The Catholic Church has been trying desperately to influence American ‘morality’ along their traditionally conservative lines—opposing contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Finally, the church has made an enormous impact that may exceed its wildest dreams—but in the opposite direction from what it sought.
On Monday, June 4th, the Vatican condemned “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” by theologian and scholar Sister Margaret Farley. That day, the six-year-old book was languishing on Amazon’s list of titles, ranked at number 142,982. On Tuesday, after the censure was made public, it hit Amazon’s bestseller list, reaching number 15 and, at last count, still climbing.
While the church declares that her writings show a “defective understanding of the objective nature of natural moral law” and pose “grave harm to the faithful,” Sister Farley maintains that she is exploring ways for Christian sexual ethics to evolve. The Vatican is having palpitations over her positions, though she acknowledges they go against official teaching. In a statement, she said, “In this book I propose a framework for sexual ethics that uses criteria of justice in evaluating true and faithful sexual relationships and activities.”
For instance, she is clear that it’s her opinion, not the church’s, when she maintains that allowing same-sex marriage is more consistent with Christian ethics than banning it. “My own view is that same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities,” she wrote. “Therefore, same-sex oriented persons as well as their activities can and should be respected whether or not they have a choice to be otherwise.
Farley is at least as clear when it comes to masturbation, saying that masturbation “usually does not raise any moral questions at all… It is surely the case that many women… have found great good in self-pleasuring—perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure… In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them.”
Other theologians and scholars have rallied to Sister Farley’s support. Her order, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, issued a list of quotations from notable authorities, including one from the Yale University School of Divinity where she was on the faculty for nearly 40 years; one from Brian Linnane, president of Loyola University in Maryland, a Jesuit school; and one from Cathleen Kaveny, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Kaveny said, “Margaret is trying to engage this broader culture and say something helpful. You can give people Catholic teaching, but what if they say, ‘no’? Is there anything else you can say to them?”
There’s ample evidence that American Catholics are saying ‘no’ to many of the Church’s doctrines, but they are definitely saying ‘yes’ to Sister Margaret Farley’s book—and the possibility that challenging the hierarchy is the right thing to do.