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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.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    I don’t deny that a lot of valuable and ground-breaking work has been made by people within the Church’s hierarchy; and also from lay Catholics who defend the CDF’s position (eg. philosophers John Finnis and Germain Grisez). What I’m questioning is the present behavior of the CDF, which has been largely reflected here, of merely repeating official teaching as if the fact that it is the official teaching is proof enough.

    And I’m not sure that the CDF is right and the nun is wrong. I think some of these questions are still open, and evevn questions previously considered close might be reviewed in the light of new discoveries or ways of thinking.”But then what will happen to our infallibly set-in-stone certainty that can never be questioned?” – That only works as psychological crutch that prevents us from confronting a more frightful reality: our knowledge, including revealed knowledge about God and spiritual questions, is much smaller than past generations liked to believe. And this belief could only be maintained by certain biases and omissions which are no longer possible to be made with an honest mind nowadays.

  • theroadmaster

    I’m afraid that your comments have lost me and I don’t see what point you are making regarding my observations.  I don’t see how my comments contradict the basis on which the Catholic Church forms Her approach to Faith and morals.

  • Sweetjae

    You have been weighted and  found to be wanting, Mr. Joel. No alibis and excuse.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    John Paul II and Benedict XVI could only write as they do about sex because of a very long and slow process of development which effectively reversed the Church’s attitude towards the issue. 

    Go read what St. Augustine has to say about sex (not marriage as a whole, but specifically about marital sexual intercourse itself), without the pressupositions that we have as modern readers. You’ll see how far the Church has come. Huge changes took place in our understanding of the issue; and in the particular case of sex, for the better.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    Curiously, I would say the complete opposite. For a Catholic, reason precedes faith. Reason leads us to the preambles of faith and prepares us for accepting faith (this is pure St. Thomas). We have direct knowledge of reality even apart from supernatural grace from God. Faith never contradicts our reason, it only goes further than reason can go.

    Now, for a protestant, it all begins with a blind leap of faith. Human reason is depraved from the start, so it is not fit to know the real world. It is an internal conviction, believed to stem from God Himself, that gives us certainty that we are right, even though the world outside, and our own “rational” minds, may try to fool us.

    Strictly speaking, I do know that even within the Church there has always been this more fideistic, irrationalistic, extreme augustinian posititon. And this is a good thing; I think both sides can gain from dialogue, even though I believe the rationalistic one is, on the whole, much closer to the truth. And it was this irrationalistic strain always present within the Church that would give rise to protestant thought (it is no surprise that Luther was an augustinian friar, and not a dominican, for instance).

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    How do you know which religious authority you should put your faith on? Why the Church of Rome, and not the Church of Moscow or the Assyrian Church of the East, or Christian Science or the Latter-day Saints? 

    You have different authorities competing for your allegiance. You have to decide which one you think is true: either based on some internal feeling or conviction (which you then equate with the will of God); or on a reasonable assessment of their claims and how well the fulfill criteria which cannot have got from the authortiy itself.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    Lol. One of the most bizarre results of the authoritarian attitude is when  individual Catholics begin hurling anathemas and biblical condemnations as if they were oracles of God. Who’s closer to protestantism?

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    How did you go from “Whatever you bind on earth…” to “whatever the pope pronounces publicly regarding moral questions is infallibly correct.” ?

  • Steve M

    We fundamentally disagree on one of your points.  It is not only the nun(s) that have pursued dialog.  The Church has also had discussion with the religious.  If by dialog you require that one party can say whatever they want and the other party cannot criticize their statements then we have very different definitions of dialog.  Additionally, the religious are consecrated and claim membership to religious orders of the Church.  Over simplifying for analogy, this would seem to excuse any behavior contrary to a groups norms as long as we can claim benefit of dialog.  Encouraging violence against an individual would be fine  because it is just dialog. 

    You have to allow that some teachings of the Church have not changed.  (Christ was a man) as many others have changed.  I am very comfortable that some topics and views are outside of acceptability.  It is also a great protection that there exists a process albiet messy to prevent rash judgements from becoming dogma.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    STEVE M (I’m replying here because it’s already too thin a column): 

    By dialogue I mean rational discussion (guided by Faith of course). The CDF has condemned conclusions. It should have grappled with the arguments, showing where and how they go wrong.
    This is opposite of violence (and public silencing, which has been increasedly used by the Vatican in the last years), which only arises when one party feels incapable of providing a cogent answer.It is disheartening to see the best side of Vatican II go down the drain. For it basically said: we, the hierarchy, will no longer try to stamp out different opinions or even religion. That does not mean relativizing the truth, but treating those who disagree as humans rather than animals (by, for instance, burning them at the stake, imprisioning them or cutting them off).

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    Father Lucie-Smith, after this long and personally exhausting discussion, which I’ll now cut short for my academic work’s sake, I would love to read your thoughts on the issues debated; that is, if you had the patience to follow these more than 200 posts, it would be great to have your opinion of the two positions being presented, coming both from your studies and your pastoral experience.

  • Sweetjae

    I already rebutted this argument from my other post below.

  • Sweetjae

    Why do think Christianity is a democracy? That God  and the church are democrats? That the truth and commandments of God and “Binding and Loosing” by the church are subject to majority votes? Well they done exactly like with gay-marriage, artificial contraception etc. etc in the protestant churches, are you a member?

  • Sweetjae

    Ohhhh, the “we are on the same boat” argument of a typical protestant. As I have said, reason enable us to understand and analyze what is revealed by God to us guided by faith This gift of faith is unmerited and undeserving to men, freely given by God.Now, you have a good point, how a lowly man like us able to determine which church is the TRUE Church when everybody is saying and claiming the same things, we are the “true” church…the Assyrian church, Christian Science,Mormons, Baptists, Pentacostals in fact thousands more.
    So we are in a dilemma here, God’s plan of salvation and the promise of Truth to His people is forfeited…geesh! Did God overlooked this problem? Is there a way God ordained for us to know His True Church?
    YES THERE IS! There is only one Church that boldly claims with traceable  2,000 years history behind her…..the Apostolic Succession of Peter!It is the same way if you wanted to know if man has been the President when you traced his lineage back to the very beginning of Presidency whether he’s fake or not.

  • rjt1

    If we know something true about God by reason, then it can’t be a different God since there are not two ‘truths’. If it is true, then it is true.

    Perhaps we can agree that the revelation of God by his Son is so much more than that.

  • Sweetjae

    Who said that opinions of the pope in whatever are infallible? Who said the pope is impeccable? I didn’t say that.

    Read Vatican I document about the Primacy of Peter and the criteria for the infallibility also of Section 3, Chapter 3, 8 about what the Church propose in her Ordinary and universal Magisterium..

  • Sweetjae

    Yes Usury is a dogmatic stuff of the Church,  however before we debate this thing (debated since the middle ages) remember that there is what we called “development” of doctrine which actually does not contradict the past teachings rather it deepens our understanding of it. Example the Dogma of “Hypostatic Union of Christ”. Every catholic during the Apostolic age knew and has been taught that Jesus Christ is a Man yet God. This concept was believed for hundreds of years but never understood fully until explained in layman’s terms at the Council of Ephesus 400 years later.

    Usury in the middle ages was condemned not by itself but by its flawed practiced at that time (consumable items, selling  double) of excessive interest out against the virtue of charity as well as justice itself. 

    For religious liberty, in a nutshell, the Traditionalist position is wrong because nowhere in VII it says “error has rights” but rather the moral right of freedom to choose is based on man’s inherent dignity NOT on the errors he may profess.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    I notice you already pressuposed the institution and continuity of the presidency/papacy to be the defining criterium.

    Where did that come from? From your personal reading of the Bible? From an abstract rational argument? From the claims and biblical interpretations of popes and their followers?

  • Sweetjae

    If you are implying that majority of the committee formed by Pope Paul6 were against his final judgment, then so what? Even if the 99% of the catholics reject this contraception thing doesn’t necessarily make the Teaching false, IT STILL  IS TRUE.

    If the Church teaches that “X” is wrong, it doesn’t matter how many catholics are disobedient, the doctrine that “X” is wrong is still true and any catholic desiring to be in good standing must accept that doctrine.

    Whereas the protestants,  for every one of them has to determine what constitute a doctrine or not and what they want for a doctrine. A protestant can not tell another protestant that must believe in “X” because every single one is the judge to say whether it’s true or false….like your position. (though I’m not saying you are a protestant)

  • Sweetjae

    The Catholic Church lost the entire nation of U.K. 500 years ago by not compromising her teachings, do you think a few clergy will do?Nah, I don’t think so.

  • Sweetjae

    Yes i believe what Christ said was an oracle of God, yes I believed what the Church He established to “speak” for Him in His absence is an Oracle of God. How about you, what is your oracle of god? Let me guess, YOU!

  • Rolf Worth

    Compromising is what Lucifer talked Eve into.

  • Jae

    What else is there? Jesus Christ can be traced all the way back to King David for the prophecy about Him, in fact used by early Christians to argue against the Jews that the Messiah will come from the blood lineage of David.

    Where did it come from? For a start any World History book or any academic references, World Atlas even the old Dictionary on the list of popes, Early Christian writings, Patristic Fathers etc, etc.

    How about you, what is your criteria? Or are you forever lost?

  • Jae

    Let the chips fall wherever they may:

    1. Do you accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae about artificial contraception?
    2. Do you accept the teaching of CCC (catechism) that gay marriage and act are immoral not compatible with the Church’s teachings?
    3. Do you accept the Magisterial Authority of the Church regarding the issues of life, cloning, euthansia, abortions and stem cell?
    4. Do you accept the Magisterial Authority of the Church to settle disputes between opposing parties regarding these issues as Authoritative and final as God would pronounced it Himself.
    5. Lastly, do you accept that the Catholic Church is Indefectible?

    Yes or No would suffice.

  • JByrne24

    Two volumes and best read in sequence.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    It has to come down to individual reason thinking for itself about reality. Or else, it comes down to individual whim.

    We are indeed all in the same boat, though not everyone admits it. The authority of the Church is not your primary, nor is the Bible. Something in you comes first.

  • Proteios1

    Recently, there have been quite a number of examples of your last quote. There are many tongues, so to speak, which need to be cut out so as to not defile the entire church. This is a good example of someone probably too smart to not realize what she says contradicts doctrine. The enemy within may be more insidious than the one easily recognized on the outside…or the mainstream Mia.

  • Jae

    What you have shown in that Papal Bull condemning proposition 33 of Martin Luther is not at all a definitive teaching of the Church. It’s a negative, remember those days the Church and State are interlinked with each other and mostly those people who were found to be heretics were handled over to civil-monarchial authorities, which to I may say is a sad, tragic and immoral use of authority with the complicit approval of the Bishops and clergy. However, it’s a different matter for the Church to teach that burning of heretics is a Dogmatic matter, you have to directly quote a Church teaching as such and the burden of proof is on your shoulders.

    Besides the fact that we don’t know what Pope Leo X really meant when he condemned prop 33, maybe he was against the novel idea (besides all the novelties of Luther) that burning of heretics in the afterlife was against the will of the Spirit, which is definitely false, because God Himself said in the Scripture that murderers, thieves, fornicators, heretics etc will burn in the fires of hell.

    For the canon of scripture I do agree with your historicity to some extent yet I disagree with your “but is never absolutely clear what is from God and from man”. What is this? The canon or list of books was closed officially at the Council of Hippo and declared as Inspired Word of God, by whom? Fallible men whom you said earlier can’t be trusted for infallibilIty or certainty. So the logic is, if there is a chance or a possibility that one of the doctrine or books may be in error or should we say in your own words “not from God” then it follows that if she could err at all, she could err in any point in all her doctrines, there is no quarantee of the Truth to his flock. So end this, I totally reject your position, sorry, my faith and salvation is not based on the theory of high probability.

  • Sweetjae

    Moreso, If you believe Mr. Joel Pinheiro that the Church could err in her doctrines, canon of scripture etc. by your assertion , “we really don’t know what is from God and what is from men”. So therefore, if Christian Faith is indeed a revealed Divine doctrine which men must believe under the pain of eternal loss, if she could ERR AT ALL, she might err in ANY POINT. The flock would have no guarantee of the truth to any doctrines. This is your position to which I reject strongly.

  • maideqi

  • maideqi

  • Millie17


  • Milie17

    I am a proud Catholic, but embarrassed by you brother. Why so dogmatic? Jesus also spoke about loving your brother and not parading yourself. You are not preaching Truth in a respectful manner to your ‘fenemies’. You are being arrogant and  . . . I will stop, ‘love thy brother’. Think kind words . . .  

  • JByrne24

    This Sister of Mercy is a 77-year-old distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Yale’s Divinity School, a past PRESIDENT of the CATHOLIC Theological Society of America (reflecting rightly the esteem in which her Catholicity is held) and a multi award-winning scholar, which reflects the general academic admiration for her work.

    Your frequent comments on my own postings are invariable full of abuse, and, as you are aware, I no longer, as a rule, reply to them.  

    However your ignorant, vulgar attack on this good woman compels me to comment as above.

  • JByrne24

    You will learn from Cardinal Pell (of Australia) that Eve did not exist as a human being.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    It is only thought to be sinful because of defective moral teaching, which is based on medieval philosophy and outdated psychology. I wonder how many of the priests who abused children did so because they could not satisfy their natural sexual appetites on their own without guilt. 

  • JByrne24

    I am well aware that I cannot fool God – whom I note you place last & after “us”  - meaning you and the strident “know-alls” who go along with your views.                                                      
    I realise of course that this is only from force of habit, and that it’s probably an oversight on your part – derived from the practice of placing all and sundry after self-styled “true Catholics”.

  • JByrne24

    Please see my reply to Jabba, above.

  • JByrne24

    Well, what about her numerous international awards and citations, for starters? 

  • JByrne24

    This is an amazing and ignorant comment..
    Please see some of the information I have recently given about her working record.
    In addition, do some research, to help ensure that any further remarks from yourself bear some correspondence to reality.

  • JByrne24

    Not a “gambit” but a statement of fact.  Please see above.

  • Benedict Carter

    Earrings on a professed religious? She’s having a laugh, isn’t she?

    Very good to see Rome AT LAST slapping down these fomenters of division, confusers of the faithful and traitorous vipers in Her midst. 

    If only it had not been silent in the face of the tidal wave of heresy for the last fifty years.

  • JByrne24

    I think all observers, philosophers, theologians etc outside the RC Church see it as being obsessed with sex – in the sense of suppressing all aspects of it to the greatest degree possible. It is generally not something spoken about from the pulpit (because of the feelings most Catholics have about it – and there are children present [heavens above!] ). The Church is so deeply immersed in its misguided view that it sees not the trees for the presence of the wood.

    This suppression is evil – it generates immorality and, in the view of several philosophers which I have read, is the primary cause of pornography. 
    In pre-Christian Roman society, for example, girls and young women, including those of the highest character and social standing, often wore bracelets and amulets depicting the external “male urino-genital” organ (dare I type the actual 5 letter word on a Catholic website?). This caused no embarrassment and was in no way whatever pornographic or titillating. Aspects of Christian moralising produced the latter.

    The moralising Victorian era in England required the British Museum to mutilate many of its Greek works of art, by chopping this organ off its exhibits.

    When matters of this nature are pointed on on Catholic websites, the posting is sometimes removed (or worse) — but, if not, it can still be guaranteed to receive few, if any, replies.
    Thank you for yours – the only response after about 24 hours.
    (Bye the bye, I’m not looking for responses; I know many will read the postings.)

  • JByrne24

    Now in the top tier of’s listings in the USA  - and the printers are busy.

  • JByrne24

    Don’t worry too much about the earrings.

    I recall the Pope at Mass in St. Peter’s at Christmas with a jewel encrusted cape (?), monstrance etc, and complaining in a Christmas message about all the “glitter” to be found about the secular world at Christmas.

  • JByrne24

    Don’t worry too much about the earrings.

    I recall the Pope at Mass in St.Peter’s at Christmas with a jewel encrusted cloak and monstrance etc, complaining, in a Christmas message, about all the “glitter” to be found in the secular world at Christmas. 

  • JByrne24

    Hello Jabba.   Please see my reply to rjr1 which includes a reference to Vatican1 (the comment is below, still probably).

  • JByrne24

    I think you miss the point.
    Please see my reply to rjt1 which refers to Vatican 1.

  • JByrne24

    This is rather a serious matter Bob.

  • Bob Hayes

    Patrick, your second sentence is utterly sickening. 

    That sentence proffers a hypothesis, presumably drawn vaguely from the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology, apparently mitigating (to some extent) the wickedness of clerical abuse of children. Those who committed wicked crimes against children are culpable: suggesting that priestly celibacy somehow contributed is deeply offensive and a classic example of psychobabble. 

    Please think carefully about what you have written.