When a nun tows her vows, she pledges among other things obedience to the Catholic Church and its teachings. So when a sister writes a book on sexual ethics that in various ways contradicts Church teachings and refuses for six years to recant, is it really all that shocking when the Vatican issues a rebuke (and an extremely mild one at that)?
That's exactly what has happened in the case of Sister Margaret A. Farley, whom the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rebuked yesterday* for her 2006 book Just Love: A framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. But to Reuters's Philip Pullella, the Vatican is waging war on a "popular American nun." From Pullella's June 4 story headlined "Vatican attacks popular U.S. nun over sexuality book" (emphases mine):
The Vatican criticized a popular American nun on Monday, saying her book on sexual ethics, including topics such as masturbation and homosexuality, contradicted Catholic teaching and must not be used by Catholic educators.
The Vatican's doctrinal department, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a stern "notification" about Sister Margaret A. Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Yale University.
The Congregation sharply criticized Farley, saying her writings manifest a "defective understanding of the objective nature of natural moral law".
Nuns in the United States are still feeling the sting of a report by the same Vatican department in April that criticized them as being feminist and politicized.
It was issued after a Vatican investigation determined that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), whose 1,500 members represent some 80 percent of about 57,000 American nuns, had "serious doctrinal problems" and promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith".
That report, which also criticized the LCWR for sometimes challenging bishops, shocked most American nuns and led to an outpouring of popular and editorial support for them and their work among the poor, and in schools and hospitals.
Of course, the Vatican's discipline of the LCWR is an entirely separate matter from its criticism of Farley. What's more, as the Associated Press's Nicole Winfield noted, Cardinal Levada's "notification" was pretty tame as far as Vatican pronouncements go:
The Vatican criticism, while seemingly harsh, is rather tame. It’s not a formal censure of Farley herself, but just the book. And given that Farley doesn’t teach at a Catholic university, the Vatican couldn’t forbid her from teaching as it has done with other Catholic theologians who don’t toe the Vatican line.
But the Vatican did seem indirectly to hold Farley’s superiors to blame for having allowed her to voice such positions that are so contrary to church doctrine. The Vatican notification said it was saddened that a “member of an institute of consecrated life” would do such a thing.
With this Notification, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expresses profound regret that a member of an Institute of Consecrated Life, Sr. Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M., affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality. The Congregation warns the faithful that her book Just Love. A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church. Consequently it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Furthermore the Congregation wishes to encourage theologians to pursue the task of studying and teaching moral theology in full concord with the principles of Catholic doctrine.
In other words, Farley's book is not to be viewed as in line with Catholic teaching nor should it be held out as such, something Sister Farley herself is now saying. Reported the New York Times's Laurie Goodstein and Rachel Donadio yesterday (emphasis mine):
Sister Farley, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and an award-winning scholar, responded in a statement: “I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching. It is of a different genre altogether.”
*the notification is dated March 30, but was officially published yesterday.