Vatican Rebuke of Pro-gay Nun Prompts Backlash Among Catholic Laity

Sister Margaret Farley
Photo courtesy of New Ways Ministry

By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter–

Last month’s Vatican clamped down on an American nun, a highly respected scholar in moral theology and sexual ethics, for a 2006 book she wrote, advocating justice as a guiding moral principle for loving and committed relationships, including same-sex ones.

But a funny thing happened as the Vatican’s rebuke became more widely known: Sister Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics soared in sales to number 13 on

Sure enough, as the book gained notoriety, LGBT Catholics were quick to voice support and admiration for Sister Farley, now a retired Yale Divinity School (New Haven, Connecticut) theologian.

The Vatican’s criticism came in the form of a five-page document called a Notification, in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) said Just Love “is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church.”

Therefore, the CDF continued, “It cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”

The CDF concludes it finding by encouraging “theologians to pursue the task of studying and teaching moral theology in full accord with the principles of Catholic Doctrine.”

Former San Francisco Cardinal William Levada heads the CDF, which is doctrinal enforcement arm of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Sister Margaret Farley is the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

In addition to same-sex relationships, Sister Farley’s book touches on any number of hot button, pelvic-zone topics. They are masturbation, homosexual acts, divorce and remarriage, all of which Farley believes can be viewed as morally acceptable.

While Farley is not in accord with official Church teaching, her views resonate strongly among the laity, as public opinion polling of U.S. Catholics over the years indicates.

The Vatican’s move against Sister Farley comes at the same time Rome has taken aim at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest organization of American nuns, for not advocating strongly enough against gay marriage and abortion.

And yet, Rome’s seeming attack on nuns may well be backfiring. As Paul Lakeland explained to the Boston Globe, “The people in the pew are somewhere between completely confused and hopping mad at this point because these are people you just don’t go after,” he said, referring to women religious.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a moderate or conservative or liberal Catholic,” Lakeland continued. “We all love our nuns.”

Lakeland is director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Jesuit-run Fairfield University, based in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, LGBT Catholics in ministry and advocacy had plenty to say about Rome’s going after Sister Farley.

“The CDF may have determined that Sister Margaret Farley’s book is a source of confusion to the Catholic faithful, but my 40 years of pastoral experience in working with gay and lesbian Catholics and their families contradicts this judgment,” said Sister Jeannine Gramick, a co-founder of New Ways Ministry, a gay-positive organization of healing, reconciliation, and justice for LGBT Catholics and the Church.

“This book and Sister Margaret’s other writings and presentations have brought common sense and balance to a world in which sexuality is treated either too casually or too rigorously,” Gramick explained. “Farley’s book has put sex in the human context of relationships, instead of hedonism or narrow functionalism.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways, said Sister Farley has been doing the work of sexual ethics “church leaders should have been doing for decades.”

“She has absorbed the Catholic tradition, she has reflected on new knowledge about sexuality and gender, and she has listened to and reflected on the experience of people involved in sexual relationships,” said DeBernardo.

“Church leaders should be thanking her, not condemning her for doing the work that they themselves should have been doing with the faithful members of the church,” he added.

DeBernardo also said the soaring sales of Just Love on Amazon indicate “people are hungry for guidance and thoughtful reflection on this most personal topic of sexuality.”

Catholic advocates of same-sex civil marriage voiced support for Farley. “She has written about the reality of same-sex relationships from the theological perspective of treating these couples with dignity, honor, and respect,” said Boston-based Charles Martel, a spokesperson for Catholics for Marriage Equality, a national advocacy group.

“It is a reflection which speaks not only about the existence of these relationships, but also an acknowledgement of the capacity to truly love,” he added. “Sister Farley is showing the Church what in fact occurs among gay persons, and that to love well is an essential part of being fully human.”

Medford, Massachusetts-based Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, spoke of Sister Farley’s work in terms of its sensibleness.

“Farley’s proposal that same-sex relationships be justified using the same sexual ethics as heterosexual ones is eminently reasonable,” said Duddy-Burke.

“And all that most reasonable people would ask,” she added. “It is outrageous that this statement is seen as worthy of Vatican censure.”

Chicago’s Joe Murray of the Rainbow Sash Movement said of Farley’s theological role that it “is to raise questions” about Church teaching “and offer new understandings.”

“Instead the Vatican attempts to exercise control over the very nature of religious thinking” while “the role of theologian is to expand and not just simply repeat,” he explained.

“Clearly Sister Farley’s perspective on gay marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage should not only reflect the teaching magisterium, but also the sense of the faithful, and she does this faithfully,” said Murray.

He added, “I think one of the most profound questions that Farley’s work raises is: ‘Should power settle questions of truth.’”


©  Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

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