In response to Vatican reproach, fellow theologians rally in support of Margaret Farley

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

The Vatican's sharp criticism of Professor Emerita Margaret Farley's book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, has sparked a growing chorus of support for Farley and her book from fellow moral theologians, including a number who teach at leading Catholic institutions.

FarleyOn June 4, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith charged that Just Love "affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality." However, in a statement responding to the Vatican's criticism, Farley explained that her book was never intended to express "current official Catholic teaching" but rather to help people "think through their questions about human sexuality."

Farley is a prominent Catholic theologian and member of the Sisters of Mercy, a congregation of women religious, who served for almost 40 years on the YDS faculty before retiring in 2007 as the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics.  She is a past president of both the Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society of America and is a recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award for Excellence in Theology.

Meanwhile, theologians familiar with Farley and her work are firing back at the Vatican's attack.   Expressions of disappointment in the Vatican's action ranged from phrases like "missed opportunity for dialogue" to "disappointing and most disturbing" to "incredibly and ironically bad" to "an ugly stain on the Catholic Church." Read the full list of responses at

Brian Linnane, president and professor of theology at Loyola University in Maryland, a Jesuit university, said,  "Professor Farley should be commended for her willingness to try to develop a new framework for reflection on human sexuality which seeks to bring traditional Christian insights about human sexuality into a fruitful dialogue with contemporary and cross-cultural understandings of gender, embodiment and human interpersonal relationships within the overarching context of justice.  All persons who care about the Catholic intellectual tradition and the vocation of the theologian should be saddened by this Notification."

Calling Farley "a distinguished ethicist and a very wise woman," Cathleen Kaveny, the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, observed, "Farley's proposed norms of justice, love, and the importance of embodiment are deeply rooted in Catholic values, even as they differ from official Catholic teaching on particular issues (e.g., divorce, same sex relations).  The Vatican has missed an opportunity for dialogue when it failed to see Margaret Farley as an important ally in critiquing problematic practices ranging from the hook-up culture to sexual slavery, rather than as a threat to the integrity of Catholic moral teaching.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), published its official "Notification" following a lengthy investigation of Just Love.  "Notification" is a term commonly used for the official communication by which the CDF makes public its judgment in particular matters related to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Read the statement at

As of late in the day on June 4, the Vatican criticism of the book, and the attendant publicity, had apparently caused sales of Just Love to skyrocket, catapulting the book to number 44 on Amazon's list of books sold that day, and to the top position in religion book sales.

In a statement released concurrently with the Vatican announcement, Farley observed that the Notification fails to specifically address her positions on issues such as homosexuality, divorce, marriage, and masturbation and "misrepresents (perhaps unwittingly) the aims of my work and the nature of it as a proposal that might be in service of, not against, the church and its faithful people." Read Farley's full statement at

Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006) poses the decisive question, "With what kinds of motives, under what sorts of circumstances, in what forms of relationships, do we render our sexual selves to one another in ways that are good, true, right, and just?" Farley's answer rests on the fundamental notion that morally appropriate sexual relationships, heterosexual as well as same-sex, must be characterized by justice. In that framework, Just Love challenges traditional—and frequently negative—views of homosexuality, masturbation, divorce, and remarriage after divorce.

Farley noted, "This book was designed to help people, especially Christians but also others, to think through their questions about human sexuality.  It suggests the importance of moving from what frequently functions as a taboo morality to a morality and sexual ethics based on the discernment of what counts as wise, truthful, and recognizably just loves.  Although my responses to some particular sexual ethical questions do depart from some traditional Christian responses, I have tried to show that they nonetheless reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights of these theological and moral traditions."

In recognition of Just Love, Farley received the 2008 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, given "to honor and publicize annually creative and constructive insights into the relationship between human beings and the divine, and ways in which this relationship may inspire or empower human beings to attain wholeness, integrity or meaning, either individually or in community."  Read about the 2008 Grawemeyer Award at

Harold Attridge, dean of Yale Divinity School and a Catholic layperson, said, "Honest and creative theologians have often met a critical response to serious theological reflection, and it is not a surprise that Professor Farley's work has done so as well. In time, I suspect, those who react negatively to it now will come to appreciate the important contribution it makes to what must be our constant effort to examine the foundations of our moral life.

"The YDS community continues to appreciate the unique insights Professor Farley brings to the theological enterprise, and we look forward to her future contributions in the field." Read Attridge's full statement at

Sister Patricia McDermott, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, said Margaret Farley is "a highly respected and valued member of the Sisters of Mercy" who "assiduously attempts to present the Catholic tradition as formative of her own rich experience while recognizing the ecumenical audience she often engages."

McDermott concluded, "I speak for members of our religious community when I express our profound regret that this Notification was issued. While the process initiated by CDF has been lengthy, arduous and extremely difficult, Sister Margaret and the Sisters of Mercy have responded thoughtfully each step of the way." Read McDermott's full statement at

David Hollenbach, University Chair in Human Rights and International Justice in the Department of Theology at Boston College, said, "Margaret Farley's book Just Love provides urgently needed reflection.  It shows that key elements of the Christian tradition can help us think about the ethics of sexual behavior in ways that will help many live more human and more Christian lives.  I deeply regret that church officials have failed to appreciate the important contribution Farley has made."

And Paul Lakeland, the Aloysius P. Kelley Professor of Catholic Studies and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, said, "Margaret Farley is a careful and caring Catholic social ethicist, a woman of great integrity...It is the vocation of Catholic theologians and ethicists to work on the boundaries of what is known and to explore the relationship between Gospel values and the challenges of different times and different cultures. Margaret has done this with grace and wisdom throughout her life."

Numerous news outlets ran stories on the day of the Vatican announcement, among them, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, New York Times, and Huffington Post.


Date Posted: Monday, June 4, 2012 - 5:28pm