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Vatican warns faithful against Sister’s book on sexual ethics

By on Monday, 4 June 2012

Cardinal Levada, prefect of the CDF (CNS photo)

Cardinal Levada, prefect of the CDF (CNS photo)

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said that Mercy Sister Margaret Farley’s 2006 book, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics”, contains “erroneous propositions” on homosexual acts, same-sex marriage, masturbation and remarriage after divorce that could cause confusion and “grave harm to the faithful”.

In a notification signed by US Cardinal William Levada and approved by Pope Benedict XVI, the congregation said the book “is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church” and “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counselling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue”.

Sister Farley, who taught at Yale University Divinity School from 1971 to 2007 and now serves as Gilbert L Stark professor emerita of Christian ethics, is a past president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics.

The five-page Vatican notification says the congregation first wrote to Sister Farley about its concerns through her superior, the president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, more than two years ago. Urged to “correct the unacceptable theses contained in her book”, Sister Farley sent responses in 2010 and 2011 that “did not adequately clarify the [book's] grave problems”, the congregation said.

The congregation cited five specific problem areas in “Just Love”, published by Continuum:

- Masturbation: Sister Farley’s view that masturbation “usually does not raise any moral questions at all” and “actually serves relationships rather than hindering them” does not “conform to Catholic teaching … that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action”, the notification said.

- Homosexual acts: Sister Farley writes in the book that “same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities”. But the Vatican said “this opinion is not acceptable” because it fails to distinguish between persons with homosexual tendencies, who must be respected, and homosexual acts, which are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law”.

- Homosexual unions: Sister Farley says domestic partnerships, civil unions and same-sex marriage can “be important in transforming the hatred, rejection and stigmatisation of gays and lesbians that is still being reinforced by teachings of ‘unnatural’ sex, disordered desire and dangerous love”. But the Vatican said that position “is opposed to the teaching of the magisterium”, which says that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions”.

“Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity,” the notification said, quoting the doctrinal congregation’s 2003 document, “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons.”

- Indissolubility of marriage: Sister Farley writes that “a marriage commitment is subject to release on the same ultimate grounds that any extremely serious, nearly unconditional, permanent commitment may cease to bind”. But the congregation, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, says love “cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice’” and marriage requires “an unbreakable union” between the spouses.

- Divorce and remarriage: Although a “residual bond” exists between former spouses, it does not preclude remarriage “any more than the ongoing union between spouses after one of them has died prohibits a second marriage on the part of the one who still lives”, Sister Farley writes in her book. But the Vatican congregation said such a view “contradicts Catholic teaching”, noting that the catechism says those who remarry civilly after a valid first marriage “find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law” and cannot receive Holy Communion “as long as this situation persists”.

General problems surrounding Sister Farley’s book include an incorrect understanding “of the role of the Church’s magisterium as the teaching authority of the bishops united with the successor of Peter” and “a defective understanding of the objective nature of the natural moral law”, the notification said.

“In addressing various moral issues, Sister Farley either ignores the constant teaching of the magisterium or, where it is occasionally mentioned, treats it as one opinion among others,” it added. “Such an attitude is in no way justified, even within the ecumenical perspective that she wishes to promote.”

The congregation expressed “profound regret that a member of an institute of consecrated life … affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality”.

“Furthermore, the congregation wishes to encourage theologians to pursue the task of studying and teaching moral theology in full concord with the principles of Catholic doctrine,” the notification added.

Sister Farley has been no stranger to controversy during her career as a Catholic theologian.

She was among two dozen US women religious threatened with expulsion from their religious communities by the Vatican for signing on to an October 7 1984 advert in The New York Times arguing that Catholics should be free to hold a variety of views about abortion.

Archbishop Pio Laghi, then papal pro-nuncio to the United States, and now-retired Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco withdrew as speakers at a 1985 meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious because Sister Farley was also scheduled to speak.

Her case was resolved in 1986, when a Vatican representative announced that she and other signers had expressed “their adherence to the teaching of the Church with regard to abortion”. The Vatican termed Sister Farley’s action a “retraction” but the nun and her Mercy superior said no retraction was involved.

In 2005, the Cardinal Newman Society protested against her choice as a commencement speaker at St Xavier University in Chicago, describing Sister Farley as “an outspoken dissenter from Catholic teaching on embryonic stem-cell research, sexual activity and homosexual ‘marriage’.”

She received the John Courtney Murray Award for excellence in theology from the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1992 and won the 2008 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, presented by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, for “Just Love”.

She also served as co-director of the All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister, a project designed to empower African women to tackle the Aids pandemic in their country.

  • David M

    The Church’s teaching on many things is completely ridiculous, but calling masturbation “intrinsically and gravely disordered action” is stupid. Masturbation is completely normal and healthy, something which will have happened since the beginning of mankind and something which is observed in nature in other species. The Vatican need to get a grip and get back to what Christianity is really about.

  • Lazarus

    1) Lots of things are observed in nature. Are they all good?

    2) Equating masturbation with adult, heterosexual intercourse is something that most of us have learned to grow out of. All sorts of temporary behaviours may be typical of immature human beings: the Church’s teaching is intended to guide us towards complete -and mature- human flourishing. That’s what Christianity is really about.

  • Jlagrue

    It is of course blindingly obvious that the best people to lecture the Faithful are elderly celibates who have made a career in Vatican politics.

  • aearon43

    when you can’t make substantial arguments, just resort to ad hominem attacks

  • Lazarus

    As opposed to elderly celibates who have made a career out of wilful disobedience to the Church?

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    >”something which
    will have happened since the beginning of mankind”

    Hum, so I can kill and rape, because murder and rape have happened since the beginning of mankind and are therefore moral.

    > “and something which is
    observed in nature in other species.”

    So I can eat my children, practice serial polygamy, and kill my friends to establish myself as the alpha male. Because, you see, what animals do is clearly right.

    > “The Vatican need to get a grip and
    get back to what Christianity is really about.”

    Have you read the Bible? Jesus said that mere _thinking_ unwholesome thoughts is a grave sin (if done intentionally).

  • Thomas Mc

    The pedophile perverts at the Vatican said what?

  • Oconnord

    Murder, incest, polygamy and rape compared to masturbation…..

    That’s a fair comparison except for one point, God directly ordered or arranged for the first four but not masturbation, (well not directly anyway). But you know that as you’ve read the bible.

    So will you try the Jesus changed all from the OT in the NT argument?  Well, he did say his coming did not change “one jot or tittle” of the old law. He also said men should abandon their wives to follow him. So which particular bits from Old and New do you follow? It’s not relative, in a moral sort of way is it? 

  • Oconnord

    1) …. Are they all bad? …..Pointless point….

    2) Denying that masturbation is an important part of adult sexual intercourse is something that the large majority of us no longer believe in. For many, if not most, women during heterosexual intercourse manual manipulation is necessary. It’s a matter of basic female anatomy. If you’re too immature to realise that fact, well either your partner is one of the few women who can obtain a vaginal orgasm… or you’re just not doing it right.  

  • JabbaPapa

    What a bigoted little mind, to come up with such vile claptrap…

  • Guest2345

    The problem has been brewing for a long time. The problem is that some of these sisters are MORE FEMINIST than Catholic. In their own mind they are trying to square the two but find it difficult.

    Sensational subtitle perhaps – Vatican has NO MERCY FOR SISTER OF MERCY?

  • kentgeordie

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of these issues, is it ok for someone to continue in membership of an organisation when they disagree with what that organisation clearly stands for?

  • Lazarus

    1) David M was suggesting that because masturbation was found in nature it was therefore OK. It’s not pointless to show that, because something takes place in nature, it is not necessarily good.

    2) Actually, I’m just a great lover. (All orthodox Catholics are, don’t y’know?)

  • Oconnord

    1) but it’s not necessarily bad either as you implied. So both statements were pointless without context.

    2) How would an orthodox catholic know? Again without having context? Especially as a man? My point was somewhat sexist as it addressed the needs of women not men. I was quite happy when I was young and had some experience with catholic women. Things changed as my range of experience grew… Then I learned how little I knew. And more to the point, how little they did. But I could compare, and well, there is a huge difference.

  • LocutusOP

    It’s called “lack of integrity”.

  • Kozado

    Just as Sr Farley may be ahead of the Church, it seems the Church lags societal norms. Sr Farley is showing great courage in pulling the Church where it clearly does not want to go, that disordered universe known as reality.

  • Lazarus

    1) There is a difference between the correction of an erroneous statement and the making of an erroneous statement in the first place: the first has a point; the second is simply a mistake.

    2) Save in jest, my relish for boasting about my sexual knowledge and prowess has somewhat diminished since I was 15, even if yours hasn’t. (Of course, perhaps in opposition to the evidence, I am assuming that you are older than 15.) And apart from this, I think this exchange could only be progressed by a degree of detail about our sex lives that I’m quite unwilling to engage in. (Being both in general a desperate prude and in particular a little squeamish in case you start going further into the details of your ‘manual manipulation’.)

    Here’s a general reply though. For all of us, there’s the problem of working out how good our lives are and how they could be better. I am trapped within the evidence of a faithful, happy marriage; you are trapped in your claimed bed hopping. My belief about the shape of a good sex life is tested by the experience of many Catholics over two thousand years; yours is tested by whatever Channel 4 programme is titillating its viewers on the pretext of sexucation. More particularly, my experience is tested by a constant dialogue with my wife; your experience is, based on the number of failed relationships you claim, presumably tested mostly by shouted recriminations as your latest conquest leaves your nest of lurve…

    But best wishes with your chosen career of being a manual manipulator.

  • Anonymous

    Great courage perhaps but that does not automatically mean that she is moving the Church in the right direction. The world today certainly is disordered; one would think that this gives the Church and others the obligation to attempt to find some kind of order, as the Church attempts to do.
    To give credit where it is due: Sr Farley certainly shows the courage of her convictions in defying the Church so often- what she fails to show is any consistency: she claims to be a Catholic, but openly defies what Catholics are obliged to believe is a divinely founded Church, the teachings of which are those of Jesus Christ.

    I would also urge you to remember one thing, sir: social norms are not always right; indeed, all improvements in society are made by those who defy social norms in order to pursue truth. The fact that the Church “lags societal norms” is utterly beside the point. All I ask is for you to reflect on that: God bless you sir (or madam, whatever the case.)

  • Gtmunyan

    How much of an institution can you disagree with before, in all honesty, you actually have removed yoursepf from that institution by your actions and words despite any notification of renunciation? Perhaps Sister should reconsider who she is and what she believes in, and then make an honest public decision on her membership with her order and the Church. Academic freedom and institutional honors aside, the Church has a moral imperative to present to her people with what is right and wrong. Individuals can accept or reject these beliefs. Sister should just publish her beliefs without the cloak of Catholicism, and the problem would be resolved.     

  • Fides_et_Ratio

     > “Murder, incest, polygamy and rape compared to masturbation…..”

    You didn’t get it. I was simply using reduction ad absurdum, which is an important logic argument.

  • Angela Perera

     ‘Reality’ has always existed; we believing Catholics aim to go beyond ‘reality’ to the fullness of life, the true reality. You make your own choice, as does each human being. I’ve made mine.

  • Edward Kariithi

    The Church lacks authority to change the inherited teachings of Jesus Christ. The Church is the custodian, it has no business changing anything.
    In the light of this, You just insulted our Lord, who cannot deceive nor be deceived..

  • Nat_ons

    Sadly, the positive and constructive attitude of the church’s actual orthodox teaching on human sexuality with its order and disorders – as with all human nature awaiting glory – gets only the most cursory glance; either to attack it or in its defence.

    Those lined up against orthodoxy – hoping eventually to make their heterodox opinions the ‘new line’ in orthodoxy – view the very idea of ‘order and disorder’ with barely disguised hatred; as much because it challenges the order of authority in the church catholic and exposes their desire to disorder it.

    Nonetheless, those seeking to uphold a right judgement on not the appearances of reality, substance and truth .. as perceived by faith alone .. tend to resort to authority with its due order and requirement for submissive obedience – leaving the message of grace like something dead in water, and that where its hope is most needed: in looking at our human frailties with faithThe order is necessary or disorders cannot be perceived, and only the most heretical of those using the name of Christ to define themselves would deny that there is grievous disorder – even in human sexuality. This ‘new line’ Magisterium of Nuns perceives it in rape, because this fits the personalised, Age of Aquarius, ideology that prompts their teaching, it does not see it in ‘loving’ acts seen under situation ethics. That the right order of teaching authority in the church catholic – Christ, his allotted leaders, each obedient witnessing believer – asserts due order .. finally, reluctantly, and after investigation .. and condemns disorder has never been a pleasant task, yet it is necessary, and was woefully maligned for too long in the Post Vat-II Era; setting out the negative way to divinity however is not enough, as the Second Vatican Council Fathers understood, explaining the positive, humane and up-building basis in dealing with order and disorder is also necessary (especially in our age of hype-headlines over charitable truth).

    “Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” CCC 2359.

    His Grace, Bishop Nicholls has, for instance, sought (cack-handedly) to address this very issue positively, imaginatively and lovingly. The cack-handedness of its implementation, and the bureaucratic hostility toward genuine (if overly feverish) reaction to it, shows how difficult it can be to handle charity .. for this is a divine gift, with eternal consequences, not passing human beneficence. So that souls in such great need of affirming in their faith turn – in my experience, reluctantly - toward those who spew an easy-favour sort of support for their genuinely trustful approach to Christian perfection (and are left utterly confused and disappointed as a result) is not difficult to understand; being slapped in the face, publicly reviled and despised by one’s own brethren may increase Christian virtue it does not instruct any soul rightly .. indeed it is a hideous form of abuse (even if only done in metaphor); how orthodox, catholic and loving Christian leaders are to mend this flaw is the real issue that must be addressed even while opposing heterodoxy, rebellion and sin that only magnifies it.

  • Isabel Wood

    Personally I like to think that I value Catholicism for more than it’s views on sex. 

  • GFFM

    The Mercy Sisters in the US have completely abandoned their original charism. How they live and what they espouse in no way resembles the reason for their original founding. As with the orders represented in the LCWR, they have betrayed their legacy of service to the Church and her faithful. And so I object to how offended Farley et al are to the Vatican’s calling to account as late as this reckoning is. The Mercy nuns used to be a teaching order and an order which helped deliver Catholic health care to the faithful–their nuns are virtually indistinguishable from secular feminist pseudo academics. Now when one visits a Mercy hospital Catholic identity is negligible. Where they used to teach young people and care for patients, they now attend workshops on patriarchy and goddess worship, live in condos, demonstrate against the Church’s teaching on sexuality and brag about a legacy of civilizing the new world which they trot out when defending their actions of the last 35 years. Even though they had to part in the tremendous contribution of the regal legacy they inherited. The Mercy nuns are a dying order as are the Sacred Hearts and many other orders which thrived in the US as the Catholic educational system helped to create the nation. Those days are long gone. The tail end of the baby boomers have never known the orders that educated their parents. Instead, we were taught by angry, bitter, politicized nuns who have enforced an ideology which brooks no difference of opinion. This suicide by relativism was evident to those of us being taught by several of these orders in the 70′s and it is now a foregone conclusion in 2012. The Vatican, as late as it always is in recognizing the problem, is only countenancing the suicide.

  • GFFM

     What a brilliant retort: calling an argument stupid. You certainly have convinced me.

  • GFFM

     Farley and other nuns like her will never leave because the reason they have a platform at all is because they are connected to the Church. They know this. If they left, they could not do the damage they do now; their hysteria would just be part of the ideological ravings of our time. Inside the Church they get attention from those who hate the Church or who rail against her moral authority. She will never leave and her staying will be described as courageous and brave as she stands against the big bad Vatican. No–she, Elizabeth Johnson, Joan Chittister, and so many other high profile run-of-the-mill feminist theologians will stay, but not out of conviction. They risk nothing because they never act on the essence of their own positions: separation from an institution that oppresses them.

  • Richard

    This article which comments (inter alia) on Sister Farley’s book and the Vatican reaction
    may be of interest:

  • David M

    I go on to describe why if you bothered to read that far…

  • David M

    If the church has no business changing anything then why did it adopt Vatican 2? And if we are following the inherited teachings of Christ then where are his teachings on masturbation? Or was that all made up by the Church?

  • David M

    God supposedly created nature, why would he make something imperfect?

  • David M

    Murder and rape were specifically prohibited in the OT, have you read the Bible? 10 commandments perhaps?

    Jesus said many other things too, especially with great emphasis on equality, compassion and love, I don’t see these particularly well represented in the Catholic Church today. 

  • Fides_et_Ratio

     > Murder and rape were specifically prohibited in the OT, have you read the Bible? 10 commandments perhaps?

    You miss the point. The point is that saying “this behavior happens very frequently and has happened for a long time, therefore it is good” is an incredibly faulty logic.

    > “Jesus said many other things too, especially with great emphasis on
    equality, compassion and love”

    There is no contradiction between loving the sinner and hating the sin. This is what the Catholic Church does. What the book in question does is loving the sin.

  • JabbaPapa

    Because of His creation of Free Will.

    Free Will is *necessarily* imperfect.

    Therefore, any possible Cosmos including Free Will must be an imperfect Cosmos, otherwise Free Will could not exist.

  • maideqi

  • Lucyjpeters

    Not if you think masturbating a woman during sex is a sin you are not. Orthodox teaching seems to think female sexuality is an accidental creation and sinful.

  • Lucypeters

    Nuns talk to other people, they listen to their problems and have an understanding of how society works. Cardinals do not have a clue, many of them have very little parish experience, have no idea what it costs to bring one child into the world and because of that can be cavalier when children are hurt because they only care about children in the womb. Nuns like this one has spoken to people not lived in a fantasy world. The Vatican bare no likeness to the real world, they are utterly clueless and behave like scared angry rabbits. There is not a Catholic in the world that doesn’t know that this book is not what the Church teaches, yet they patronise us with these statements.
    Jesus never commented on masturbation and spent his ministry around sexually active people, he never commented on homosexuality and when he did comment on divorce, he was refering to the culture of the time. Does Jesus really want teenagers to be worrying about going to hell because their body contradicts the church teaching?
    Does Jesus want people who have been though a bad marriage to be condemned for a divorce and ex-communicated if they find love again and re-marry? Yet men can have affairs and be reconciled, can abuse children repeatedly and not even go to prison and still serve as a priest? Something has gone very wrong in the RCC and until that is address it has no real authority. Many Catholics I know are leaving heartbroken and disillusioned…

  • GFFM

     They aren’t even Catholic.

  • GFFM

     All I can say is bunk. Farley has no connection whatever to anyone sitting in the pew or the life of an ordinary person or family. Long ago her order abandoned its work do service for ordinary people.

  • Oconnord

    So is it logical to follow a god who orders those evil acts. Particularly  when you point out the absurdity of following it in nature. I think that you didn’t get my point… or just ignored it.

    It’s so often a default position of the religious to say “you just don’t understand” when it’s obvious the non-religious do understand. Most of us had a religious education. Many of us reject religion because we do understand it.

    The onus is on you to explain why you reject genocide, murder, incest and rape in nature…. But follow a god who ordered his followers to commit those crimes and even committed them himself.

  • Oconnord

    I made two mistakes, firstly to post on the CH as if it were a normal conversation amongst peers. That was wrong, and I do regret it. It was inappropriate, but as you said we can all fall into that trap. You are the one who boasted of prowess after all.

    Secondly, I did not consider the age, experience or knowledge gap. Again my mistake. It’s obvious by your presumption only young people know the physical aspects of sex. Or that I’ve learned it from TV. 
    Thanks…… I’m 40-ish so I feel somewhat complimented to be considered young.

    I actually learned from my parents. They took the responsible sexual education of their children seriously. Years before I knew how to “make” children, I was told about the responsibilities it entailed. Heck, as an older child I dealt with them. I don’t have children.. but I can change, powder, feed and burp a baby with skills many a modern mother is lacking.

    They also told me that sex was a mutual experience. Rarely simultaneous but equally shared and giving. But the giving needed was not the catholic giving of the woman’s body to the man. It was the care to be given appreciate each other’s bodies. 

  • Oconnord

    “But best wishes with your chosen career of being a manual manipulator.”
    You have confused me there, those days are gone. Late 1800′s to mid 1900′s I would have, as did many men at the time.  The fact that women no longer go to “therapists” to “remove their vapours” is a well known fact.

    Are you suggesting that I start a new clinic where wives go to achieve orgasm when their husbands can’t provide? That was the Victorian norm, I’m just surprised that you are suggesting it.

  • HapHarris

    I haven’t read nor would I read Sister Margret Farley’s book…but…I wouldn’t trust Cardinal William Levada to lead me to a picnic…I would be afraid there might be arsenic in the potato salad.

  • steve5656546346

    So, try this at work!

    Go into your job, and spend your time of official duty trying to undermine your employer–and actively supporting its competition!

    Of course, we are told that a vocation is something much deeper than being a mere employee:  OK, but why is that a LOWER standard rather than a higher standard.

    The Church is not ACTING as though it believes that immortal human souls are at stake:  there is no sense of urgency.


    Reading the comments on this “news” that is essentially opinions expressed on who is catholic and who is not, I doubt that many of the posters in this forum are catholic, or that many others are faithful catholics. As an (american) practicing catholic (closer to Benedict Carter’s expressions in this UK forum than most others here for a reference), I must say it’s remarkable that supposed British subjects, catholic or not, are not that much different in their orthodoxy, anti-catholic bigotry, or apostasy than americans.

    Anti catholic bigotry and catholic apostasy appear to be the most consistent, world wide past time with regard to the Catholic Church and things catholic. I Don’t think that’s coincidental or accidental, and if the Devil is working overtime on anything it would seem that he validates what he knows is the truth, the Catholic Church being his only enemy.

  • whytheworldisending

    Too often because someone can write a good essay or pass a few exams, they are given credence by people who should know better. Many Nazis were highly educated but defective characters. The film Shoa includes an interview with a Nazi Officer who tried to evade responsibility for his crimes by pleading youth and naivety, but the interviewer points out to him that he had a doctorate in Law…. like in the parable of the man with the wrong garment at the wedding party, his response was silence. Worship of academia is a form of idolatry, just like worship of money or pleasure or power. The fact that this woman is taken seriously is a symptom of that form of worldly materialism that puts human reasoning before God’s Word. Has she ever read the Gospel? It doesn’t sound like it.

  • Lazarus

    This all sounds a bit sulky and defensive. Fundamentally, this boils down to the fact that you’ve come onto a Catholic forum, intent on lecturing orthodox Catholics about how we are not giving our laydeez some proper loving. 

    I’m sorry I’ve given the impression I really thought you were 15. I had assumed throughout that your immaturity had nothing to do with chronology.

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal



  • hunhsa700

  • DJ

    If you think you can disregard the Church’s views on sex, then you reject Catholic principles of teaching authority in favor of Protestant private judgment. Perhaps you should start judging liberalism by Catholic standards instead of judging Catholicism by liberal standards.