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Reflections on the Vatican's Condemnation of Farley's Book JUST LOVE

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 19, 2012: With the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal William J. Levada and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) recently condemned Sister Margaret Farley's book JUST LOVE: A FRAMEWORK FOR CHRISTIAN SEXUAL ETHICS (2006) for proposing a Christian ethical rationale for masturbation, same-sex relationships, and remarriage after divorce, all of which are forbidden in the Roman Catholic Church's teachings. As a result of their condemnation, sales of this book immediately soared at (Sister Farley is now retired from teaching Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School.)

Hey guys, I've got a new book out, OF ONG AND MEDIA ECOLOGY (2012). How about condemning it? After all, Pope Benedict likes to inveigh against secularism. But there is not a single word inveighing against secularism in OF ONG AND MEDIA ECOLOGY. So please condemn it for not inveighing against secularism, eh?

I jest of course. Seriously, the condemnation of Farley's book strikes me as being like an extreme case of what is known in Catholic moral theory as scrupulosity (i.e., being overly scrupulous in detecting moral shortcomings), except that Pope Benedict and Cardinal Levada and the CDF are not accusing themselves in an overly scrupulous way, but are accusing the author of the book in an overly scrupulous way for taking positions that do not comply with official church teaching.

After all, Farley does not claim that she is presenting the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding sexual morality. Moreover, the subtitle "A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics" indicates clearly that she is investigating a framework for Christian ethics, not rehashing the framework of Catholic moral theory. So how many people reading her book would be likely to think, mistakenly, that she was presenting Catholic moral doctrines? Probably nobody would draw this mistaken conclusion. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict and Cardinal Levada and the CDF want to make sure that nobody mistakes what Farley says about masturbation, same-sex relationships, and remarriage after divorce for official Catholic teachings. I would characterize their condemnation of her book as hyper-vigilance. But why are Pope Benedict and the CDF hyper-vigilant?

From the standpoint of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Levada and the CDF, official church teaching on these matters is not going to change. As a result, proposed rationales for making such changes in official church teaching are not welcome, even though the author herself did not frame her proposed rationales as being arguments against official church teaching. Instead, she set forth her proposed rationales in the context of discussing Christian ethics, not in the more narrowly limited context of discussing only official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Remember that she did not teach Christian ethics in a Catholic university, but in Yale Divinity School. Moreover, her book is clearly a work in professional literature. Thanks to the Vatican's condemnation of her book, her book will probably now be read by far more people than the number of people likely to have read it before the condemnation.

But I want to focus attention here on the specific concerns of the CDF with Farley's book named: masturbation, same-sex relationships, and remarriage after divorce.

At the present time the Catholic bishops in the United States are waging a campaign against same-sex marriage -- with Pope Benedict's blessing. So Farley's proposed rationale for same-sex relationships could be seen as a threat to the campaign against same-sex marriage.

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At the present time the Catholic bishops in the United States are also waging a campaign against the Obama administration's contraception-coverage mandate, on the grounds that this mandate would theoretically rob Catholic colleges and universities and Catholic hospitals and Catholic charitable organizations of their freedom of religion. But this campaign highlights the Catholic church's teaching against artificial contraception.

Thus between the CDF's condemnation of Farley's book and the two political campaigns of the Catholic bishops in the United States, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding sexual morality are being publicized in the United States today.

We might reasonably wonder why the Catholic bishops, including of course Pope Benedict, are so stubborn about the church's teachings regarding sexual morality: no masturbation, no artificial contraception, no legalized abortion in the first trimester, no remarriage after divorce without an official church annulment, no same-sex relationships, no same-sex marriage. Why not change some of these teachings -- or all of them?

We might attribute the stubborn refusal of the Catholic bishops to change these church teachings regarding sexual morality to their religious zealotry. In short, they are religious zealots who are willing to die a martyr's death as a witness to their religious belief in the church's doctrines, regardless of how flawed those doctrines may be. We should wonder if it is ever reasonable for individual people to die a martyr's death as a witness to their religious belief in a doctrine. Wouldn't dying a martyr's death as a witness to their belief in a doctrine show that they do not value their own lives properly?

In the thought-world of Pope Benedict and the Catholic bishops, a significant change in even one of these teachings regarding sexual morality would open the door to change other teachings regarding sexual morality. At first blush, this rationale for not changing even one teaching sounds like a preemptive case of what Albert Ellis refers to as catastrophizing.

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But would it be a catastrophe if the Roman Catholic Church were to change its teaching regarding, say, masturbation? In the thought-world of Pope Benedict and the Catholic bishops, it would be because they fear that the church would lose face by allowing such a change after stubbornly advancing this teaching for so long.

Whatever biblical passages the bishops may adduce to support the church's teachings regarding sexual morality, the bishops also draw on the Catholic tradition of so-called "natural law" moral theory. According to this way of thinking, the church's teachings regarding sexual morality are the "natural law" for everybody everywhere.

Moreover, the Catholic bishops imagine themselves to be the successors of the apostles of Jesus. According to this way of thinking, bishops are gifted with special judgment regarding not only sexual morality but also other moral issues and all matters of faith. Because Farley is not a bishop, she has not been gifted in the way that the bishops supposedly have been with this special judgment.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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Catholic Americans and non-Catholic Americans shou... by Thomas Farrell on Tuesday, Jun 19, 2012 at 9:20:28 AM
a schism between the Church of Rome and the Americ... by Richard Girard on Tuesday, Jun 19, 2012 at 2:34:35 PM