As many of you have probably heard by now, last week, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) officially notified Mercy Sister and professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School Margaret Farley that her work “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling or formation, or in ecumenical or interreligious dialogue.”

This action is a pretty big deal.  Professor Farley is one of the most well-known and highly regarded theologians of her generation.  Her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, is a contemporary classic.  It is a book that every Catholic ethicist reads and takes seriously.

Farley wrote Just Love in order to make Catholic moral theology more just.  Although the virtue of justice has been central to Catholic moral reflection on war, politics, economics, and civil order, it had been relatively peripheral to Catholic reflection on sexual ethics.  If relationships of war and economic exchange ought to have justice, then shouldn’t justice also be present in sexual relationships?  Put another way, if it is true that unjust wars are immoral wars, wouldn’t it also be the case that unjust sexual relationships are similarly immoral? In order to correct for this under-appreciation of the importance of justice as a sexual virtue, Farley offers a framework for crafting a sexual ethics based on “justice in loving and in the actions which flow from that love.”  (207).

Farley is in trouble not so much for her “methodology of more justice,” but for the conclusions reached via this methodology.  She is in trouble with the CDF because she thinks that masturbation is usually not immoral, that same-sex relationships can be good, that these relationships ought to be afforded legal recognition and protection, and that divorce is both possible and (sometimes) morally acceptable.

Rather than discussing the merits of Farley’s theology, I want to reflect on the CDF’s reasons for critiquing her.

According to the CDF, the root cause of Farley’s erroneous thinking is that “she does not present a correct understanding of the role of Church’s Magisterium as the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter, which guides the Church’s ever deeper understanding of the Word of God as found in Holy Scripture and handed on faithfully in the Church’s living tradition.”

In other words, Farley is wrong because she doesn’t realize that the bishops and the pope are always right.  The CDF also seems to be implying that anyone who disagrees with the bishops united with the pope will always commit moral error because the bishops united with the pope are always right.

But is this true? Have the bishops united with the pope always been right?  Have they always been guides or have they also at times been followers, the recipients of enlightenment as well as its protectors?

The CDF is definitely right about one thing: the church has come to an “ever deeper understanding of the Word of God” on several occasions throughout history: it has changed its mind about the soteriological status of Israel, the status of religious freedom as a universal human right, the conditional acceptability of usury, the equality of women to men, and the unconditional evil of slavery, to name a few.  But have these changes come about through the moral leadership of the bishops united with the pope as the CDF claims?

For most of the church’s history, the question was not whether slavery itself was wrong but when and under what circumstances it was right.  Augustine thought that slavery was a just punishment for original sin and Aquinas thought that slavery was just, natural, and socially necessary. Many popes had slaves–Pope Alexander VI even gave all of Africa to Portugal and America to Spain with the explicit command to enslave all those who didn’t bow down to Iberian authority.  Even the great advocate of Indian liberation, Bartolomé de las Casas, did not think slavery was always wrong: he railed against the enslavement of the Indians but did not always take issue with the enslavement of Turks or Africans.

Long before the bishops and pope became united in their opposition to slavery, humanists and Protestants like William Wilberforce recognized that slavery was always wrong. Even more impressively, Haitian revolutionaries, some of them Muslims, many of them adherents of African traditional religions, but none of them bishops or popes, recognized the unconditional immorality of slavery in the waning moments of the eighteenth century, a time when Catholic bishops and popes were still convinced that slavery could be just in certain circumstances.  The bishops united with the pope would not categorically condemn slavery until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Let’s take another, even more dramatic instance of radical change, the church’s changed stance on sexual equality, chronicled in greater detail in this earlier WIT post. 

As recently as 1930, Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Casti Connubii, railed against the burgeoning women’s rights movement, re-affirming “the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience” to her husband (27).  Importantly, Pope Pius XI did not think this subjection to be something that was necessary only in certain times or places but instead was the “fundamental law” of the family that was “established and confirmed by God, [and] must always and everywhere be maintained intact” (28).

Now, of course, the church insists upon the equality of women to men (JPII) and rejects male headship, calling instead for mutual submission of the spouses (Benedict XVI).

In other words, John Paul II and Benedict XVI disagree with practically every pope that came before them.

Did the church, as implied by the CDF, acquire this enlightenment through the guidance of the bishops united with the pope?

As evidenced by the encyclical Casti Connubii, there was a period of time in which the Catholic magisterium (defined as the bishops united with the pope) was insisting, with increasing vehemence, that women were not equal to men, while other people, most of them women, and only some of them catholic, were insisting, with equally increasing boldness, that women were in fact equal to men.

When early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth declared the sexual equality of women to men (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively) at a time when the Catholic church was insisting upon the divinely-ordained subordination of women to men, who was right?  Either the bishops were wrong when Truth was right or women became equal to men only after John Paul II declared them so in the 1970s.

Clearly, we cannot conclude that women became equal to men only after John Paul declared them so—this would be a type of voluntarism.  Except, instead of something being good because God decrees it such, we would have to conclude that something is good because the pope decrees it such, a proposition that is not just anti-thomistic, but idolatrous.

On the issues of slavery and women’s equality, it was not the bishops united with the pope who shed the light of moral truth on a half-blind humanity.  Instead, it could be argued that, on these issues, these men were among the last ones to see the light.

So, in reading the CDF’s Notification of Margaret Farley, I wonder how history would have been different if Haitian revolutionaries and early feminists had waited on the moral guidance of the Catholic magisterium.  If women like Sojourner Truth had not disobeyed and disagreed with the hierarchy, would the hierarchy still be insisting on the inequality of women to men?  Would John Paul II have changed his mind if women like Mary Wollstonecraft had not dared to speak hers?

It is no coincidence that the church began thinking about slavery differently after the crusading work of abolitionists and former slaves. It is no coincidence that the church recognized women’s equality to men nearly 120 years after the start of the women’s rights movement.  In changing the world, feminists and abolitionists (only some of them Catholic) also changed the church.  John Paul II, the first pope to declare the definitive equality of women to men, was a recipient of the moral guidance of countless women and men who came before him.

Although disobedience provides no guarantee of righteousness, might it be the case that the ability of the bishops and pope to come to this ever-deepening understanding of the Word of God actually depends upon their being disobeyed by moral pioneers like Haitian slaves and nineteenth century feminists?

Where would the church be without those who defy it?

24 thoughts

  1. Cardinal John Henry Newman, famous for his thought and teaching about the development of doctrine in the Church. once wrote “To live is to change; to have lived well is to have changed often.” The current leaders of the Church would do well to remember these words of Newman as well as his theology of the Christian doctrine as developmental. History, I believe history will recognize Elizabeth Johnson and Margaret Farley, among others, as catalysts for the development of doctrine in our time.

  2. I dunno, Katie, what Casti Connubii said about subjugation doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as you interpret it. And it does admit for differences in degree and manner in different conditions, places, and times; and it makes a strong case for women’s liberty :

    27. This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.

    28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time

    The subjugation of the spouses is supposed to be mutual and to each other, a mutual molding, as Pius XI puts it in the the earlier paragraphs 23-4. Husbands are asked to love their wives as Christ loved the Church ie Calvary – that’s a much bigger ask on men than mere subjugation.

    I’d be interested in a scriptural examination of the issues Sr Farley has raised. The bible seems to be silent on masturbation, affirming of at least some very close and intimate (although non-sexual) same sex relationships (Jonathan and David), and Paul is open to divorce and remarriage in at least the case of converts whose spouse refused to live in peace with them.

    For me, the nub of Sr Farley’s argument seems to be that people are suffering. I don’t see why we can’t stick with our doctrinal ideals while allowing a prudent but compassionate pastoral accommodation for human weakness. There’s room for a both/and here.

    God Bless

    1. it would still be the case that recent papal insistence that men also submit themselves to their wives is definitely new.

      also, i think my point would be better interpreted if you read male headship as one example of the church’s reversal of opinion on women’s equality–it is pretty uncontroversial that sexual inequality was a taken for granted part of catholic teaching until very recently. if you can find a papal statement prior to the 20th century arguing that women ought to be granted equal rights to men, I would be very interested in seeing it.

      you might want to check out this post which chronicles this change in more detail. for the purposes of this response, i would want to highlight these parts of that post:

      “Pius XI labels those who assert, “The rights of husband and wife are equal,” to be “false prophets” since in so doing they threaten the traditional view of marriage, which is essential to the common good[23].”

      it’s pretty clear that while Pius XI thought husbands should love and take care of their wives, this duty itself sprang from their superiority. In fact, Pius explicitly compares women’s submission to their husbands as part of the same created order that places parents above children. I think you are misunderstanding “subjugation” if you think that it is incompatible with duty to care and watch over. For example, I think you could probably find many an argument for U.S. chattel slavery that held that white slaveowners’ superiority over their black slaves meant that they had a duty to care and love them. The assumption, here, is that slaves can not take care of themselves…they are child-like. You might even find slave apologists defending the nobility of slavery by claiming that it is actually slave owners who have the harder lot in life…

      now, obviously, i am not saying you would defend slavery, i’m just saying that Pius’ argument for sexual inequality is no less sexist just because he also expects husbands to love and take care of their spousal wards. In fact, the masculine duty to take care exists precisely because women are in need of male guidance just as children are in need of adult guidance. This is the definition of sexism.

  3. Katie,

    I think if one reads Pius XI’s statement against “The rights of husband and wife are equal” in it’s context, then it’s clear that he’s making some reasonable points:

    74. The same false teachers who try to dim the luster of conjugal faith and purity do not scruple to do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man. Many of them even go further and assert that such a subjection of one party to the other is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal; wherefore, they boldly proclaim the emancipation of women has been or ought to be effected. This emancipation in their ideas must be threefold, in the ruling of the domestic society, in the administration of family affairs and in the rearing of the children. It must be social, economic, physiological: – physiological, that is to say, the woman is to be freed at her own good pleasure from the burdensome duties properly belonging to a wife as companion and mother (We have already said that this is not an emancipation but a crime); social, inasmuch as the wife being freed from the cares of children and family, should, to the neglect of these, be able to follow her own bent and devote herself to business and even public affairs; finally economic, whereby the woman even without the knowledge and against the wish of her husband may be at liberty to conduct and administer her own affairs, giving her attention chiefly to these rather than to children, husband and family.

    75. This, however, is not the true emancipation of woman, nor that rational and exalted liberty which belongs to the noble office of a Christian woman and wife; it is rather the debasing of the womanly character and the dignity of motherhood, and indeed of the whole family, as a result of which the husband suffers the loss of his wife, the children of their mother, and the home and the whole family of an ever watchful guardian. More than this, this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery (if not in appearance, certainly in reality) and become as amongst the pagans the mere instrument of man.

    One could make similar statements about the dangers of an excessive liberty of the husband to the neglect of his duties to wife and family.

    The Holy Father’s concluding statement here about the danger of women being reduced to “the mere instrument of man” seems to indicate a genuine concern for the good of women.

    The veracity of a denial that the rights of husband and wife are equal would seem to depend on exactly what is meant by “equal”. It is perfectly common in society for some persons to have unequal rights to others (for example, police have certain rights denied to other citizens). Granted, the Holy Father’s statement here could be interpreted in a very negative and sexist sense (and perhaps was by most readers). To some extent every theologian, and Pope, is subject to the social understanding of their age.

    However, a theology of sexual difference and complementarity would seem bound to have at least some reservations about complete equality of rights, simply because of the sexual difference. For example, the right of a mother to breastfeed is different to that of the father. In and of itself, the Holy Father’s statement here cannot be completely wrong – there is at least the germ of some truth in it. It’s veracity would depend on exactly what is being made of the difference in rights, and I readily grant that in practice the problem is most often the denial of legitimate rights.

    If one wanted to, I think one could take Casti Connubii and use it to argue a very strong feminist position.

    I think the argument about change is much more evident in the case of slavery where the Holy Office and the U.S. Catholic Bishops are clearly on the record as teaching error, not to mention those Popes who kept slaves and used them to staff the galleys of the papal navy and even issued bulls calling for the enslavement of their enemies.

    I think you are exactly right in your wider point about the development of doctrine, a process very evident in sacred scripture.

    God Bless

    1. I think to be fair to Pius XI, his statement about women working outside the home is considerably qualified by phrases such as “giving her attention chiefly to these rather than to children, husband and family”, “to the neglect of children and family” and that his concern was not just to mere working but to work of such a nature and degree that it amounted to her “devoting herself” to it.

      The same comments would seem to apply equally well to husbands devoting themselves to such work to the detriment of their families.

      I don’t think there is a whole lot per se wrong in Casti Connubii, but it does reflect a historical conditioning rooted in the social understanding of the time, I’m glad it’s been considerably developed and I think the train of development still has ample scope for further development yet.

      The job of theologians is to push the boundaries at the edges and margins of the Church. The job of the Magisterium is to resist proposed changes they think harmful until they are convinced that it is necessary to change. There is a built in tension between the two charisms which is healthy to both and to the church as a whole, but which can be damaging if taken too far by either party.

      God Bless

      1. hi chris,
        why don’t we table the discussion of the merits of casti connubii since it is not directly relevant to the post we are actually discussing?

    2. again. i think you are missing my point. my point was not whether or not pius’ casti connubii was reasonable or contained worthy points but whether or not he thought women were equal to men.

      and no, one could not take casti connubii and use it to argue a very strong feminist position. any document which argues that women who seek employment outside of the home instead of motherhood or which implies that employment outside of the home is incompatible with the duties of motherhood or which argues or implies that women should obey their husbands rather than be partners with them is the opposite of feminist.

      also you seem to be equating “equality” with “sameness.” if pius wanted to say “although men and women are equal, they do not have the same rights and duties,” he could have. but he did not. in fact, this is precisely what sexual complementarity argues, which is a different teaching on the relationship between the sexes than that presented by Pius.

      and i have no doubt that pius had a genuine concern for the good of women. you are again missing my point. i think you would find throughout history, a surprisingly small number of people committing injustice consciously and explicitly intend to cause harm. human beings have an astonishing capacity for self deception. combined with our finitude and inevitable ignorance (not even bringing up our selfishness), it is not surprising that our stated desire to do good so often ends up in us doing bad. again, to draw on an analogy: i bet very few slave owners or people employing workers for unjust wages would say that they were harming their slaves and workers.

      my one and only point is that the church has changed its opinion both about the fact of women’s equality to men and its implications and prerequisites, a fact which you admit. i think we agree about the issues relevant to this post.

  4. Katie,

    You wrote:

    the masculine duty to take care exists precisely because women are in need of male guidance just as children are in need of adult guidance.

    Did Pius XI actually say that or is this your interpretation ?

    I would have thought that the duty to care was mutual between the spouses and flows from the nature of marriage and the vows to love one another.

    No doubt, men (and the Church), are also in need of female guidance.

    God Bless

    1. you seemed to argue that pius’ admonition that husbands love their wives somehow meant that he thought women were equal to men. i was trying to show you how that is not necessarily the case.

  5. Katie, thank you for your clarity on this issue. The sin of participating in doctrinal development! Only the magisterial codification of a novelty is exempt. The development of such a groundswell of church opinion as Newman saw to be the justification for promulgating new teachings is always subject to censure.

    And beyond the walls of Catholicism, it seems to me that most churches’ moral theology today (whether or not they use that language for Christian ethics) also reserves sex and sexuality under an exception from normal consideration. Among the Protestants, and even the Anglicans and Lutherans, there is an exception asserted for “the clear teaching of the Bible”—in place of magisterial hierarchy—along with tradition.

    It seems to me that this sort of thing is genealogically inextricable from the reservation by which the Second Vatican Council fathers were prevented from speaking authoritatively on contraception. It is the reservation of interpretation, justified in the name of an accepted authority, used to protect propositions of doctrine. Not, to be sure, the ones a theologian would find important in themselves. It seems safer, even in Rome, to argue about the Trinity or the nature of the church! We don’t fight so fiercely about the “theoretical” propositions as we do about the ones that belong to social order. Heck, we fight most about the theological basics precisely when the discussion impinges on social order! These are the pernicious innovations.

    Until, of course, a pope acknowledges the change in the mind of the church…

  6. I think reminders about the way the church has changed are so very important in times like this and I love Judge Noonan’s book — I actually had the opportunity to meet him when I spoke at my M.A. graduation (he actually came up to me with his wife to tell me how much he loved my speech!).

    I recall one of the professors I’ve had while working on my PhD who, in talking about Vatican II, noted that every single church document that changes something that the church has said in the past always begins with, “As we have always taught…” The magisterium seems to want to be willfully ignorant of the possibility for change even now that the idea of development is more or less widely accepted in Catholic circles, or at least Catholic academic circles.

  7. Eloquently stated, Katie. A point not yet given enough attention in this debate is the changing nature of theology, of so-called perennial teaching, and especially of official Catholic moral positions, including the status of women.

    Also important is the fact that theologians typically do not regard their proposals as definitive, unchangeable, and equal to magisterial teaching. Theology contributes to an ongoing process of understanding, and is always subject to peer critique. Are any of the faithful (or readers of Margaret Farley’s book) really confused about that?

  8. Katie, I really like this post. But something I’ve never understood about this blog is why do you remain catholic? Maybe it’s because I only know really conservative catholics, but my understanding is that the main teaching of the catholic church is that it is infallible. I don’t believe that, and that’s why I’m a protestant. It seems to me that something like the anglican communion, which teaches that tradition is crucial but is fallible and should be judged by scripture, makes a lot more sense if you don’t believe in infallibility. I’m really curious to know your thoughts on this matter.

    1. phil,
      to sonja’s response, i would just add that the catholic church also thinks that tradition should be judged by scripture. i’m not sure what you mean by saying that only protestants think tradition should be judged by scripture. catholics aspire to be just as faithful to scripture as any protestant–we just may disagree about what that looks like and how that is best achieved.

      i would also argue that even protestant traditions which claim some sort of sola scriptura do in fact have a tradition of interpretation which is just as binding and authoritative for them as it is for catholics. this is why mennonites and lutherans can read the same scripture but insist that it says some very different things.

      i am a catholic because i was baptized one. because it is the faith that my ancestors carried with them to this country and the one my grandmother chose. because i love the eucharist and the saints and the crucifix. because thomas aquinas just makes sense to me and calvin, though i respect him, just does not. because of catholic social teaching and oscar romero and cesar chavez and dorothy day. it’s like being in love with someone: it’s the little things just as much as the big things. asking me why i am a catholic is like asking me why i belong to the family i do. i just am.

  9. Phil–The RCC doesn’t claim that all its teachings are infallible, only some, and only under very, very specific conditions, which are themselves the subject of perennial debate. The Jesuit Francis Sullivan’s books are a good distillation of the issue.

  10. Thank God for the courage and wisdom of women like Sister Margaret Farley. May they succeeded in being catalysts for change for our church. I’m a discouraged catholic. My son and his wife a few years ago were having difficulty having a baby and as a result decided to try in vitro fertilization. After several attemps, we were blessed with a grand daughter …but we learned that the church does not babtize in vitro babies since they consider this procedure a sin….what a bunch of bs….no one can tell me that my grand daughter does not have a soul and is not a child of God…Unfortunately now, my son and my daughter in law have lost all respect for the church and as a result the church last last 3 souls….the new generation will no longer tolerate this small mindedness….I pray everyday that the church will reconsider their position on this very important 21st century issue….just another example of much required change!!

    1. Reply to N. Hartrell.
      I see your point. May I ad another one ? The natural law, so says the Hierarchy, shows us that the primary purpose of eating is nutrition. We have a patient in coma, cannot eat at all. We give him TOTAL INTRAVENOUS ALIMENTATION (sugars, proteins, fats, minerals and water) INTRAVENOUSLY. But my dears that is ‘unnatural’ the natural way is by mouth ! Bad luck for the patient, he/she just will have to die. These ‘foodstuffs’ have been broken up (= digested) outside the body and then channeled directly into the blood stream, which is utterly unnatural.
      Appeal to the Bishop. Have your baby baptised in ‘Timbuctu’ if necessary, or do it yourself if the Hierarchy does not do it after a reasonably time. Never jump overboard from the ‘bark of Peter’ (= mystical body of Christ). If need be: ‘throw the sacerdotal overboard’. How to do that ? Ask questions, never make irrate statments or cringe.
      Father is this an infallible article of Faith or a Church law ? If so, please give me the number in DENZINGER. (look thist word up in Wikipedia)

      REAL MORAL PROBLEM (as I see it). If I mistake not, about 3-4 fertilised ova (= new human beings) are being DESTROYED after success. Admittedly even a natrual conception can end in a spontaneus early abortion but this is not done actively. I do think you have a serious moral problem but not the Hierarchy’s problem reasoned out little step by little step with precise RATIONALISM (= rational thinking, no feelings or hunches allowed).

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