Debate continues on Vatican denunciation of Margaret Farley’s book Just Love

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

One month after the Vatican denounced the book Just Love by Yale Divinity School Professor Emerita Margaret Farley, reaction remains heated, and the six-year-old book continues to be a best seller among religion books as an apparent result of the Vatican criticism.

Following the Vatican's official "notification" on June 4 that said the book is not "a valid expression of Catholic teaching," myriad print, online, and television outlets reported on the development, and columnists in leading secular and religious media wrote opinion pieces, much of it directing harsh criticism at the Vatican and its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued the notification.

Many friends, colleagues, and YDS alumni also offered expressions of support, both personal and public, to Farley in the weeks after the Vatican notification. On July 2, Farley said, "I am grateful for the many thoughtful and kind messages I have received from around the world."

Meanwhile, sales of the award-winning Just Love skyrocketed after the Vatican action, and it became one of the most sought-after religion books in the U.S. market.  The publisher, Continuum, had to order additional press runs to keep up with demand. As of June 29 the book was still at the top of's list of best-selling religious studies books in the area of gender and sexuality.

At the heart of the controversy are Farley's challenges to traditional, and frequently negative, views of homosexuality, masturbation, divorce, and remarriage after divorce. Her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics identifies the concept of justice as a primary means for determining the health and morality of sexual relationships, heterosexual as well as same-sex.

The leading organization of Catholic theologians in the United States, the Catholic Theological Society of America, issued a strong statement in support of Farley, a former president of the Society and a Sister of Mercy.

In a statement endorsed by its membership on June 8, during the CTSA's annual meeting in St. Louis, the Society called Farley's work "reflective, measured, and wise," and noted that Catholic theologians are "especially concerned" that the Vatican criticism presents a limiting understanding of the role of Catholic theology.

The statement said, "With regard to the subject matter of Professor Farley's book, it is simply a matter of fact that faithful Catholics in every corner of the Church are raising ethical questions like those Professor Farley has addressed.

"In raising and exploring such questions with her customary sensitivity and judiciousness, Professor Farley has invited us to engage the Catholic tradition seriously and thoughtfully."

A group of Lutheran women, including clergy and seminary professors, some of them former students of Farley, circulated an "open letter" to Farley bearing some 70 signatures that says, "In these discouraging days, we write to praise and reaffirm the theological discernment and moral creativity of all your work; your contributions have been and continue to be warmly valued by your Lutheran sisters in Christ and others connected to Lutheran circles of scholarship. We are shocked, grieved and profoundly perplexed by the action taken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denouncing your book Just Love: A Framework for Sexual Ethics."

While media from around the globe have approached Farley about the possibility of an interview—including Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Stephen Colbert, Maureen Dowd, "Sixty Minutes" and many others—she has chosen to remain mostly silent since issuing a statement when the Vatican's notification was released.

However, at the CTSA meeting, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter, Farley did speak about the role of theologians to raise questions, even in areas that may be considered settled truth by the Catholic hierarchy.

"We clearly have grown in many spheres of knowledge—about humans, about the way the universe runs," said Farley.  "It seems reasonable … that if we come to know even a little bit more than we knew before, it might be that the conclusions that we had previously drawn need to be developed. Or maybe even let go of.  Because it would be a contradiction to Roman Catholic frameworks for doing moral theology to say that we can't. That would be to imply that we know everything we can know and there's nothing more to be done."

Among the harshest critics of the Vatican action was New York Times writer Maureen Dowd, who in her column called Farley "a breath of fresh air in the stultifying church" and said, "This latest ignoble fight with a noble nun adds to the picture of a Catholic Church in a permanent defensive crouch, steeped in Borgia-like corruption and sex scandals, lashing out at anyone who notes the obvious: They have lost track of right and wrong."

Alumni also came to the defense of Farley and her book.

Jamie Manson '02 M.Div., a columnist for National Catholic Reporter and a former student of Farley, wrote in a column, "Margaret labored over Just Love for more than a decade, and I know with certainty that her deepest hope was that the book would help people through their lives—not turn them against the church. In fact, I am one among many Catholic women and men who actually stayed Catholic because she taught us what is most deeply true and beautiful about our tradition."

And Talitha Arnold '80 M.Div., senior minister at the United Church of Santa Fe in New Mexico and also a former student, wrote in an opinion piece published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, "Far from the Vatican's claim that the book 'poses grave harm,' Just Love is a gift of grace and insight. It is also a call to justice, addressing gender-based violence and the sexual oppression of women globally. Unfortunately the Vatican's critique overlooks these moral issues to focus on the usual scapegoats of 'moral decline,' like homosexuality and divorce."

Indeed, the hoopla surrounding the controversy was so great that the Yale Alumni Magazine, whose cover Farley had graced in 1986 for a story on great teachers at Yale, named Farley "Yalie of the Week" for the week ending June 8.


Date Posted: Monday, July 2, 2012 - 8:59am