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James T. KeaneNovember 28, 2023
Composite image (Wikimedia Commons)

When one hears news out of the Vatican these days concerning Catholic theologians, more often than not the names that appear are authors seeking new ways of doing theology or of nuancing traditional magisterial teachings in light of contemporary understandings of human anthropology and culture—be that around synodality, same-sex relationships or the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. It can be easy to forget that the situation was rather different less than a generation ago, when many theologians—American scholars among them—found themselves in a more adversarial relationship with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

One of the more public examples of that long-standing tension arose in 2012, when Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M., found herself the subject of an investigation and official notification from the C.D.F. concerning her 2006 book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. The notification was a publisher’s dream—the book shot to the top of the best-seller lists for a time—but was an unhappy moment for the American Catholic theological community. The C.D.F. notification stated that Farley’s book “affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality” and “is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church.” Though Farley was not silenced or prevented from teaching in Catholic institutions, the C.D.F. decreed that the book “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”

The C.D.F. decreed that Just Love “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”

Sister Farley released a statement to the National Catholic Reporter soon after, explaining her rationale for writing the book. “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,” she wrote. “This is what my book, Just Love, is about.”

Just Love had received positive reviews upon its release, including a 2006 review in America by Lisa Sowle Cahill, who called it “the product of years of experience, reflection, scholarship and wisdom.” As a theologian, she wrote, “Farley gives us a social ethic of sex that incorporates both the biblical option for the poor and the orientation of Catholic social thought to the universal common good. As a feminist, she reminds Catholics that their tradition should make its global option for women more consistent, more explicit and more effective, especially in the areas of sex, motherhood, marriage and family.”

After the 2012 notification from the C.D.F., America solicited responses from prominent Catholic theologians James Bretzke, S.J., Richard Gaillardetz and Julie Hanlon Rubio, all of whom expressed concern about the way Farley and her work had been treated. “Professor Farley does hold positions contrary to current Catholic teaching, but these positions are not the most important points in her book,” Hanlon Rubio wrote. “Rather, the significance of her work lies in her use of compelling philosophical language and in her treatment of neglected issues like sexual violence, infidelity, polygamy and prostitution. Catholics on all sides should seize the opportunity she offers to discuss sexual ethics in a new way.”

Gaillardetz was critical of the C.D.F.’s methods, which he saw as part of a longstanding trend of not valuing the contributions of theologians:

What would happen if the magisterium were to view theologians as serving the teaching office of the church by challenging faulty arguments, raising difficult questions and proposing alternative frameworks for the church’s prayerful discernment? What would happen if theologians and the rest of the faithful were to attend seriously to official magisterial teaching with an attitude of respect but with a determination to test its adequacy in the light of their own insight and intuitions? Perhaps the church would become a more authentic school of humble Christian discipleship, one better equipped to offer the world the liberating message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Farley remains a prominent figure in Catholic ethics and is the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School, where she taught from 1971 to 2007. (Among her doctoral students at Yale was Drew Christiansen, S.J., the former editor in chief of America.) A past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics, she has authored or edited eight books on various subtopics of Christian ethics.

In a 2006 review for America, Lisa Sowle Cahill called Just Love “the product of years of experience, reflection, scholarship and wisdom.”

I worked with Sister Farley on two of her books when I was an editor at Orbis Books: a revised 2013 edition of her 1986 book Personal Commitments (in which she first surfaced some of the ethical questions she addressed more fully in Just Love), and a 2015 book of essays edited with Jamie Manson, Changing the Questions: Explorations in Christian Ethics. The latter collection is a testament to Farley’s wide range of interests and expertise—in addition to essays on the intersection of ethics and public life, she also wrote on feminism, ecclesiology, scripture and more. Her work has also focused on ethical responses to AIDS and on the status of women in the developing world. A classic example is a 1991 essay for America after a monthlong visit to China with a group of female theologians, “A New Form of Communion: Feminism and the Chinese Church.”

In that essay, she noted that the isolation and persecution of many Christian churches in China after the 1949 Communist takeover had resulted in a Christian community that was recognizable to a foreigner and yet unique in many ways. “In time and in place it has found a separate but not alien way from that of the West,” she wrote. “Radical discontinuity with the history of Western Christianity has ironically allowed the Chinese church a graced continuity with Christian tradition, a radical hope for a life, not in isolation but in a new form of communion, with the rest of the world’s Christians.” She also found a Christian community where women had more prominent roles and voices—and where some of the systematic sexism of a Eurocentric church was less of an issue. On that front, she wrote, the Chinese church had much to teach us.

In 1992, Farley received the John Courtney Murray Award for Excellence in Theology from the Catholic Theological Society of America. In 2008, she was honored with the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, one of the highest honors in the field, for Just Love. She is still an occasional visitor to America’s offices for meetings of the “All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister” project, which supports the initiatives of women religious in sub-Saharan Africa.


Our poetry selection for this week is “Lament,” by Nicholas Montemarano. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

What African theologians will mean to the future of the Catholic Church

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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