June 6, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In its latest salvo against American nuns, the Roman Inquisition – now formerly cloaked in the anodyne name Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – has denounced a book published in 2006 by theologian Margaret Farley, now a professor emerita of the Yale Divinity School, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order. You can read the Inquisition’s “notification” here, where it is printed on an unbleached-parchmenty-looking ground. Classy. (Also translated into Italian, French, German, Spanish and Portugese, but not Latin.) Laurie Goodstein and Rachel Donadio of the New York Times reported on Monday that before formally censuring Sister Farley, the holies of the Vatican Inquisition “spent more than two years reviewing Sister Farley’s book.” Oh, I’ll bet they did. The title of the book is Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, and it “present[s] a theological rationale for same-sex relationships, masturbation and remarriage after divorce.” Oh my.
Goodstein and Donadio report that Pope Benedict XVI approved the Inquisition’s verdict and ordered its publication, suggesting that the pope may have read Sister Farley’s book, too. The saddest thing about all these close readings by dim bulbs (read that as you will) is that the readers didn’t learn a thing. They concentrated on the “erroneous propositions, the dissemination of which risks grave harm to the faithful,” and they “invited” Sister Farley to “correct” her work.
If the ordering of the Inquisition’s “specific problems” with Sister Farley’s academic work is any indication of the seriousness of each heresy, then women’s masturbating – a subject which the holy eunuchs are not equipped to evaluate – is nearly burn-at-the-stake material. At any rate, the Inquisition puts Farley’s advocacy for masturbation as “Specific Problem No. 1”: As cited in their statement, Farley wrote,
It is surely the case that many women… have found great good in self-pleasuring – perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure – something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers. In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them. (Ellipsis original.)
This is totally wrong, sayeth the Inquisition:
This statement does not conform to Catholic teaching: ‘Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose….’
Moving along, the pope’s team addresses Sister Farley’s takes on homosexuality. She wrote, as Inquisitors relate, that “My own view… is that same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities. Therefore, same-sex oriented persons as well as their activities can and should be respected whether or not they have a choice to be otherwise.” (Ellipsis original.) Well: “This opinion is not acceptable…. The Catechism affirms: ‘Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…. Under no circumstances can they be approved.’”
In her book, Sister Farley identified a particular problem with this point-of-view and suggested an antidote: “Legislation for nondiscrimination against homosexuals, but also for domestic partnerships, civil unions, and gay marriage, can also be important in transforming the hatred, rejection, and stigmatization of gays and lesbians that is still being reinforced by teachings of ‘unnatural’ sex, disordered desire, and dangerous love.” How wrong is that? –
This position is opposed to the teaching of the Magisterium: ‘The Church teaches that the respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions…. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. ‘
Sister Farley wrote that “a marriage commitment is subject to release on the same ultimate grounds that any extremely serious, nearly unconditional, permanent commitment may cease to bind,” an “opinion is in contradiction to Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.” Further, Farley concluded that “Whatever ongoing obligation a residual bond entails, it need not include a prohibition of remarriage – any more than the ongoing union between spouses after one of them has died prohibits a second marriage on the part of the one who still lives.” Citing Mark 10:11-12, the Inquisitions responds, that “This view contradicts Catholic teaching….”
In response to the Inquisition’s notification, sent in March but only published this week, Sister Farley published a statement, via Yale University, in which she specified that “the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching.” She writes,
… this book was designed to help people, especially Christians but also others, to think through their questions about human sexuality. It suggests the importance of moving from what frequently functions as a taboo morality to a morality and sexual ethics based on the discernment of what counts as wise, truthful, and recognizably just loves. Although my responses to some particular sexual ethical questions do depart from some traditional Christian responses, I have tried to show that they nonetheless reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights of these theological and moral traditions. Whether through interpretation of biblical texts, or through an attempt to understand ‘concrete reality’ (an approach at the heart of ‘natural law’), the fact that Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality seems to require that we at least examine the possibility of development in sexual ethics.
In short, Sister Farley punks the pope. (Her entire statement is worth reading.) Goodstein and Donadio report that
The dean of Yale Divinity School, Harold W. Attridge, a Catholic layman, and the president of the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Patricia McDermott, issued statements in support of Sister Farley. So did 15 fellow scholars who, in a document released by the divinity school, testified to Sister Farley’s Catholic credentials and the influence she has had in the field of moral theology.
Maureen Dowd wrote a column in today’s New York Times in support of Farley and her book. Dowd equates the views toward women of Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith with those of the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice and approves of Farley’s “taking on the Council of Trent and a church that has taken a stand against pleasure.”
Better yet, Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post wrote yesterday that “Monday morning, the book’s reported ranking on Amazon: 142,982. Tuesday afternoon, after a day of furious news coverage of the Vatican censure: It’s at #16.” Nice plug, Joe Ratzinger. Unfortunately and predictably, the book is now out of print, according to Amazon.com.
Despite competing stories like the recall election in Wisconsin and Mayor Bloomberg’s Big Gulp Ban, Goodstein and Donadio’s story was the most popular New York Times story yesterday. I don’t doubt that Dowd’s column will rise to the top today. If the commentary on Dowd’s column is any indication, Times readers are livid at the Vatican’s condemnation of Farley and her book. I hope they’re not surprised. Trying to enforce doctrinal purity is what the Roman Church does and has always done.
In his letter to the church at Corinth (dated ca. 98 C.E. or earlier) Clement I, the Bishop of Rome and commonly cited as the first pope, chided the parishioners for “schism,” “strife” and “sedition” after they elected priests not chosen by Rome who had “perverted” them. Clement urged the Corinthians to follow the priests appointed by Rome (and sanctioned by God!) and also to instruct their women “to live by obedience.”
The Christian bible itself is the result of doctrinal disputes. When Irenaeus was appointed Bishop of Lyons, France, in the late 2nd century C.E., he arrived in the city only to find that when the Romans weren’t throwing the Christians to the lions, the Christians were persecuting each other, often in disputes over doctrine. (The Roman arena at Lyons is still there; it’s in the upper town and easy to reach by funicular.) Irenaeus wrote a five-volume tome Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) in which he attempted to demonstrate the fallacies of the Gnostic teachings favored by some of Lyons’ (and other) congregations. To establish what was “right,” Irenaeus assembled the first Christian canon, which looks very much like today’s Christian bibles. Irenaeus was skeptical about the Gospel of John, which contains Gnostic ideas and borrows from Gnostic texts, but he thought there should be four gospels to match the “four corners of the earth,” so he tossed in John.
Even the divinity of Jesus remained a doctrinal question until Constantine the Great convened the first Council at Nicea in 325 C.E. to unify the church under one doctrine and tamp down “heresies” and schisms. A later Council at Constantinople (381 C.E.) revised the creed to establish the trinity, which is never mentioned in the Christian bible. (In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as a female and to another spiritual divinity, the Paraclete, as a male. The Constantinople creed seems to refer to the female deity.) Many churches – including the Roman Church – still say a version of the the Nicene Creed that is very close to the one hammered out in 381.
It was around this time that the influential theologian Augustine of Hippo – who was not above persecuting “heretics” – came up with the notion of “original sin.” Augustine fingered Eve, and by extension, all women, as the perpetrator of the fall of man. Augustine taught that original sin was transmitted through “concupiscence” – or sensual lust of body and soul. The Roman Church adopted and reaffirmed Augustine’s view at several early councils. One need only look at the modern Inquisition’s statement on Sister Farley’s book to see that the holy fathers believe Augustine still. Original sin, transmitted via concupiscence, colors their view of women and it serves as a rationale for celibacy.
In Irenaeus’s canonical gospels, Jesus never says anything about original sin. He never condemns masturbation. He says homosexuals “were born that way from their mother’s womb,” suggesting to me that homosexuality was – in the gospel writer’s view – “natural law.” (See Matthew 19:12.) Jesus does condemn divorce, though allows men, but not women, an out (Matthew 19:9). This is because Matthew/Jesus did not condemn polygamy, a common practice among wealthy men of the time. According to Matthew, Jesus said a man could not abandon his wife unless she was unfaithful, but none of the gospels prohibit a man from taking additional wives. The New Testament’s laws of marriage were based strictly on economic considerations: women had to be faithful to ensure the proper transfer of patrimonies from generation to generation, and men could not leave their wives to have to fend for themselves in a culture that held “used women” in low regard. Notice that in their notification, the Vatican’s objection of Sister Farley’s book cites Jesus only in regard to divorce. That’s because the Church pretty much dreamed up their other objections, albeit over the course of centuries.
In the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus did seem to have a lover – Salome – and his idea of foreplay was theological chit-chat. (Thomas 61) Maybe it worked for Salome. If you are one who thinks “Secret Mark” is authentic, then Jesus also engaged in homoerotic rituals with young men. Perhaps that’s why the Roman Church has been so lenient toward pedophile priests. It’s “tradition.”
Sister Farley’s views are in keeping with biblical traditions. Certain of her views are not consistent with some later Church doctrine. But it is fair to say that there is no chance Sister Farley can overcome nearly two millennia of entrenched nonsense. Still, she is brave and wise to dismiss the nonsense in such an eloquent, reasoned and nonconfrontational way. And the New York Times is wise and responsible to shed light on the controversy, if for no other reason than the Roman Church’s views continue to have a deleterious effect on American public policy. Republicans have adopted many of the Church’s extremist views curtailing women’s rights. Just this week, Senate Republicans voted unanimously against legislation that would help women get equal pay for equal work. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholics. In his dissent inLawrence v. Texas, the case that overturned sodomy laws in a 6-3 ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia, a Roman Catholic, decried the likelihood that the effect of the majority decision also would be to strike down laws against “masturbation, adultery… and obscenity.” I hope so.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com