Nun writes sensible book; Vatican horrified

The Index of Prohibited Books maintained by Rome's Holy Inquisition was for centuries a useful guide to what was worth reading in European literature. The works of Kepler and Galileo, Kant and Hume, Voltaire and Victor Hugo, Milton and the Marquis de Sade, right down to Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, all were placed out of bounds for good and faithful Catholics. Most, no doubt, enjoyed a boost in sales as a result.

The Index was abolished in 1966, but its spirit lives on. So when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith earlier this week warned the faithful about theological errors contained in a book about sex written by a leading American theologian and nun (and a feminist to boot), a whole lot of people thought, "Wow! A book about sex! By a Nun! This must be worth a look, esepcially if it's been condemned by the Vatican". Professor Sister Margaret Farley's book Just Love became an instant Amazon hit. There must be other literary nuns out there whose publishers are even now sending their books to Rome with all the vaguely controversial bits underlined in red in the hope of a similar result.

Farley's book came out in 2006, so the CDF can scarcely be criticised for a knee-jerk reaction. It's worth noting, though, that out of more than 300 pages the assessors singled out only three short passages for criticism. In these, Sr Farley tackled the hot-button issues of masturbation, divorce and homosexuality. And I have to tell you that what she wrote was truly, truly shocking.

On masturbation, she wrote:

Masturbation… usually does not raise any moral questions at all. … 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.

On homosexuality, she wrote:

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

and, further, that

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. … Presently one of the most urgent issues before the U.S. public is marriage for same-sex partners

And on marriage she pointed out that

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. The point of a permanent commitment, of course, is to bind those who make it in spite of any changes that may come. But can it always hold? Can it hold absolutely, in the face of radical and unexpected change? My answer: sometimes it cannot. Sometimes the obligation must be released, and the commitment can be justifiably changed.

Farley's controversial positions can thus be summed up as follows. Masturbation does no harm, is pleasurable and can be good for you. Gay people are capable of having faithful relationships and the law should recognise that. Some marriages break down; it's sad, but sometimes the best thing is for the partners to move on.

Scarcely earth-shaking stuff, you might think. It's what the vast majority of normal human beings in the modern world, including most Catholics, already think. Farley offered these reflections in the course of a book that attempts to produce a coherent theory of sex and relationships, based on the concept of justice and in keeping with the general principles of what she calls "a moral view of human and Christian life." In its review, the Church Times praised "an excellent work... written with flair, clarity, and absence of jargon."

The CDF is worried, however, that the passages quoted contain doctrinal errors and that therefore the book's "publication has been a cause of confusion among the faithful". So, anxious to steer the faithful out of that confusion, the theological watchdog helpfully points out precisely where the errors are.

The first error is that Farley "does not present a correct understanding of the role of the Church’s Magisterium as the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter, which guides the Church’s ever deeper understanding of the Word of God as found in Holy Scripture and handed on faithfully in the Church’s living tradition." In other words, she has the temerity to venture her own opinion even where that conflicts with official Catholic doctrine. That is, of course, very much not the way a nun is supposed to behave.

The notion that masturbation may have some sort of place in normal sexuality, notes the CDF, "does not conform to Catholic teaching", which has always "firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." For Farley to state as "my own view" that same sex relationships are worthy of respect is "not acceptable", because "tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law... Under no circumstances can they be approved"

This, incidentally, ought to leave one in no doubt that, despite recent suggestions that the Church's objection to same-sex marriage is simply definitional, its opposition to legally recognised civil partnerships is as strong as ever. As the CDF document goes on,

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.

It was equally wrong for Farley to question the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage or the ban on the remarriage of divorcees.

By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. ...If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists.

It's slightly misleading to describe this Vatican statement as "censorship". Farley's order, the Sisters of Mercy, is supporting her: their president, Patricia McDermott, expressed "profound regret" at the treatment of a "highly respected and valued" colleague who has "enlivened the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and enriched the entire Church." Farley herself admitted that not everything in her book was in accord with "hierarchical Church teaching" and stressed that it "was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching."

The censuring of Farley fits neatly into the recent narrative of a Vatican clamping down on dissent, with American nuns and dissident Irish and Austrian priests all facing disciplinary measures after questioning traditional teachings or showing insufficient deference to bishops (although it seems that members of the the far-right Society of St Pius X might be welcomed back into the Catholic fold without having to sign up to the hated Vatican II: go figure). The modern Inquisition has no real way of imposing its views on rank-and-file Catholics. The groups and individuals who have been targeted hold positions within the Church organisation. One common response to claims of a clampdown runs somewhat as follows: the Church's teaching is clear, no-one is forced to believe it, but you can't expect the Vatican to stand idly by while people who claim to speak in its name dissent from core doctrines (core doctrines like, for example, the evilness of masturbation).

The trouble with this argument is that it amounts to a claim that the Church belongs to the Pope and the central bureaucracy. They define what Catholics are supposed to believe. The job of priests and nuns is to obediently teach the official line and the job of ordinary Catholics is to believe what they're told to believe. Vatican sympathisers tend to put the problem down to "inadequate catechesis of the laity"; in other words, Church teachings on matters such as contraception are widely ignored by Catholics because the priests and nuns are either unable or unwilling to explain it properly. If only liberal clergy would get out of the way things could get back to how they were at the height of the counter-reformation.

The main issue is more fundamental. When the Vatican condemns Farley's entirely commonplace ideas it looks silly. Ordinary educated Catholics laugh at the obscurantism of the celibate men in frocks, who have in any event lost most of their remaining moral authority through their mishandling of the sexual abuse scandals, and go out and buy Farley's book. Or campaign on behalf of the disciplined nuns. Or just stop going to mass. There are many millions of people in Western countries who consider themselves Catholic, who believe in the basic points of Christian doctrine, who feel a connection to the church but who increasingly can't take seriously the kind of nonsense contained in this CDF document. No amount of catechesis is going to change that.

In past centuries, the central organs of the Catholic Church could enforce their dogmas because they had access to the instruments of temporal power. They had thumbscrews. Dissidents were frightened into submission or else burned at the stake. When in the early 16th century dissidents arose, first of all Martin Luther, who were able to gain the protection of secular princes, the result was the Protestant Reformation. Today's Catholic dissidents look to the New York Times rather than the Elector of Saxony for support, but the Vatican is equally powerless to stop them.


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