides you. This whole argument started because you objected to the sister's use of the term "social justice," a term which you clearly misunderstand. People like you are the reason democracy doesn't work well. The population just isn't educated enough

      June 5, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Huebert


      I've been poor before. my family had a 10 year old car no cell phone or tv. How long have you lived in a low income housing complex? how many of your friends are below the poverty line, or are homeless? You're typing out of your ass and it shows.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      Huebert – I can show you a million people just a few hours south of me that would gladly trade places with you.
      Have you ever been out of the US?
      You have no idea how good we have it here.
      I bet you are the type to say: I won't work in the fields, it's too hard. So then you sit on the dole instead.
      People come here to work in those fileds. You think you are poor, dare to compare.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Drew

      Ryan, why doesn't the pope give his immense wealth to help those people just south of you? It's what Christ would have done

      June 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Huebert


      Yes I have been out of the U.S.A, my family is no longer poor. I am aware that it is far better to be poor here that it is to be poor in most other countries, I've done mission work in Haiti. In no way does that diminish the struggles of my own poverty nor does it change what Jesus said:
      Matthew 19:21
      Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
      Yes it is better to be poor in America, but social justice is still an important issue even here.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      Heubert – The question is if anyone who has less than you is poor.
      Or do we use a biblical definition such as what we would find in many third world nations?
      Jesus never said people should be forced to give. That's not charity anyway.
      By US standards, everyone in the bible, save a few kings or rulers were poor.
      Yet, Jesus never said that everyone was deserving of charity.
      In the US, fully 1/3 live on handouts. MANY are able bodied but simply lazy.
      So when the nun talks about social justice – she means the forced taking of money from people.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Patrick from Texas

      Show me a quote where she means "social justice" is only giving money to people you consider not poor? I dont think that is anywhere in there. Social Justice has a much more broad term, and maybe you should educate yourself on just what that is.

      Also there are a lot of poor in the US just because you havent experienced them doesnt mean they dont exist. And they are overweight because the only food they are able to afford is horrible for you and kills you slowly. IF you are a follower of Jesus then why dont you give your money to the poor of other countries, or serve all of your time there. Dont call yourself a Christian though if you dont want to follow one of Jesus' main tenents which is Social Justice.

      Its people like you who have given Texas a bad name.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • TR6

      It’s interesting that so many of the people who demand that the government enact laws to enforce religious doctrine about things like preventing gay marriage are the same ones demanding that government not even attempt to feed the hungry, clothe the ragged or heal the sick even though that is a more important part of their religious doctrine.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  19. BP

    The Catholic church is not a cult. You are not forced to do anything you dont want.You are taught in their guidence by the Holy Spirit to do what they perceive what is right from wrong.Ok let me sheild myself now from all the hateful feedback from all of you. Love ya though!!!

    June 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Hateful feedback is clearly unnecessary here. You've already stated the obvious solution to the rigidness of the church when you said "You are not forced to do anything you don't want".

      You are absolutely correct, and that's why I am not forced to, nor do I recognize any organized religion as holding any form of authority or judgement over me whatsoever. Problem solved.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Frank

      It's a cult. When otherwise decent people, who are members, come out in support of and defend child rapists and the organization who coddles and protects them but holds dogma to be far more important then it's a cult.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Which God??

      Spoken like the brainwashed person you are, BP. Have you ever really THOUGHT about what the rcc believes and 'indoctrinates into it's young charges? I have been there and it it left me cold. I got out. So should you. I believe that it is said that to get to heave and the father one must go through Jeebus, right? Why pray to Mary for intercession, or to the ohters called saints? Are they gods too, as they perform miricles for people, right? Oh my false idolatry spoken here. It's all make believe. Wake up and live in the real world, it will pass you by and you will have squandered your time here for a false premise..

      June 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  20. oldsterone

    It is about Church teaching. This nun is dissenting from the teaching of the Church, and thus she is not in communion with it.

    You see, the teaching of Christ never changes. As he was hated, and persecuted and put to death, so are those who truly conform to his ways, where there is fire and light and truth. The venom encouraged by CNN on these pages is the tip of the iceberg...millions hate the great Pope Benedict and the Vatican and faithful Catholics. The world must conform to the Church; it is not the other way around.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Sotzume

      I guess then we should all become pedophiles if we want to conform to the Church..what absolute rubbish you write.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Frank

      Rape all the children you want but it's absolutely unforgiveable to go against church dogma. This filthy pedophile infested cult should be wiped off the face of the Earth.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • mat

      the pedophiles are the same as the christians who write these lies for CNN. Never christian. I guess I can call myself liberal and everything i do and believe reflects on every single liberal. Losers.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Keith

      Absolute CRAP, should we still be burning heretics at the stake? should the Inquisition be re-instated so that they can start torturing the unbelievers? PEOPLE matter NOT gods, if JC is unhappy with the state of things the he has only himself and his Dad and his holy ghost to blame. Oh! and he can also blame the little Nazi in the Vatican, STOP BLAMING THE POOR DEFENSELESS PEOPLE OF THIS PLANET.
      And stop your revolting SNIVELING.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Keith

      This is in reply to mat, what the hell are you talking about, the diatribe you wrote is incomprehensible.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • TR6

      “The world must conform to the Church; it is not the other way around.”

      I would say that the last 2000 years of history and especially the last 500 years clearly demonstrates how far you head has been shoved up your as-s by the propaganda of organized religion

      June 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Juggling Squirrel-Jesus

      "The world must conform to the Church; it is not the other way around."

      Rationalization like these has given the world such wonderful events. The Crusades and the Inquisition come to mind. Similar ideology, in recent times, also leads to planes running into large buildings.

      June 7, 2012 at 1:09 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.