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.