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Editor’s note: As a pastoral event, the Second Vatican Council took a number of steps that brought renewal to Catholic moral theology. The recognition of the unitive purpose of marriage, for example, infused a sense of personal significance into the theology of marriage and the appreciation of sexuality. The recognition of religious liberty and the sovereignty of conscience opened new paths for the church to relate to the state and the rights of all believers. The call to examine war “with a whole new attitude” opened up changes in church teaching on war and peace and encouraged the rise of Catholic peace movements. And the defense and promotion of human rights as an essential service of the church to the world unleashed the energies of bishops, religious and laypeople for the defense of the oppressed against authoritarian regimes.

The council also modeled a new style of moral theology with a Christocentric focus. It drew on biblical and patristic sources as well as scholastic theology and urged the reading of the signs of the times in collaboration with other Christians and men and women of good will as an ecclesial duty. It also professed a readiness to learn from the world, including from the church’s adversaries. With a recommendation for the establishment of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, it set up a mechanism and a network to coordinate its social mission.

But what the council failed to do was to institutionalize the kind of moral theology it embodied, especially in the field of sexual ethics. While the council fathers hoped for a further renewal of the field through the integration of biblical studies, the process of renewal was short-circuited by postconciliar debates over birth control and abortion, which worked themselves out in updated variants of natural-law ethics. In addition, the papal magisterium, in response to fast-moving scientific, societal and legal developments, intervened more quickly and unilaterally in reproductive issues like in vitro fertilization and stem cell research, and in end-of-life issues like euthanasia and care of the permanently comatose. Much like legal positivism, official moral teaching grew increasingly self-referential. The college of moral theologians, which once constituted a respected part of the church’s ordinary magisterium, was seldom consulted, and dissenters from official teaching were disciplined.

The latest correction came in June with the censure of Margaret A. Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006). Sister Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a retired Yale professor, argued that justice should be a norm for sexual relations, especially where violence or disparity of power is involved. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith neither condemned Professor Farley nor restricted her activities, though it did forbid the book’s use as a text in Catholic institutions. It offered instead an “assessment” of Just Love, criticizing it for taking positions on particular issues of sexual ethics at odds with official teaching. More to the point, it faulted the book for not making official church teaching the primary (and controlling) source of the just-love ethic.

Prompted by the doctrinal congregation's assessment and the discussion that ensued, the editors asked several moral theologians, systematic theologians and experts in canon law to comment: (1) on the role of moral theologians today, (2) the context of their work as they attempt to serve diverse audiences; pastors and the faithful, the magisterium and the academy, and (3) the intellectual demands of their discipline. We present the responses of three scholars who answered our request: James T. Bretzke, S.J., Richard Gaillardetz and Julie Hanlon Rubio.

The Editors

Constancy of Change in Sexual Ethics

By James T. Bretzke

Some time ago I gave a talk entitled “Catholic Sexual Ethics Today: Going Beyond ‘How Far Can You Go?’” addressed to parents and grandparents of Jesuit high school students. I outlined how growth in our understanding of sexuality had mandated corresponding changes in our theological treatment of this topic. In the ensuing question and answer period, the first hand up belonged to a grandfather, whose question caught me off-guard: “Father, don’t you think you should just tell these young people that when they contemplate having sex they are taking their immortal souls in their hands?!” My reply, more automatic than reflective, clearly shocked him: “No, because I honestly don’t believe it to be true.” Looking back on that moment with a couple of more decades of experience, I believe that while my assessment of God’s compassionate judgment was probably correct, my on-the-fly response was not very good. Clearly we were working out of different paradigms, and my answer probably gave him the impression I judged his concern passé in the light of my more enlightened contemporary moral theology.

A good ethicist has to work in the present out of the past with an eye to the future, while also attending to the many “publics” his or her discipline engages. This is vitally important in transitioning from one time-tested model to another. When I was a child, our family’s black rotary, party-line telephone served us well enough; it was the only option available for electronic communication. But while electronic communication remains a constant in our lives, the methods and modes have changed often between the rotary phone and today’s smartphones.

An ethicist is a bit like an information technology specialist with overlapping and at times competing roles: developing and testing new applications, serving as an early-adopter beta user, giving tech support to end users trying to master the new approach, while also trying to maintain essential grounding with the operating system the tradition represents. As technophiles and technophobes alike realize, given the need for fine-tuning, upgrading and honestly confronting unforeseen “undocumented features” (a k a bugs) that can cause real mischief, the latest app does not guarantee lasting value. Like research and development engineers, theologians need freedom, respect and trust to develop and bring their particular expertise to bear on both old and new problems. But in moving from drawing board to widespread adoption, a best-practices model tells us that solitary entrepreneurs rarely succeed. Collaboration and integration with others who have different roles and expertise, including marketing and management, is essential. Just being old or new does not guarantee success in reaching the goal.

Here is an outline of what I wish I had said to that grandfather in search of an uncomplicated, old-fashioned answer for his grandson. First, I would have acknowledged the seriousness of his question, and then with him I would have probed some of the unarticulated premises that might have provided us with common ground. For example, all sexual activity is purposeful and should be grounded in personal maturity. It should be aided by cultivating moral character with supporting virtues and by growing in affective and responsible relationships with others, the most important being our relationship with God, who is loving and compassionate. I would have added that authentic lived sexual expression is deeply significant, with meanings that go far beyond transitory pleasures or psychological developmental stages. These premises define the core of the church’s traditional sexual ethics, and they remain valid today.

Next, I would have turned to my favorite moral theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, who well understood that only God can know all of reality in its full complexity (Summa Theologiae I, Q. 2). Humans, even those with the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, organize complex realities like sexuality in terms of models and paradigms. Today neither magisterial teaching nor most moral theologians fully embrace the Angelic Doctor’s paradigm of “unnatural vice” (masturbation), a species of lust, contrary to both reason and the natural order and, after bestiality and sodomy, the “gravest sexual sin,” ranking ahead of, in descending order of gravity, incest, rape, adultery, seduction and fornication (ST II-II. Q. 154, art. 11-12). Masturbation’s violation of the sexual faculty’s sole primary procreative end made it seriously sinful. While there is a great deal of constancy in this procreative tradition, repeated by popes right up to Vatican II, “Gaudium et Spes” (No. 50) clearly shifted paradigms in elevating the unitive, love dimension of marriage to equal importance with procreation.

I then would have traced how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deepens this paradigm shift in affirming: “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (No. 2332). Sexuality is the way our “belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed,” and it only “becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another” (No. 2337). Certainly the vocabulary and style differ from that of St. Thomas, but if he were alive today he could embrace both the substance and the mode of communication because they share his core belief that human interpersonal strivings for particular goods are grounded in our seeking the highest good, which is God.

Thomas’ theology did not begin ab ovo, nor did it simply repeat the well-worn truths of his tradition. Thomas’ approach of using the philosophy of Aristotle was a new “app” in his day. Some embraced it, but many resisted, while not a few regarded it with real suspicion. But ultimately St. Thomas succeeded in showing us that both constancy and change are necessarily bound together in a healthy and helpful living moral tradition. That tradition supports us still.

James T. Bretzke, S.J., is a professor of moral theology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry and the author of A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology (Liturgical Press, 2004).

Magisterium and the Faithful

By Richard Gaillardetz

The assessment in June of Sister Margaret A. Farley’s book Just Love by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith invites reflection on two issues that take us beyond the field of moral theology. The first concerns the task of theology as it relates to the distinctive teaching responsibilities of the magisterium, and the second concerns the contributions of ordinary Christians to the development of official church teaching.

The magisterium and the task of theology. The doctrinal congregation contends that Professor Farley “does not present a correct understanding of the role of the Church’s Magisterium” insofar as she either ignores official church teaching or treats it as “one opinion among others.” The congregation finds her theological method, attending as it does to “contemporary experience,” inconsistent with “the practice of authentic Catholic theology.” Unfortunately, these assertions give the impression that the “authentic” practice of Catholic moral theology is limited to defending and explicating the “constant teaching of the magisterium.” Yet the task of theology is not the same as the task of the magisterium. The magisterium has a particular responsibility for ensuring the integrity of the apostolic faith and providing concrete moral guidance in the life of Christian discipleship.

Much of a theologian’s work can be supportive of the magisterium. Theologians will employ their craft to contribute to a deeper appropriation of the Christian tradition. They will find opportunities to probe Christianity’s fundamental doctrinal commitments for deeper insight. They will enhance the intelligibility and compelling character of the Christian moral vision. Most theologians find this aspect of their work quite fulfilling. They came to their vocation, after all, motivated by a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the transformative potential of Christian discipleship. They are only too happy to put their expertise to the service of building up, wherever possible, the faith consciousness of the church. But the work of theology cannot be limited to this.

The task of theology may also require a critical exploration of perceived difficulties with current authoritative teaching. Theologians must be willing to shed light on faulty theological arguments; they must be willing to raise difficult questions regarding aspects of contemporary teachings that seem at variance with believers’ deepest intuitions and experiences. Should not the magisterium welcome this kind of honest inquiry as another form of theological cooperation with its own teaching responsibilities? After all, if the authoritative teaching under critique is in fact authentic, it should easily withstand this kind of inquiry. If it does not, then perhaps honest theological exploration will yield insights for a development or even a substantive change in the teaching.

The C.D.F. notification is disconcerting because it offers no appreciation for the critical exploratory function of theology. The notification draws attention to specific norms and doctrines that Professor Farley challenges—in itself a legitimate aspect of the magisterium’s teaching ministry. Yet one must question why the C.D.F. limited itself to enumerating doctrinal deficiencies supported by nothing more than catechism quotations. Why did it make no effort to engage seriously the larger argument she was trying to make? The fact is that relatively little of Professor Farley’s book deals with masturbation, homosexual activity and the other church teachings she is accused of challenging.

The bulk of Just Love makes an extended argument for a new framework for sexual ethics, one that attends more fully to contemporary human experience and the fruit of social scientific inquiry. Professor Farley makes the provocative argument that Christian sexual ethics would look quite different if it were shaped by the concerns for just relationship that are central to Catholic social ethics. It is this new theological framework that represents the heart of her project. Yet the notification makes no mention of this framework. Indeed, it makes no effort at all to consider her arguments. Perhaps the C.D.F. did not see this as an appropriate task for a doctrinal assessment; but then one must ask, where does the magisterium strive to engage diverse theological arguments that may challenge official teaching?

Many moral theologians find Professor Farley’s line of argument compelling. Others are troubled by the direction in which her work would take contemporary sexual ethics. The pertinent question is whether the kind of tentative theological proposals she has offered can play a helpful role in the ongoing development of doctrine. Can her new ethical framework provide an occasion for the whole Christian community, including its bishops, to prayerfully consider new questions and concerns regarding Christian sexual morality? This brings us to the second issue.

Attending to the insights of ordinary believers. The C.D.F. notification expresses concern that Professor Farley’s book will create “confusion among the faithful.” Indeed, we find similar concerns expressed in almost every doctrinal notification of this kind in the past decade. This kind of language seems tainted by an ecclesiastical paternalism that assumes the Christian faithful are necessarily scandalized whenever theologians raise difficult questions regarding official church teaching. Is it not well past time for church leadership to attend to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that the people of God are more than naïve, impressionable children who need to be protected?

The council taught that ordinary believers can draw on their own religious experience, contemplation and reflection to participate in the development of tradition (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” No. 43). The council taught that all baptized Christians possess a supernatural instinct for the faith that allows them to penetrate ever more deeply the meaning of God’s word and to discern the appropriate application of that word in their lives (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 12). The council taught that the laity must willingly take the initiative in putting their faith into practice in their daily lives, seeking counsel from their clergy while recognizing that the clergy will not have an answer to every question that arises (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 8). Put simply, the council treated the Christian faithful as adults.

In its 2011 document “Theology Today: Perspectives and Criteria,” the International Theological Commission held that both theologians and the magisterium must attend carefully to the sensus fidelium (No. 33?36) in the exercise of their respective tasks. Theologians like Professor Farley and Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., have made attending to the religious experience of ordinary believers central to their projects. Where is there evidence of the magisterium’s efforts in this regard?

What would happen if the magisterium were to view the faithful as the council did, that is, as collaborators within a community of discernment, in which the Christian faithful’s own wealth of experience and religious insight might have something positive to offer to the development of Christian moral teaching? 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.

Richard Gaillardetz is the McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. His most recent publication, co-authored with Catherine Clifford, is Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (Liturgical Press, 2012). He is also the editor of a collection of essays titled When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today’s Church (Liturgical Press, 2012).

A Missed Opportunity

By Julie Hanlon Rubio

The book Just Love, by Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M., is representative of new currents in the field of Christian sexual ethics. For that reason the book has been criticized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Catholic conservatives and lauded by Catholic liberals who link it to the recent scrutiny of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The recent debate between the Catholic right and left goes something like this:

R: Professor Farley holds positions contrary to Catholic doctrine.

L: Professor Farley does not pretend to be representing official Catholic teaching.

R: Theological exploration must take place within the boundaries of Catholic teaching.

L: Theology, unlike catechesis, allows for exploration and argument, especially on contested questions.

R: Catholic theology is not catechesis but still must be faithful to Catholic teaching.

L: Theology is respectful of Catholic teaching but must challenge it when it is no longer making


And so on.

This debate misses an opportunity. Professor Farley does hold positions contrary to current Catholic teaching, but these positions are not the most important points in her book. 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.

The heart of the book is the author’s framework for sexual ethics: seven norms that together constitute “just love.” These norms are central to almost all academic reviews of the book, yet they were absent from the doctrinal congregation’s notification and from most news stories about it.

Professor Farley derives the norms from an inductive philosophical view of human beings. Persons, she says, deserve to be treated justly, or as ends in themselves, because they are free and relational. But what does it mean to treat persons in this way? She offers a baseline in seven norms:

1. Do no unjust harm. This norm rules out deceit, betrayal and violence.

2. Free consent. One may not overpower, manipulate or lie in a sexual relationship.

3. Mutuality. Both partners must respect each other and commit themselves to their relationship.

4. Equality. One may not treat a partner as a commodity, property or thing. This rules out abuse and all sexual relationships in which one person fails to offer his or her true self.

5. Commitment. Some form of commitment is required not simply to constrain and control, but to lay the groundwork for relational fulfillment. “Sexuality is of such importance,” Farley writes, “that it needs to be nurtured, sustained, as well as disciplined, channeled, controlled.” Affairs “cannot mediate the kind of union—of knowing and being known, loving and being loved—for which human relationality offers the potential.”

6. Fruitfulness. Procreation belongs in the context of committed relationships. Love should not be sterile but ought to go beyond itself.

7. Social justice. Third parties, like current or future children, are not to be harmed. Social norms and policies that violate the other six norms are to be opposed.

Professor Farley reframes all sexual questions in terms of just love. In each area, she wants us to ask, “Am I treating him as a free, relational human being? Am I being loving? Are she and I equal? Am I giving him his due?”

This framework has great potential to speak to an older generation who wrote off Catholic sexual teaching long ago and to a younger generation who not only dismisses it but also has a hard time conceiving of any ethical framework for sex. Professor Farley recognizes the depth of the lack of connection both generations experience with official Catholic sexual morality, but she insists that we keep talking and holding ourselves accountable to shared norms. These norms are very much in keeping with the Catholic tradition, though they emphasize relational responsibility more than absolute rules. For the many inside and outside the church who find traditional ways of thinking about sex less than convincing, Professor Farley offers reasoning that resonates and a sound basis for better ethical conversation.

Is this the only kind of conversation we need? Probably not. Some in the younger generation of Catholic theologians hunger to make stronger connections between the tradition and sexual ethics. Because they were born after the Second Vatican Council, they do this without baggage, guilt or shame. Bearing instead the burden of no rules and overly high expectations for sexual fulfillment, they seek a rigorous sexual ethic that matches their social ethic. They are more interested than many in Professor Farley’s generation in reading Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, finding truth in his fundamental claim that with our bodies we speak and should speak truthfully and lovingly. Instead of side-stepping Catholic teaching, as Professor Farley sometimes does, they connect sexuality with discipleship, liturgy and ecclesial community.

Is there still a place for Professor Farley’s just love ethic? Absolutely. Her years of work with women in Africa and decades of teaching at Yale Divinity School led her to broaden the reach of sexual ethics. This move was long overdue. It is no longer legitimate to limit sexual ethics to questions of premarital sex, contraception, same-sex relations and masturbation because there are so many other ways that human beings harm each other sexually. Especially when speaking across cultures (locally and internationally, in the church and outside it), due humility and a common language that allows for conversation are both necessary. Professor Farley’s framework can help us work toward greater care, fidelity and beauty. In the end, this is what matters.

Too much time and energy are spent by the Catholic right and left arguing about issues that divide us. It would be far better to seek common ground. In our times, traditional Catholics are less negative about sex than ever (just read some recent literature on natural family planning), and progressive Catholics are more aware than ever of the limits of sexual freedom (no one is a fan of the “hook-up” culture). When we speak of what we are for and confront the worst of sexual exploitation, we will find significant overlap. Professor Farley gives us words that can help us move across partisan divides: mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, relationality. These are not the only words we need, but they are tremendously helpful.

The tired debate over the Farley case blinds us to the reality that this should be a time of shared hope for better sex and shared worry about unjust love. It is time to own this moment and speak truthfully together as best we can.

Julie Hanlon Rubio is associate professor of Christian ethics at Saint Louis University and the author of Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Georgetown University Press, 2010).

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lash LaRue
11 years 7 months ago
I learned much from each comment, but I am fascinated with Prof. Rubio's hint that one might combine Farley's methods with John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Perhaps she will write that book? Whoever would write it would find me as a reader. 
Paul Ferris
11 years 7 months ago

Sadly there are times when human beings have to ask the question: "what is the lesser of two or more evils. The Catholic Magesterium in the realm of sexual ethics refuses to adjust its judgements to the exigencies of human well being. St. Thomas had no good reason, except for the sake of his system, to consider bestiality a greater evil than rape and incest. These last two evils don't even belong in the same list as masturbation, adultery, and fornication. Aquinas made other mistakes as when he accepts torture and captial punishments for heretics. (Ironically he is willing to tolerate Moselms and Jews because they do not adhere to the Christian faith.)

Today the Vatican would allow people in Africa to die of aids rather than to use a condom. Some American bishops would allow women to die in child birth even when it is impossible to save tthe life of the child even if the mother dies. A wise person needs to know when it is better to sacrifice some aspect of the system for the sake of the truth of the whole. Doing the correct thing is not always mean doing the right thing.

Paul Ferris
11 years 6 months ago
I think it is interesting that there were only two comments after this article. To me it means that most people decide moral questions based on their consciences and experience. And only the Vatican is concerned about Margaret Farley's book. I recommend this book it is "fair and balanced." Her ideas are very pastoral and healing.
11 years 6 months ago
As an IT techie for over 5 decades, I loved Fr Bretzke's IT metaphor.  Let me add to it.  For a decade I was a developer on a telecommunications system used by over 2000 customers and over a million users.  After a few years we developed a technique which we called a game.  An incident report from a customer would be evaluated and we would approach the team leader and say that a determination was needed "Is it a bug or is it a feature?"  It was a bug if the current functionality was not a reasonable behavior for the program - a bugfix was made for the program.  But sometimes both the current function and the proposed function were both reasonable.  An option would be created to allow the customer (and in some instances, the user) to set the option as they wished.

In a moral theology paradym, is a choice between two (or more) alternatives reasonable/allowable or not?

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