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A long-simmering conflict between the Vatican and American nuns erupted again on Monday (June 4) when the Vatican's doctrinal office issued a scathing critique of a popular book on sexual ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, one of the first Catholics to teach at Yale Divinity School.

Vatican censors nun’s book on sexual ethics, and some see a bid to muzzle women’s voices

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A long-simmering conflict between the Vatican and American nuns erupted again on Monday (June 4) when the Vatican's doctrinal office issued a scathing critique of a popular book on sexual ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, one of the first Catholics to teach at Yale Divinity School.

After two years of study, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “notification” on Farley's “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” saying it contradicts Catholic doctrine on key issues such as gay marriage, homosexuality and divorce.

Coming just days after U.S. nuns rejected the Vatican's reasoning for a wholesale makeover, and a year after U.S. bishops sanctioned another nun theologian, the condemnation of Farley is the latest example of what critics see as a top-down attempt to muzzle women's voices and an obsession on sexual ethics.

The condemnation comes just three days after Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who has been appointed by the Vatican to oversee the reform of the largest umbrella organization of Catholic sisters in the U.S., extended what appeared to be an olive branch to the nuns.

Sartain said that he wanted to work to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious “in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity and fidelity to the Church’s faith,” and said the Vatican and American bishops were “deeply proud of the historic and continuing contribution” of nuns in education and health care.

But his conciliatory tone was quickly overshadowed by the new condemnation issued by Rome on yet another American nun.

The “notification” says Farley's book “ignores” or “contradicts” Catholic teaching, presenting it as “one opinion among others,” and warned that it should not be “used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.” The “notification” was approved by Pope Benedict XVI on March 16.

The Vatican's doctrinal office singled out masturbation, homosexuality and marriage as specific areas of concern in “Just Love.”

For example, Farley writes that “masturbation … usually does not raise any moral questions at all,” and that homosexual acts “can be justified” following the same ethics as heterosexual ones. The Vatican statement retorts that “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action” and that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.”

Farley also voices doubts over the “indissolubility” of marriage, and argues that laws recognizing gay marriage can play an important part in reversing widespread “hatred … and stigmatization of gays and lesbians,” a position that is “opposed to the teaching of the magisterium,” according to the Vatican.

Published in 2006, “Just Love” has received widespread praise from Christians of all denominations and has been used as a textbook in college courses on sexual ethics. For it, Farley won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2008.

Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, taught at Yale from 1971 to 2007.

In a statement, Farley acknowledged that some of her positions are “not in accord with current official Catholic teaching,” but stressed that her book's intent was to present a modern “framework for sexual ethics” drawing on the input of current experience and different religious traditions.

Farley, who was the first woman professor and one of the first Catholics to teach at Yale Divinity School, says she is convinced that her positions “reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights” of Christian theology and tradition, and contends that the Vatican ignored the reasons and context that led to her conclusions.

Other Catholic theologians seem to agree. M. Shawn Copeland, a theology professor at Boston College called the Vatican notification “deeply disappointing and most disturbing,” saying that Farley's research is “notable” for its “distinguishing of practical and speculative questions from magisterial or official teaching.”

Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, called Farley a “careful and caring” theologian, and said “it is the vocation of Catholic theologians and ethicists to work on the boundaries” of current doctrine.

The notification on Farley's book comes in the wake of last year's controversial condemnation of feminist theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and seems to be part of an effort to rein in theologians who stray too far from the path of Catholic orthodoxy.

In March, a Vatican panel stated that while “investigation and questioning” by theologians are “justified and even necessary” the final word on the “authentic interpretation” of the Catholic faith ultimately belongs to bishops.

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About Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University.

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  1. Jaded Theologian

    What I’m hearing in the most recent notifications from Rome is a continuation of an attempt to reign in all Catholics – to return them to a state of orthodoxy that is seen as missing in the modern era. Nothing new or surprising there.

    What I’m not hearing is any mention of the Magisterium of the Faithful; that people in the pews – including nuns and sisters – have something to teach Rome from the depths of their vast/collective lived experience.

    As for the men of Rome taking issue with women and their teaching /speaking out – no surprise there either. Men become RCC priests for many reasons; they’re closeted homosexuals who want to live their lives with other men (celibate or not), they’re heterosexuals who are intimidated by women (mommy issues?) or they’re men who, for whatever reason – hate women.

    Isn’t it convenient that the very orthodoxy that’s been developed and passed down for centuries by men for men to the exclusion of the female half or more of the Church – is so anti-female?

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