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L’Affaire Farley and the Ongoing Chill Factor in Contemporary Moral Theology

This morning the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published a notification stating that Margaret A. Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum 2006), contains “doctrinal errors” that have “been a cause of confusion among the faithful….” Currently professor emerita at Yale Divinity School, where in 1971 she was one of their first (along with Henri Nouwen) Roman Catholic faculty members, Farley is a Sister of Mercy who through decades of teaching and scholarship has certainly left her imprint on the field of Christian ethics, especially in North America. Many prominent ethicists (including a number of professors who taught me) and countless clergy cut their theological teeth under her tutelage, and an indication of the respect her research has received is that she has served as president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics. Thus, the news of this notification has spread today quickly, with many expressing their dismay about it and others applauding the CDF’s action.

The notification starts by identifying some general problems with her book: 1) It is claimed that Sr. Farley fails to present “a correct understanding of the role of the Church’s Magisterium as the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter, which guides the Church’s ever deeper understanding of the Word of God as found in Holy Scriptures and handed on faithfully in the Church’s living tradition.” 2) When treating specific questions, Sr. Farley either ignores “the constant teaching of the Magisterium” or, when referring to it on occasion, portrays it as “one opinion among others.” 3) Sr. Farley’s book demonstrates a faulty understanding of “the objective nature of the natural moral law” and instead relies on “certain philosophical currents or…her own understanding of ‘contemporary experience’.” The notification then delineates several specific problems having to do with “errors” or “ambiguities” in the positions the book takes on questions having to do with sex and marriage. The notification highlights each one and offers citations from the Catechism and other Magisterial documents to try to show how the book’s positions on these questions are not in conformity with official Church teaching. The notification concludes by warning the faithful that Sr. Farley’s book “is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church”; therefore, it should not be used “as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling or formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.” Finally, the notification encourages “theologians to pursue the task of studying and teaching moral theology in full accord with the principles of Catholic doctrine.”

Sr. Farley, in her gracious response to the notification, expresses her appreciation for “the efforts made by the Congregation and its consultants, over several years, to evaluate positions articulated in that book,” and she does “not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching.”  She adds: “In the end, I can only clarify 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.” Moral theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill emphasizes the importance of this last point:

It is important to understand the nature and role of academic theology or theological scholarship as “faith seeking understanding.” Theology is rooted in faith and practical concerns. But the main purpose of theology–unlike pastoral teaching or guidance–is the understanding of God and of humans in relation to God. Understanding involves intellectual justification and cogency. Finally, theology is a process of seeking. Theology is a process of inquiry and exploration in a dynamic and critical relation to other theological positions.

Theologians do not see or present their work as “official church teaching” and few of the faithful are confused about this fact. Readers of Just Love hardly need to be warned that this is not official church teaching; they will feel free to question, disagree and improve the points of the author, as is no doubt her intention.

I reviewed Just Love a few years ago, highlighting its many strengths, but I also suggested: “However, one area where she might have written more has to do with the book’s subtitle: ‘A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.’ Although she attends to distinctively Christian considerations—such as character and the virtues, the Sermon on the Mount, the Christian community, and love for God (240-244)—these comprise a small percentage of the volume. In several places she notes she is proposing ‘a contemporary human and Christian sexual ethic’ (216), which may have been a more accurate subtitle. Also, while the fully human and the Christian may ultimately be the same, Farley might have said more about why she believes this to be the case.” Most importantly, though, I opened my review by observing: “A constructive effort, the book offers more a scaffolding that gives purchase for moving toward an answer rather than a finished edifice of definitive answers to every concrete question about sexual ethics under the sun. Those expecting exhaustive arguments for where she stands on various controversial questions of today will be disappointed, though unduly so, for that is not how Farley views the task of the Christian ethicist. An exemplar of intellectual modesty, she devotes her energies to ‘search,’ ‘probe,’ ‘explore,’ ‘contextualize,’ and ‘consider’ before she attempts to ‘propose.'” It needs to be kept in mind that Sr. Farley never purports to be attempting to pass along her proposals in this book as if they represent Catholic Magisterial teaching. Cahill’s point above is a valid one.

One of my teachers, Richard A. McCormick, S.J., once wrote about “The Chill Factor in Contemporary Moral Theology” (in The Critical Calling: Reflections on Moral Dilemmas Since Vatican II [Georgetown University Press 1989], 71-94), and he raised a number of concerns that we moral theologians sadly, I think, continue to face today. McCormick expressed his worry about a “defensive negativity” that “includes, indeed embodies, a theology” on the part of the Magisterium and contains “ecclesiological assumptions about how theologians ought to conduct themselves vis-a-vis the hierarchical magisterium” (72-73). McCormick argued that “theology is a public enterprise” and that the “faithful assuredly have the right to know what is the authentic teaching of the Church” as well as “the theological response to such authentic formulations” (76). According to McCormick, “doctrinal development is possible” only if theologians are able to work in a way that “is both docile and critical” (77, emphasis his). He gave the example of “the long dissenting processes that led ultimately, not without considerable Roman resistance, to Dignitatis humanae” (77)–a document I might note that the U.S. Bishops now invoke in their defense of religious freedom. McCormick worried about “the chill factor” whereby Catholic moral theologians will not have “the stomach to write on sexual ethics” (90). At the annual convention of the College Theology Society, which happened in San Antonio, Texas, this past weekend, a number of attendees, including young women theologians, expressed similar concerns in today’s climate.

Among the many points McCormick made in that essay, a few others stand out as relevant at this time. For instance, there is a confusion between authority and competence. Authority is not competence. To determine whether something such as germ-line genetic intervention is morally right or wrong, one must be “competent in the field” (84). According to McCormick, “This does not mean that pastors of the Church should not offer guidance on right-wrong activity. It merely suggests two things. First, they simply must consult those who are competent. Second, even after such consultation they must show appropriate caution and modesty” (84-85). In my view, even though she does not at all purport to speak as a Church official, Sr. Farley’s work does exactly each of these things: she consults those who are competent in these areas, and she humbly proposes her thoughts in light of these sources.

Another point McCormick lifted up has to do with confusion about the nature of theology. He wrote: “When believers begin to reflect on their faith, theology comes into being. Such reflection is a continuous wrestling to reappropriate God’s great deeds in Christ in different times and cultures. Such reflection can be reduced to repetition of past formulations only at the cost of theological paralysis. Certain forms of doctrinal centralization tend to do just this” (87). Put differently: “Certain conclusions are not correct simply because Vatican officials approve them. Vatican officials can approve them only because they are seen as correct. And that is a process in which theological reflection has an indispensable role” (87). I think this is a signficant point for us today. Indeed, I worry that the Church is going to suffer even more from what McCormick referred to (in “L’Affaire Curran,” 111-130, in the same book) as “wounds, self-inflicted, by a coercive atmosphere” (127). For those in my profession, McCormick lamented, “Coercive measures will almost certainly have the effect of quieting theologians, at least on certain issues” (128). In McCormick’s view, this atmosphere also harms the Magisterium: It “further erodes both the episcopal and papal magisterium by silencing yet another source of understanding and growth” (128). Accordingly, “the entire church suffers” (127), including the laity and the clergy, in such a climate.

Fr. McCormick was writing during the 1980s. Over two decades later, it pains me to say that I am not sure we have really resolved many of the concerns he raised.



  1. The real issue here seems to be on the task and boundaries of Catholic moral theology. Can a Catholic moral theologian pursue any questions in the name of “faith seeking understanding?” Let me attempt to draw a parallel with systematic theology. Could a Catholic theologian start from an assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity is either (a) false or (b) open for discussion and then proceed to make a theological argument that God is not Trinitarian? Maybe in some other discipline, but not Catholic theology. The nature of God as Trinity is decided. Now, you may start from that principle and proceed to illuminate the doctrine, but you can’t do away with it as a starting principle. To do so is to do (I think) something other than Catholic theology. Same thing with a Biblical theologian making an argument that Jude is non-canonical. The Biblical canon is a starting point. We can seek to understand why Jude is canon, but we can’t assume and/or argue that it isn’t.

    So, are there parallels in the field of moral theology? Moral theology, when it comes to such teachings, is much trickier because it necessarily deals with contingencies (I like that little paradox). As such, the Church is less capable of speaking in a universally infallible way than it is on matters of faith like the Trinity and the canon. But still, it seems to me that there are certain non-negotiables that pertain to moral theology that provide the substance of the starting point of “faith.” What these non-negotiables are is where the conversation needs to be focused in my mind. The bishops seem to think that Farley was not engaged in a process of “faith seeking understanding” but rather one of “challenging the faith.” In other words, she was assuming that certain non-negotiables are, in fact, negotiable.

    I wonder (and I am by no means an expert on this) if the Bishops are assuming a la Lumen Gentium (25) that the moral teachings on life, marriage, sex and contraception are “infallible” or at least “proclaimed infallibly” meaning that the faithful must submit and accept these as truths and “starting points”:

    Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.

    If I am right in assuming that the Bishops thought that Farley challenged infallibly-taught teachings, then it seems we have a more interesting debate. I am certainly not saying that I think the Bishops got it right on this one (though I do remember reading Farley’s comments on masturbation and thinking “sheesh, isn’t anything sacred?”) but I would like to put it forth as a question here, especially to our contributors: are there certain starting principles unique to the field of moral theology (in other words, not the Trinity) which must be accepted as “given” and form the substance of the starting point of “faith” in its effort to understand? Is there any issue on which Catholic moral theologians, by virtue of the authority and limits of their discipline, cannot challenge?

  2. This affair does raise many interesting questions, and I appreciate the way Beth has phrased a principal question in her comment.

    But as I read the McCormick comments, I was reminded of another “chill factor,” coming from the opposite side, namely those young moral theologians just entering academia. I wish I could say that the playing field is level, with due respect for all good theological arguments and choices of topics, but that doesn’t reflect some of the things I’ve heard through the years with regard to choosing degree programs, dissertation topics, journals for article submissions, and so on. The idea that any work that seems to reflect the official magisterial position will “mark” a young theologian, especially if it is on sexual issues, and greatly limit his or her career options is a new problem to be addressed by younger generations of scholars. Living in fear of sharing theological views because it will damage one’s chances of getting into a program, finishing a degree, getting hired , or getting published, is not conducive to furthering the theological enterprise any more than constant fear of a public rebuke by the magisterium.

    While Farley’s case is undoubtedly more humiliating, academia’s chill factor for moral theologians who agree with the magisterium is similarly damaging to genuine scholarly discussion on controversial topics. The issue at hand ought to remind us all of our obligation to engage respectfully with each other in a way that is fitting for Christian believers.

  3. The question I would pose is a sort of parallel to Beth’s, but stated in terms of theological “genre” and ecclesial authority. Tobias quotes McCormick to say that theology is a “continuous wrestling,” Others have pointed out that theology is not the same thing as dogma, doctrine, or discipline. My question is this: “In what ways is theology qua theology rightly normed by the teachings of the Church?”

  4. Tobias,

    Like you, I reviewed Farley’s book and was critical of some aspects of it. Yet, I also worry about the effects of this condemnation on moral theology as a whole, especially because so many in the field find her work to be important.

    I wish, at the very least, that CDF could acknowledge that Farley does some things that few others in the field are able to do:

    (1) She broadens sexual ethics to include issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape as a weapon of war, child prostitution, the unfair stigmatization of women, etc. These issues ares rarely addressed in traditional sexual ethics books, but she calls us to look at them through the lens of justice.

    (2) With her philosophical framework, she gives people an alternative way to think about sexual acts by articulating ethical foundations (i.e, respect, autonomy, relationality) and norms (e.g., mutuality, commitment, consent) that resonate with and challenge contemporary experience. My students often find her ethic to be the most applicable to their situations.

    Farley was trying to speak to the many who simply do not find traditional reasoning on sexual issues to be credible. While we also need to hear the contributions of those who speak more theologically, as well as those with more conservative views, I wouldn’t want to exclude Just Love from the conversation.

  5. Holly, one answer, which hardly settles anything, is that theology qua theology is rightly normed by the teachings of the Church whenever those teachings manifest the Truth that is Jesus Christ. I think the dogma/doctrine/discipline distinctions are intended in part to get at the possibility of gaps between the Church’s teaching and the nonnegotiables of Christian faith, although I think it has to be conceded that the distinction between dogma and doctrine is itself non-dogmatic and thus of curiously indeterminate status!

    Herbert McCabe’s essay on _Veritatis Splendor_, “Manuals and rule books,” is interesting to revisit in light of the Farley case (the essay can be found in _Considering Veritatis Splendor_, edited by John Wilkins). Indeed, Farley’s suggestion that her work was of a different “genre” than official Catholic teaching echoes the main point McCabe sets out to make in his essay—that the rule book of the moral life (roughly, the absolute prohibitions contained in the Decalogue) ought not be confused with the skillful performance of being human (“growing up in the rich and variegated life of virtue”), and vice versa, and that to so confuse matters is to have lost the place of practical reasoning in the moral life. He writes: “it seems to me that the encyclical _Veritatis Splendor_ is, in great part, an attack on those who want to read the rule book as though it were a training manual by those who want to read the manual as though it were a rule book” (63 in Wilkins).

    Later in the essay, reading Aquinas against the encyclical’s gloss on I–II.100.1 of the _Summa_, McCabe continues, “For [Aquinas], the natural law, being nothing but the exercise of practical reasoning, concerns any and every kind of specifically human activity. Thus the use of artificial contraceptives, say, or homosexual acts or masturbation or *in vitro* fertilization, none of which are mentioned in the decalogue, come within the scope of natural law simply because we can reason practically about them. On the other hand, perhaps in their case, since they are not *revealed* as prohibited, we should be chary of speaking of ‘mortal sin’ in their connection. Moreover it must, surely, remain an open question whether objections to these practices should really be seen as part of the absolute rule book and not rather part of the more flexible manual of instruction intended to guide us as we grow to maturity in the virtue of temperateness” (67).

    Reading the Farley case in light of McCabe’s essay does not necessarily yield a defense of Farley; I don’t know her work, but it’s important to note that McCabe was criticizing both the proportionalists and the Vatican for effectively making opposite category errors.

  6.    The anomaly herein is that the last two Popes have been very untraditional in their hermeneutical approach to biblical God mandated violence in the OT…yet very traditional biblically in regard to sex and Sister Farley.  Read section 40 of Evangelium Vitae and section 42 of Verbum Domini…the first insinuating that OT death penalties were cultural rather than God mandated despite the biblical text; and the second calling on historico-critical scholars to arrive at the same judgement on the OT massacres despite the biblical text again.  Yet any tampering with the biblical passages on sex is taboo for both Popes.  Personally I’m traditionally biblical and find this dichotomy bizarre.  It’s as though Popes are conservative on sexual passages (none by the way clearly deal with masturbation which is found condemned in Aquinas’ Summa T. not in the Bible) and Popes are biblically liberals once faced with the OT God mandated acts of violence like the death penalty and the dooms.  These last two Popes have abandoned literality in the Bible to agree with e.g. secular Europe against the death penalty but the same two Popes adhere to literality in order to retain their distinction from that same Euro world on sex….see CDF’s notification letter to Farley for references to “Word of God” and  “Holy Scripture”.  

  7. Thanks for the comments so far. I just saw this piece, which I think has a lot to offer in connection with some of the points that have been raised:

  8. A comment made by Julio Rubio would seem to explain the reason the CDF took the action they did in response to Farley’s book. Apparently they recognized as well that: “…students often find her ethic to be the most applicable to their situations.”

    Her book, as she herself noted, “was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching.” This is obviously the case. It appears (based solely on the comments presented here) that what she has done was not so much to explain Church teaching but to replace it with her own and she has thereby failed in her role as theologian, which properly is “to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium”. (Donum Veritatis)

    In communion with is not the same as in opposition to.


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