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The Vatican is completely correct to clarify that Sister Farley’s book stands firmly outside the tradition of the Church

Sister Margaret Farley is a theologian in the same way as David Cameron

By on Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Sister Margaret Farley, author of Just Love (CNS photo)

Sister Margaret Farley, author of Just Love (CNS photo)

You may have read that the Vatican has condemned a book by Sister Margaret Farley. The Catholic Herald’s account of the matter is to be found here.

Funnily enough, I read and reviewed the book in question when it first came out, which was back in 2006, and the review was published in the Heythrop Journal of May 2008; academic reviews often come out a year or two after the original book’s publication, though a two-year gap is nothing compared to the six years that it has taken the CDF and Rome to give its verdict.

My review is not online, but I have a hard copy in front of me and am happy to share some highlights.

“In a brief section (pp. 235-236), a mere one and a half pages, she deals with ‘self-pleasuring’, a topic that, usually under a different name, has, historically, led to the spilling of rivers of ink. Farley notes that the judgment of tradition has been overwhelmingly negative; even Kant disapproved very strongly; however now ‘most’ theologians and medical practitioners view the activity as ‘morally neutral’; in other words it all depends on reasons and circumstances. Her final word is that ‘This remains a largely empirical question, not a moral one’. This is certainly a coherent point of view, but where is her evidence for this position? She mentions Kinsey and the empirical evidence of some human experience, but she does not explain how the change from moral evil to moral neutrality occurred. One can be forgiven for thinking that the 20th century arrived and the mists of obscurantism vanished before the bright sun of reason (‘Christian traditions … judged it harshly before the 20th century’ (p.236)) – but this is not an argument.”

That is just one of the topics on which the CDF picks up on what Sister Farley has to say and finds it wanting. When it comes to homosexual relations, her judgment is even more sweeping. According to Farley, at page 295 of her book: “My own view, as should be clear by now, is that same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities.” This, once again, is a conclusion, and a conclusion with which many – such as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – agree: but the book presents no argument for such a conclusion, as I noted at the time.

Sister Margaret Farley’s book is not really a theological book, it is more an anti-theological book, because it tells us that everything that has gone before is more or less wrong and all that we believe now is more or less right, ignoring the inconvenient fact that this modern knowledge is not based on any sort of theological reflection, but rather on the rejection of theological tradition. Margaret Farley is a theologian in the sense that David Cameron and others, with their championship of gay marriage, are theologians.

Incidentally, I have no personal grudge against Sister Farley. I have never met her, and all I know of her is her book. She is perfectly entitled to her views, but the CDF is completely correct to point out to the faithful what constitutes a legitimate part of the tradition, and what stands firmly outside of it. All that surprises me is that it took so long for them to do so.

  • Drglowry

    And your point is . . . 

  • Drglowry

    The book of Isaiah is a part of the canon of Scripture, a foundation of the Deposit of Faith, not just another opinion from antiquity.

  • Drglowry

    Perhaps a large measure of sour grapes. Remember the Janice Ian song from around 1966 (I learned the truth at seventeen . . .  )

  • Drglowry

    Well-said! Is biting the hand that feeds still considered hypocrisy in our relativistic age?

  • JabbaPapa

    True, but technically she has likely excommunicated herself latae sententiae — though if her confessor is collaborating with these rebellions, that won’t stick … :-(

  • JabbaPapa

    She is posing, you are posing — same difference.

  • JabbaPapa

    It is not totally harmless, and “totally natural” is not the equivalent of “good”.

    Because our _nature_ is a corrupted one.

    We all of us engage in this or that sinful behaviour — for whatever reasons, natural or otherwise — but to claim sin as “good” is straightforwardly anathematic.

  • JabbaPapa

    Revealed truths have it in common with axioms that they are undemonstrable by recourse to lower level logical elements, because such elements are not available to our thought.

    However — such truths are not in themselves axioms, because of their structural complexity ; they exist instead at the other end of the scale, of being so transcendentally complex that they overcome any rational capability to encompass them in toto.

    A thought-provoking post, thanks !!! :-)

  • JabbaPapa

    Powerful stuff !!

  • JabbaPapa

    The Truth OTOH is eminently capable of judicious capitalisation,

  • Drglowry

    The people under discussion are like soldiers who work to undermine their officers so as to appease the opposition. My spouse and I recently completed a study tour in a group comprised mostly of older (65+) clergy and religious, about half of whom were priests, the other half sisters. As lay people, we were surprised at the level of continual anger that several of the sisters carry about with them and will release at the drop of a hat on the thinnest pretext. The main grievances expressed, expressed as hostility to the Holy Father and the ”
    patriarchal ” 
    Magisterium. Our companions were angry that women continue to be ineligible for ordination to the Priesthood and denied access to senior positions as bishops and offices in the Curia. One wondered why they joined their orders in the first place, when all of us were young. Whilst as individuals, they may have changed their views and values, the Church and their orders did not similarly change to accommodate their desires. We witnessed one incident when a group of theim castiagated one of our priest companions for wearing his clerical collar to a Wednesday Papal Audience. His advice to “grow up” did little to disturb their usual level of angry hostility.

    We live in an age when the faith itself is under serious challenge from secular humanism, militant Islam, and indifference. Meeting these challenges will require the sustained best efforts of the faithful. An honest Christian Catholic who feels alienated from the Church to the point of working to undermine her might consider leaving the 
    Church to join the opposition rather than work from within as a fifth-columnist. The struggle ahead will require the collective and coordinated efforts of all Roman Catholics, lay and religious if our faith is to survive.

  • Drglowry

    That is really the bottom line, isn’t it?

  • JabbaPapa

    The Church is a different issue to the objections that one has towards JB24′s anathemata — the Church, being within and being from society, naturally reflects both the virtues and the vices of any particular general state of society as a whole.

    This is very similar in nature to each individual’s necessary individuation versus an ideal Catholicity, except that it is a collective movement and a collective imperfection.

    The duty of the Church is to teach that these rejections or rebellions or failures are sinful and wrongful, NOT to incorporate such changes into her own nature.

    The issue of each individual’s personal salvation OTOH, inside the Church or out, is a matter between that individual’s soul and God, exclusively of any other factor.

    Christian orthodoxy, Catholic or Orthodox (plus the few other smaller groups recognised fully as “churches” by the Holy See, albeit in a generally imperfect, lesser capacity), is the BEST method of learning and practising the means of salvation — which reside in Christian spirituality and mysticism, not in earthly politics.

  • JabbaPapa

    Do you have a direct line with Jesus to know what He thinks? Does the pope?


    It’s called “Eucharistic Communion” and “Revelation”.

  • JabbaPapa

    Spirituality does not obey the rules of politics.

  • Steve M

    So since some teachings have changed over the 2012 year history of the Church, then that means everything is up for possible revision?  From the earliest days of the Church, there has been a battle against heresies.  Some of the first Christians tried to impose circumcision on non-Jews but the Apostles appealed to the Holy Spirit and were given clear teaching.  The Church has a long history of change of course.  To deny that is to be silly.  The key to the change is the process.  It is not sudden but very slow moving and thoughtful.  Infallibility exists in a limited sense to protect the teaching from the failure of individuals.  My guess is that this in part is why the Church took so long to respond to this silly book.  A navel gazing, semi-religious decides that she has seen the light and 2000 years of teaching are in error and she has the truth.  Big pile of poo.  The Church was consistent enough to take time to study her poo before clearly stating that yes this stuff which looks and smells like poo is in fact poo.  I would say this silliness got a more than fair hearing before the handle was pressed and this noise was assigned to the sewer as immoral.

  • JabbaPapa

    Just one minor correction, for orthodoxy’ sake :

    The Hebrew 10 Commandments are still God’s Laws with which we Hebrews and Christians are to live our lives by.


  • JabbaPapa

    Of course I’m not “always right”, you heterodox !!

    But at least I don’t always post comments denying the Deposit of the Faith, as you do, every day !!!

  • JabbaPapa

    You’ve not descended that far into apostasy yet, this is true — describing your views as being uncatholic does not mean that they are necessarily unchristian as such.

    You are in denial of Ecclesial Revelation, rather than Biblical — but of course, that’s pretty much the trademark of Protestantism …

  • rjt1

    Very interesting and useful reference. Thank you.

  • JabbaPapa

    That opinion is not doctrinally accurate — but I don’t want to fully discuss why not, as it would be pointless in the context of this discussion to do so — but, I do wish to attach a “Handle With Care” sticker to that post.

    It’s a formal, technical point, not relevant to any actual doctrinal contents, but the Papal Authority remains imperfect in nature, as all things within Nature are imperfect.

    Doctrine generally resides in the Church as a whole, and in the Magisterium in particular, but Revelation can occur anywhere God decides to provide it.

  • rjt1

    I must admit I thought God, who is Truth, was totally simple, so I wouldn’t have thought that complexity was of the essence of mystery.

  • rjt1

    Addendum (to JByrne): by the way, I do not accept Kant’s ‘astounding insight’. I deny his premises; therefore I deny his conclusions.

  • rjt1

    Hmm, the “respected theologian” gambit. The question is not whether she is respected but whether what she is teaching is compatible with magisterial teaching.

  • Isaac

    You’re welcome. I haven’t read them all but in my experience his other books are also worth reading. 

  • JByrne24

    We live in a deeply moralising (not moral)
    age, where moralisers presume to tell other people what to think and how to
    behave. The moralising is by no means confined to matters about sex. This is
    the age of the Quangos, and other organisations of bossy, “superior”
    individuals (appointed and collected by other similar ones higher up the food
    chain), whose very raison d’être is
    to dictate rules, regulations and prohibitions about almost everything under
    the sun. Moralising ages are always immoral ages – and the moralising always
    precedes the immorality.


    matters make up a totally inflated part of the moral corpus and horizon.
    Catholics have, traditionally, been brought-up to believe that the Church’s
    teaching on all matters including sexual morals are derived always from some
    static machine called “The Church” – but this is not so. As some fellow posters
    have rightly pointed out: every teaching is something written down by a man,
    viz. a theologian, and can change with time, over the ages. The unchanging
    corner-stones are few, and always secure.

    In the
    very early Church the Second Coming was expected at any moment and sex was
    obviously something not to be thought about. When it was realised that this was
    not going to happen (any time soon) the Church had already passed into the
    hands of the moralising philosophers, who had absorbed Plato, and who thereby
    considered sex (the body) to be impure/unclean in all its aspects, and the mind
    superior, clean and worthy.


    activity is natural, but the moralising causes confusion and misery. The
    moralisers are normally keen to generally (i.e. except for a specific instance)
    limit some and prohibit other sexual activity – and in effect to ration it. A
    philosopher has noted: “it’s the hungry individual who thinks always of food”. Sexual
    activity is good, and God through Nature has made it pleasurable. It’s probably
    good for health (mental health especially, perhaps).

    activity can of course be linked to serious and evil crime, like rape -
    although the Church, to its shame, taught that rape is preferable to
    self-pleasure, because the former can give rise to procreation (does the Church
    still teach this, officially? If not, when did it stop? And a reference, please).

    if sex was allowed to take its natural course there would be many fewer
    problems, less immorality and much less guilt and misery.

  • Sweetjae

    Who said I abandoned my autonomy, Mr. Joel? Rather, the ultimate breakdown lies between reason guided by faith, and faith determined by reason. The catholic believes God based on the living Authority and living voice (Holy Spirit). The catholioc believes that man has the capacity to comprehend the infallible Word of God by his reasons, but this reason does not determine what he and will not believe. In other words , his reason is able to comprehend and analyze that which is revealed by God to him through His living Voice in the Church, but man does not determine individually what he will or not believe based on his own rational faculties.

    What authority does science brings to you? Even science is just based on the high probability theory that can be proven false in the future. So do you put your 100% faith in that? We catholics put our faith 101% to Jesus Christ!.

    Do you realize it Mr. Joel that it is you who are acting the very thing you said, “by believing whatever our whims dictate”. We as catholics as stated above with well-informed conscience submit our will to the Teachings of the Church primarily because our reason enable us to understand that which are revealed by God through His Church guided by our faith. In constrast, yours is, “human reason is the ultimate arbiter of everything”. This is the motto of a humanist, relativist mind. 

    This is the big difference between us.

  • JByrne24

    Well strictly: “always be” to make it correct English – but my apologies for leaving out the “always”.
    It was included on the website to which I gave the link.
    So let us hope that too much damage was not done.

  • Sweetjae

    1. YES! oh Yes!, this is the glaring gap between us, catholics and protestants-humanists etc.

    Besides the Eucharistic Communion, the Pope and bishops today are direct Successors of the original 12 Apostles themselves. Trace them it you would like. If you believe in the Bible, Christ said to His Apostles, “Whoever listens to you listens to Me and whoever listens to Me, listens to the One who sent Me”.

    Jesus Christ said to His Apostles, “…you will be guided INTO ALL Truth until the end of time.”

    2. Who said the Pope, bishops and priests are impeccable? St. Peter was a sinner so as St. Paul – a genocidal maniac. Anyways, our catholic faith is quite different from you, protestants or humanists because we have the CERTAINTY AND INFALLIBILITY when it comes to our Faith and Morals not because of the abilities of the pope or any man but of the guarantee of God Himself to guide His Church “into ALL Truth”, that the  “gates of Hell shall not prevail” etc.

    Do you believe in the Bible, Mr. Joel?Do you believe the Bible is inerrant?  Assuming you do, then you know that the Bible was written by fallible men 2,000 years ago? It’s not from the pen of God nor God wrote it himself, do you agree? Then , how would one know books in the Bible and the list (canon) of books is also infallible or not? Why do think Mr. Joel the Bible is infallible?

    If you can answer me this first, then we can go forward.

  • GFFM

     Many of us within the Catholic Church in the US and who are much more educated than Sr. Farley do not deem her as a respectable or, for that matter, even a competent “theologian.” She cannot reason; she does not know history, much less Church history, and she does not stand on her own feet and offer a rational response to somewhat run-of-the-mill CDF criticism. No, she is a mediocrity who is only getting publicity because of the latest LCWR situation.

  • Sweetjae

    You fell in the same hole as this “sister” which confuses the principal notions between LOVE and SEX, to the sister Marge, you, JByrne it’s the same. Why don’t you read first the book by Benedict16 titled “God is Love” and so many others by Pope JPII about the same issue of the Thoelogy of the Body and so many more to really clear your mind and of  JByrne’s  of any misconceptions and alleged “contradictions” before you come in here, because primarily you guys don’t make sense at all.

  • JByrne24

    I have always thought it notable that Vatican 1, in effect, left a slightly “open door” on this point.
    The “God” so-defined, of which our reason gives us knowledge of some aspects of his nature, is not necessarily the God The Father or whom Jesus is The Son. 
    If not the Einsteinian God, then perhaps close to it.

    Many of Kant’s writings are clarified and corrected, in easily understandable prose, by Schopenhauer, as you probably know, in The World as Will (Idea) & Representation.

  • JByrne24

    And from me, thank you for the reference.

  • Sweetjae

    Yah, Im not a bit surprised from you, listening to anybody or loon as long as it agrees with your idea,   instead to the God ordained Authority…”whatever you BIND on earh will be BOUND in Heaven.”

    You are a catholic for Pete’s sake! Just the mere fact you are one and rejects her Teachings DOESN”T make any sense. I will truly understand and very logical if you are a protestant, an atheist or a gnostic.

  • JByrne24

    I tried to read Kant on ethics as a student, but it defeated me. The very little I thought I understood a bit, I didn’t like – but this was at Cambridge, long, long ago.
    Kant is a bloody awful writer – even in his Critiques.

  • rjt1

    Our nature is damaged by original sin (don’t tell me: you don’t believe in original sin). Even after baptism our actions are affected by it, so looking at what people get up to is not necessarily a guide to what it ‘natural’.
    In the natural law tradition, which is a better guide, the sins you mention would I think be ‘against nature’ in as much as they do not fulfill our human nature.
    You suggest that there is an obsession with sex in official teaching. It is an important part of life so it deserves some attention but what proportion of encyclicals cover this area? Not a huge proportion I would think.

    On the local level, I have to say the last time I heard a priest say anything (that I can remember) about this area was maybe 35 years ago. Scarcely obsessive. I think the obsession is largely in the
    imagination of the critics.

    Historically, some heretics believed that matter was evil and that therefore it was wrong to procreate because this imprisoned a spiritual entity in an (evil) physical body. This was condemned by the teaching authority of course: in other words they dissociated themselves as strongly as possible from such beliefs..

  • JByrne24

    If you know (and can actually recognise it in print!) why use it in an argument, or even in a quotation to support your argument?

  • JByrne24

    My use of  the term “many theologians” was not intended as an argument. I used it because it is an interpretation I have read many times in theological (and philosophical) texts.

  • Sweetjae

    I already rebutted your post point by point below and I don’t want want to re type it again. There is a BIG question for you at the end, if you believe in the Bible, its inerrancy and the nature of its canons.

    Oh by the way the seeming “contradiction” you were confused about is not really contradiction but your flawed interpretation of the past Tradition in relation to the present Tradition which only deepened it. Moreso, how would you know that the CDF is right and the “sis” is wrong in the first place, if we are going by your criteria of reason alone unless you hold “Humane Vitae” as revealed authoritative command by God through His Church?

    You demand intellectual arguments from the Church? Discussions? Educated laity unafraid to face the  challenges  of the world?

    Are you even serious Mr. Joel?, where are you for the past 50 years? What do you think the Church, the Pontifical Academy for Life, ITC, CDF etc are doing specially for the last decades? Playing card games?

    There exist thousand upon thousand of Encyclecal letters, Pontifical Commissions documents on ALL ASPECTS, in every nook and cranny that you can imagine and every possible scenarios on the morality of any human reproduction, cloning, embryonic stem cell, genetic  manipulations, euthanesia,  all stages of abortions, gay-marriage, behaviour and nature etc. etc. 

    In FACT only the Catholic Church has the whole wealth of information that even the Orthodox and protestant churches only dreamed of having which they benefitted and based their sexual and life issues as well.

    So again, what the heck are you talking about?

  • Sweetjae

    See my reply to you above and below.

  • JByrne24

    Well said.
    This though is but one instance.
    This thread is sprinkled with well-meaning commentators whose knowledge of Church history is too incomplete.

  • Francisco Samour

    She looks like Lou Reed in drag

  • JByrne24

    I agree.  It is indeed our thrust in Jesus, because this is the way in which God chose to make Himself known to mankind.

  • Sweetjae

    Glaring examples is you don’t know how to differentiate between the Disciplines of the Church which can change and the DOGMAS of the Church that she has no power to change.

    Yes there were abuses, bad popes, bad bishops and clergy in complicit with the civil authorities of their time, no doubt but to say they are part of the Dogmatic Teachings of the Church is a straw man argument…you are barking at the wrong tree, my friend.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    1) I have already shown how popes have made mistakes even in official pronouncements on morals. In the Bull Exsurge Domine, one of the hateful, heretical opinions that Pope Leo X condemned was this:

    33. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit. “Do you agree with this papal pronouncement? Do you agree that heretics ought to be burned, and that God intends it?***
    About the CANON of Scripture: Don’t you know that different Apostolic churches have (slightly) different biblical canons? And these different canons coexisted in the same united Church for at least 1000 years (in the case of Catholics and Orthodox; that is to say, latins and byzantines). Copts, Assyrians, etc. also have slight variations to the canon.

    The West only made its stronger, supposedly infallible affirmation of its own canon as the only possible one in the Council of Trent. But what about all the Eastern tradition, equally holy and valuable to the life of the Church?

    So yes, even in deciding the canon, things are not so simple as you make them seem.The clergy is guided by the Holy Spirit, but it is never absolutely clear what is from God and what is from man. With the Bible it’s the same thing. Or can we not find in the Bible many dated and false opinions about a number of subjects?All of this follows the classical theological principle that grace does not supersede nature, but rather pressuposes it and (ideally) perfects it.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    Oh really? So your standard for moral issues are the feelings that go inside your head when you take communion, since they must be from God? THIS is much closer to the error of protestantism than anything I’ve stated…

  • Sweetjae

    I addition to our position I mentioned in my other post that contrary to this position is the protestant-humanists position (I’m not saying you re one)  which puts man’s intellect and individual rational capacity above faith, meaning only faith in themselves. For the catholic, faith precedes reason, for the other one, reason precedes faith. In other words, the protestant-humanist takes God’s Written Word and attempts as best as he can to determine what it means for him and the doctrines he will  believe and then put his faith in what he has determined.

    This is the complete opposite of catholic’s position, who simply listens to God’s Voice speaking through His one and only  Church and then seeks to understand that faith by his reason.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    I partly agree. Changes will be slow. But what if there has indeed been a serious error in the tradition? It would be good to speed things up.

    I’m not even saying the nun is right and the CDF wrong. I’m only saying that one side, the nun’s, has taken the reasonable, rational and charitable path of dialogue, whereas the other is stuck in anathemizing and threatening whoever disagrees. And it can only do so as long as it maintains the façade of “immutability”. But you’ve seen through that, so you know how baseless it is.

    Imagine if the CDF were around when St. Paul decided to rebuke St. Peter… They’d probably be denying that the Church ever changed its position, and that the old prohibition against non-jews was still valid (“but it meant something else back then; you see, the social context was so different…”).

    Too sudden changes may harm the faith of many. But too slow changes also does serious and unnecessary damage to so many people’s lives and consciences. Imagine the number of medieval bankers excommunicated or living under the fear of excommunication for doing a perfectly honest business transaction!

    I think the speed of the process ought never to be our primary concern, but rather how it is carried out. Honestly, through rational, faithful and charitable dialogue, and not with fear-mongering  anathemas.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    The ban on usury was dogmatic. Even most traditionalists agree with this (they try to cop out by saying the nature of money or the economy changed since then; they’re wrong here too, but at least they are more honest).

    So was the ban on religious liberty, repeated up to the 19th century in the Syllabus of Pius IX. Doctrines with far less official pronouncements to back them are considered infallible (the ban on contraception was considered infallibly irrevocable by many theologians even before Humanae Vitae. In fact, that seems to have been the one argument that convinced Pope Paul VI: to change the teaching would be admitting that the Church had been wrong all along).

    And now that you touch on the subject, did you know it is a matter of much discussion among theologians to even decide on which teachings have the note of infallibility and which do not?

  • Sweetjae

    You are looking for the Church to teach better? Where are you for the past 50 years or so? There are thousand upon thousands of pages from the Pope, Pontifical Academy of Life, ITC, CCC, CDF etc. etc. that deals with EVERY NOOK and CRANNY about every issue there is to be found on the morality and nature of Life, love, sex, gay-marriage and acts, cloning, embryonic and adult stem cell research, genetic DNA manipulation and design, euthanesia.
    In fact ONLY the Catholic Church has produce these vast wealth of teachings that even any government, Orthodox and protestant churches envied and at the same time used them for their own reference and benefit as a standard to teach. Then you still complain?
    In reality is, this “sis” and your assertion that the Church is lacking in “dialogue” is an old argument and used as a way to justify disobedience to God’s ordained living authority, plain and simple.