Sister Farley and Rehabilitation

Beginning with the papacy of St. Pius X, Catholic thought was dominated by two core ideas.  The first idea was a rejection of "Modernism," a catch-all term that referred to the "modern" ideas that had come into prominence in the 19th and early 20th Century--democracy, Communism, industrial capitalism, the nation-state, modern scientific developments, etc.  All of this, in Pope Pius X's view, was bad and must be rejected by Catholics in toto.  The other big idea was that of the Scholastic manual--essentially a compendium of Catholic theology and thought that purported to provide comprehensive answers to all of the questions you might want to ask.  Not surprisingly, this era in Catholicism presented a vision of Church that was almost entirely static and unchanging.

After World War II, a group of French and German Catholic thinkers came on the scene and were grouped under the heading of "Nouvelle Theologie" or New Theology.  These thinkers believed that the rigid theological manuals were too constricting and historically constructed--instead, there should be a return to the thoughts of the Church Fathers of the 1st Millenia, as well as a renewed focus on Scripture.  In addition, they also advocated for détente and dialogue with the modern world.  In the reactionary world of 1950s Catholicism, all of the key figures of this movement (Jean Danilou, S.J., Henri de Lubac, S.J., Yves Congar, O.P, and others) were censored by the Vatican.

The last laugh, however, came at the Second Vatican Council, when all of the key Nouvelle Theologie figures were rehabilitated, and many of their ideas became central to the documents and deliberations of the Council.  Father Congar was even made a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II at the end of his long career.  Despite their time in the wilderness, they are now seen as among the most important intellectual figures in 20th Century Catholicism.

The point of telling the story of the Nouvelle Theologie is that there is a history in Catholicism of once-marginalized figures being recognized in later time.  Just because a writer or thinker is denounced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not mean that they will never be seen as a prophetic voice.  Particularly in times of renewal--which I and many others believe and hope is occurring now in Catholicism--discarded ideas have a way of finding their way back into the discussion.

If that proves to be the case, I hope the Church will take a second look at the thought of Sister Margaret Farley, R.S.M., and in particular her book Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.  Like the Nouvelle Theologie crowd, Sister Farley's work has been officially condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).  I read this book on my vacation this past week (and in my lengthy and unexpected delay at the airport trying to get home) and I think it is an important book that deserves serious thought and discussion.  I hope to put together a series of posts on this book, but I wanted to begin with what this book is about and why is it important.

The concept behind the book is to attempt to put together an ethical Christian framework for assessing the morality of sexuality and sexual behaviors.  The one sentence summation of her proposal is that we must "love justly," that is our sexual behavior should be oriented around, and evaluated in reference to, an ethic of justice.

This of course raises the question of what it means to have an "ethic of justice" with regard to sex, and the second half of the book consists of her attempt to unpack that idea.  But she begins with what I think is an important observation about the need for such an ethical framework.  Moral systems, Farley notes, often begin by consisting of a series of taboos--specific acts that are prohibited for often unrelated and inconsistent reasons and result in ritual or cultural "defilement."  From this basic system develops a more complex and nuanced system, where morality is defined in terms of abstract principles that are then applied to concrete moral situations, where transgressions implicated concepts like "sin" and "guilt." 

Farley argues that, unlike much of Catholic moral thought, Catholic thinking in the sexual area is stuck in the taboo stage of focusing on acts that are prohibited, as opposed to beginning with ethical principles.  While this is certainly a controversial position--the hard-core John Paul II "Theology of the Body" folks would disagree--it has the ring of truth to me.  Unlike, for example, in the economic arena, Catholic moral thought has not really engaged in the project of figuring out moral positions on concrete acts via established principles.  Instead, it has started from specific pre-determined moral positions, and then has attempted to construct a theory that supports those conclusions. 

While I suppose that is a valid way to approach moral questions, Sister Farley is right that (a) it is different from the way other moral theology is done; and (b) certainly creates the danger that these rationales are really dressings thrown over what are at their heart unsupported taboos, rather than the product of systematic analysis.  It is fair to be skeptical of this kind of reverse engineering.  An actual moral system, which can address new questions that arise, or old questions in new contexts, seems to be a stronger ground for exploring these questions.

Up next--Sister Farley's conception of sexual justice.

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