Nun’s Sex Book Reveals Conflicts In The Catholic Church

A nun has angered the Vatican with her writings on masturbation, gay relationships, and divorce. But some say that by attacking her work, the Church is alienating the faithful.

Sister Margaret Farley.

Source: Yale Divinity School

Sister Margaret Farley is a longtime member of the Sisters of Mercy order, a professor at the Yale Divinity School, and according to one American Catholic publication, "an internationally renowned moral theologian." But the Vatican says her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics could cause "grave harm to the faithful." And a blogging priest calls the book "dreadful." They disapprove of Farley's somewhat permissive attitudes toward gay marriage and masturbation, but other theologians say that these attitudes are already shared by rank-and-file Catholics — and that denouncing them, especially when they're voiced by a respected nun, could push away some believers. Some of Just Love's more controversial passages:

On masturbation

"It is surely the case that many women, following the 'our bodies our selves' movement of the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, 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."

On same-sex relationships

"My own view, as should be clear by now, 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."

On "hookup culture"

"Suppose these practices are harmful to young people. Suppose some of them enjoy these practices, while some do not. Suppose some of them feel used, but their partners have no understanding of this. Would sexual taboo morality change the situation? Perhaps it would, but its lasting effect might have to do with developing shame and guilt more than wisdom and prudence about human sexuality."

On divorce

“My own position is 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. This implies that there can indeed be situations in which too much has changed – one or both partners have changed, the relationship has changed, the original reason for commitment seems altogether gone."

On remarriage

"[T]he lives of two persons once married to one another are forever qualified by the experience of that marriage. The depth of what remains admits of degrees, but something remains. But does what remains disallow a second marriage? My own view is that it does not. 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"

Cardinal William Levada.

(Reuters / TONY GENTILE)

In an official notification to the faithful made public yesterday, Cardinal William Levada declared on behalf of the Vatican that Just Love "in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality." He further urged other theologians "to pursue the task of studying and teaching moral theology in full concord with the principles of Catholic doctrine" (the implication: "don't write books like this anymore").

Other religious scholars have been deeply critical of the Vatican's position on Just Love. Paul Lakeland, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, said in a statement that the notification marked "a black day in the history of the Church." Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, told BuzzFeed that the Church's criticism of Farley was part of a larger crackdown — after the Second Vatican Council in the sixties, she said, the Church began "opening windows to the world." But now "there are some who think those windows have been open long enough."

Much of this crackdown lately has focused on nuns. In April, the Vatican accused the largest nuns' group in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The Vatican's statement also criticized the nuns for focusing too much on alleviating poverty while failing to condemn abortion or gay marriage. Kaveny says that in general, nuns have been open to a broader range of viewpoints than have male church officials, possibly because their charitable work brings them into contact with so many different people. She also notes that most practicing Catholics in the US have already rejected some of the Church's restrictions on sex and sexuality.

Kate Ott, a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew University Theological School, says the Vatican's criticism of Just Love could alienate a lot of believers. Many Catholics, she said, had been deeply influenced by a nun or religious teacher in their lives, and the Vatican publicly lambasting a nun would make them feel "disenfranchised." Asked what, if anything, would change the Vatican's rigid attitude toward sex and sexuality, she said many more people would have to speak out on behalf of openness. "And prayer," she added. "Prayer might help too."

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