Three Cheers for the CDF: A Long Overdue Admonition

Errors in US Ethicist’s Teaching Pointed Out

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By E. Christian Brugger

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 6, 2012 ( For all the weaknesses with Catholic moral theology in the two centuries before Vatican II, one weakness it did not suffer from was a lack of consistency with the settled doctrine of the Church on matters of sex and marriage. 

We all know the story that followed the Council. Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae in 1968. A tidal wave of dissent against its central moral judgment by Catholic theologians crashed on the Church. Since that judgment was not only connected to divine revelation but also to traditional methods of moral reasoning, most prominently Aquinas’ moral theory, new methods were explored. Consequentialism, called «Proportionalism» in Catholic ethics, gained the high ground. Within a few years advocates of the new methods in Europe and the US, who included some of the most influential moralists in the Church, began questioning the exceptionless status of moral norms against masturbation, extra-marital intercourse, homosexual acts, and divorce and remarriage. 

The undisputed matriarch of dissenting US Catholic ethicists is the influential emerita professor of ethics at Yale Divinity School and Religious Sister of Mercy, Margaret A. Farley. She’s an old woman now and has been in the vanguard of voices calling for change in the Church for decades (she was a signatory in 1984 of the notorious «A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion,» a full-page ad in The New York Times paid for by Catholics for Free Choice to support the VP campaign of pro-choice Catholic, Geraldine Ferraro… who?). She has trained and placed in academic positions a generation of gifted female Catholic ethicists sympathetic to her methods and ready to lay down their lives for her conclusions. 

On June 4, 2012, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published a  «Notification» on Farley’s 2006 text, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Ethics. The Notification states that her text takes positions contrary to Catholic teaching on at least five issues: masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage, and divorce and remarriage. The CDF «warns the faithful» that Farley’s book is inconsistent with Catholic teaching, and consequently that it cannot validly be used as an expression of the Catholic faith «in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.»

In Farley’s published reply, she says straightforwardly, «I do not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within [Just Love] are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching.»  She says that she wishes to clarify, however, «that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching.  It is of a different genre altogether.» In other words, «current official Catholic teaching» is irrelevant to her framework for sexual ethics. 

Why then is the CDF concerned about her text? Because Sister Farley is one of the most visible Catholic ethicists in the US, a member of an influential Catholic religious order, and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Academics see her as a Catholic scholar. And her works are treated as (among other things) contributions to Catholic scholarship. She and likeminded colleagues draw a sharp distinction between «current official teaching» and the rich perennial tradition of Catholic theology, to which they see themselves as validly contributing. The cardinal prefect of the CDF is well aware that Sister Farley is widely considered a courageous and far-sighted and utterly integral member of the Catholic theological community. And that’s how she’ll be presented to credulous college freshman in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world.

The letter published in protest against the CDF Notification by the President of Farley’s Religious Congregation, Sister Pat McDermott, RSM, makes transparently clear that Farley means to be seen as a Catholic scholar: «(she’s a) highly respected and valued member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas;» «has enlivened the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and enriched the entire Church;» «assiduously attempts to present the Catholic tradition as formative of her own rich experience;» «(is) faithful to her own faith tradition and commitments;» «is an extraordinary teacher and pastoral minister who is deeply committed to the Gospel and the following of Jesus Christ;» and so on. 

Readers might be interested in seeing a few characteristic quotes from Sister Farley’s book «Just Love»: 

On Masturbation: «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 – something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers. In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them» (p. 236).

On Homosexual Activity: «My own view… is that same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities. 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» (p. 295).

On Same-Sex Marriage: «Presently one of the most urgent issues before the U.S. public is marriage for same-sex partners – that is, the granting of social recognition and legal standing to unions between lesbians and gays comparable to unions between heterosexuals» (p. 293).

On Gender Reassignment Surgery: «When transsexuals want to change bodily identity, surgically and otherwise, they do so in a way that their deepest personal identity does not change; they understand themselves, after all, as seeking to become more wholly themselves. I am reminded of the deeply poignant scene in the film Normal, when the husband (who is in the process of changing his body to a woman’s body) says to his wife, «It’s me. I’m still here»; and she still loves him, for «he is in my heart, he is in my heart, he is in my heart,» she tells an uncomprehending minister. No one ought here pass judgment on any configuration of gender» (155).

The CDF ends its Notification with the words: «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.» I fear that this paternal and salutary admonition is likely to fall on deaf ears on the girls at Yale.

[For a detailed critique of Farley’s book, see William E. May, Critical Review of «Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Margaret A. Farley,» National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 8.4 (Winter 2008), 703-798.]

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation w
ill answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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