Until Monday, the go-to event at this weekend’s annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America
was titled “Sacramental-Liturgical Theology Since Vatican II: The Dialectic of Meaning and Performance.”
But that was before the nun sex book.
That’s shorthand now for the writings of Sister Margaret Farley
a 70-something theological heavyweight, whose book, “Just Love” was
censured by the Vatican this week for its empathy toward same-sex
marriage, masturbation and divorce, among other activities totally
forbidden by Catholic teaching.
Now the must-attend event for
members of the world’s largest group of theologians, is an an interview
with Farley, the group’s past president and a matriarch of feminist
Catholic sexual ethics, like everything else in
American Catholicism — and perhaps America as a whole these days — is
divided into two galaxies.
There's the Farley-like camp at the
Society, with more than 1,300 members, which has generally embraced more
open, liberal interpretations of Catholic sexual ethics. They long ago
okayed papal no-nos like premarital sex and same-sex relationships, and
are more focused now on things like creating stable families led by
equal partners and the impact of toy marketing and media on girls’ moral
Then there’s masturbation. While banned by the church, Farley wrote, the practice is neither inherently good, or bad.
Farley said, can help or harm “well-being or the liberty of spirit” —
it depends. Women, in particular, she says “have found great good in
self-pleasuring ... something many had not experienced or even known
about” with husbands and lovers.
“In this way, it could be said that masturbation serves relationships rather than hindering them.”
Her thinking was in keeping with that of many of her liberal colleagues.
Catholic scholars are seeing a big divorce rate, a hook-up culture.
[But] they aren’t on the bandwagon of condemning. They just want to give
people more sense of direction," said Lisa Sowle Cahill, a Boston
College theologian who is interviewing Farley for the Friday night talk.
Cahill added, rather sarcastically: “But some people would rather talk about masturbation, which is so
much more important.”
More conservative thinkers join the much-smaller Academy of Catholic Theology or Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
don’t belong and I don’t know of conservative theologians who do. We
are definitely not welcome there,” Janet Smith, a prominent moral
theologian at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said of the
St. Louis event.
Conservatives theologians argue that Catholic
sexual ethics should not change with the times. Ethical behavior must
also be judged differently in a sexual relationship than in other
relationships, they say. The relationship must be between a man and a
woman who are married, who don’t use contraception and who view sex as a
means for procreation.
The good of sexuality comes from the fact
that it bonds two people and is tied to baby-making, said Eduardo J.
Echeverria, a philosophy professor at Sacred Heart seminary who writes
about sexual ethics.
Masturbation violates both those things, he
said, and can lead to using pornography or helping someone avoid fixing
any sexual problems in their marriage.
The fact that it feels good
(or can!) is meaningless, he said. “Adultery can produce pleasure, so
can pedophilia. ... Human sexuality has a nature, and it’s toward union
and the good of the other.”
While the more liberal sexual
ethicists, like Farley, see their role as challenging official teaching
to evolve with the times, traditionalists say being a Catholic
theologian is about “trying to be faithful to what the church teaches
... and to explore the content of revelation,” Echeverria said.
Echeverria said, are divided deeply — like Catholics in general — over
questions of whether scripture is the real and immutable word of God.
What does it mean to be a committed Christian?
What gets people
like him, he said, is that the Theological Society-types barely address
church teachings or people supportive of church teachings in their
“It’s as if intelligent people can’t really believe
what the church teaches,” Echeverria said. “There are all these [huge
theologians in the past] who wanted to be faithful to the mind of the
church, and it’s as if, ‘We don’t bother to read these
Farley, who has been challenging church teachings on the male-only
priesthood and abortion for decades, is an author favored by liberals.
On the right, the celebrity theologian is Christopher West, who used to
do marriage preparation classes for the Washington Archdiocese and runs
seminars and chats on the radio about Pope John Paul II’s landmark
“Theology of the Body.”
Meanwhile the censure by the Vatican's
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continued Thursday to elevate
Farley far beyond theological circles. Her book, which came out in
2006, remained in the top 20 bestsellers on Amazon, above “The Hunger
Games" box set but below "Eat to Live.” That's about 200,000 spots
higher than where it sat before the censure was announced.
they seen ‘Footloose’ at the Vatican? Jeez,” said Rocco Palmo, a popular
blogger who writes about the Vatican and the U.S. clergy. Meaning:
Forbidden fruit tastes better.
In St. Louis, the Theological
Society’s board on Thursday approved a statement in support of Farley,
who has been comfortable in the center of controversial sexual and
gender storms for decades.
The board is “especially concerned,” its statement read, about the Vatican’s view of the role of theology.
notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “risks
giving the impression that there can be no constructive role in the life
of the Church for works of theology that 1) give voice to the
experience and concerns of ordinary believers, 2) raise questions about
the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions, and 3) offer
alternative theological frameworks as potentially helpful contributions
to the authentic development of doctrine. ”
While many won’t be in
St. Louis this weekend, conservative sexual ethicists have had their
own flurry of activity since the announcement of the notification, the
first from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in
Colorado theologian E. Christian Brugger
a piece entitled “Three Cheers for the CDF.” Others zapped around
critical reviews from when Farley’s book debuted in 2006. This week
moral theologian William E. May called Farley’s work “atrocious
” and said she is arrogant.
“People have gone into their own their own enclaves,” Cahill said.