Beliefs Culture

Vatican censors nun’s book on sexual ethics, and some see a bid to muzzle women’s voices

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A long-simmering conflict between the Vatican and American nuns erupted again on Monday (June 4) when the Vatican’s doctrinal office issued a scathing critique of a popular book on sexual ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, one of the first Catholics to teach at Yale Divinity School.

A long-running conflict between the Vatican and American nuns exploded again with the condemnation of a popular book on sexual ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, citing problematic passages on homosexuality, divorce and masturbation.

A long-running conflict between the Vatican and American nuns exploded again with the condemnation of a popular book on sexual ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, citing problematic passages on homosexuality, divorce and masturbation.

After two years of study, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “notification” on Farley’s “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” saying it contradicts Catholic doctrine on key issues such as gay marriage, homosexuality and divorce.

Coming just days after U.S. nuns rejected the Vatican’s reasoning for a wholesale makeover, and a year after U.S. bishops sanctioned another nun theologian, the condemnation of Farley is the latest example of what critics see as a top-down attempt to muzzle women’s voices and an obsession on sexual ethics.

The condemnation comes just three days after Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who has been appointed by the Vatican to oversee the reform of the largest umbrella organization of Catholic sisters in the U.S., extended what appeared to be an olive branch to the nuns.

Sartain said that he wanted to work to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious “in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity and fidelity to the Church’s faith,” and said the Vatican and American bishops were “deeply proud of the historic and continuing contribution” of nuns in education and health care.

But his conciliatory tone was quickly overshadowed by the new condemnation issued by Rome on yet another American nun.

The “notification” says Farley’s book “ignores” or “contradicts” Catholic teaching, presenting it as “one opinion among others,” and warned that it should not be “used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.” The “notification” was approved by Pope Benedict XVI on March 16.

The Vatican’s doctrinal office singled out masturbation, homosexuality and marriage as specific areas of concern in “Just Love.”

For example, Farley writes that “masturbation … usually does not raise any moral questions at all,” and that homosexual acts “can be justified” following the same ethics as heterosexual ones. The Vatican statement retorts that “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action” and that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.”

Farley also voices doubts over the “indissolubility” of marriage, and argues that laws recognizing gay marriage can play an important part in reversing widespread “hatred … and stigmatization of gays and lesbians,” a position that is “opposed to the teaching of the magisterium,” according to the Vatican.

Published in 2006, “Just Love” has received widespread praise from Christians of all denominations and has been used as a textbook in college courses on sexual ethics. For it, Farley won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2008.

Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, taught at Yale from 1971 to 2007.

In a statement, Farley acknowledged that some of her positions are “not in accord with current official Catholic teaching,” but stressed that her book’s intent was to present a modern “framework for sexual ethics” drawing on the input of current experience and different religious traditions.

Farley, who was the first woman professor and one of the first Catholics to teach at Yale Divinity School, says she is convinced that her positions “reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights” of Christian theology and tradition, and contends that the Vatican ignored the reasons and context that led to her conclusions.

Other Catholic theologians seem to agree. M. Shawn Copeland, a theology professor at Boston College called the Vatican notification “deeply disappointing and most disturbing,” saying that Farley’s research is “notable” for its “distinguishing of practical and speculative questions from magisterial or official teaching.”

Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, called Farley a “careful and caring” theologian, and said “it is the vocation of Catholic theologians and ethicists to work on the boundaries” of current doctrine.

The notification on Farley’s book comes in the wake of last year’s controversial condemnation of feminist theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and seems to be part of an effort to rein in theologians who stray too far from the path of Catholic orthodoxy.

In March, a Vatican panel stated that while “investigation and questioning” by theologians are “justified and even necessary” the final word on the “authentic interpretation” of the Catholic faith ultimately belongs to bishops.


About the author

Alessandro Speciale

Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and wrote for Religion News Service from 2011-2013. Born in Rome, he studied literature at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, and journalism at City University, London. He has appeared as an expert on Vatican affairs on CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera English.


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  • I’ve had the honor and pleasure of getting to know Sr. Farley over the years when I lived in Connecticut. She’s an amazing inspiration and this just makes me want to read the book again, and buy copies for all my friends 🙂

  • The Catholic hierarchy under this pope, even more so than under John Paul II for whom he was the “enforcer,” have come to be domineering power mongers. In this day and age, how do they hold to the mythology that they are the only ones with any learning, any ability to think, any right to make their own belief decisions? The whole notion of a “magisterium” is so antique they should be ashamed to have coined the term or use it. All people have a God-given ability to learn and think. All people have a natural right to make their own thought and belief decisions, just as much as any bishop, including any pope.

    If thought and decisions are not free and respected as natural rights, then all religion is not only false, it is evil. Any honest person who has studied the history of the Catholic Church has learned it is as full of evil as any good. Sadly, today, we are seeing a reversion to a lot of evil.

    Lay Catholics of the world must stand and fight against this evil clericalism in their church. Down with Vatican appointments of bishops. Down with diocesan bishops’ appointments of parish clergy. Lay people must rise up and take the place that is their right in their church. Only then will these Vatican attacks against religious liberty and women be stopped while the sins and crimes of the clergy continue to be hidden. The Vatican II declaration of “People of God” included lay people. We don’t need a Vatican!