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Reverend Mother Libertine

Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

By Margaret A. Farley

Publisher: Continuum

Pages: 322 pages

Price: $18.55

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Our holy Catholic Church is in dire straits. Never mind those self-described “Catholic” politicians and judges who thumb their noses at her unchangeable teachings on contraception, abortion, assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage. Here is something even worse — a feminist Sister of Mercy, a Reverend Mother Libertine, who defends the entire gamut of sexual activity outside of marriage. In Just Love, Margaret Farley caps three decades of teaching ethics at Yale Divinity School with a proposed new “framework for Christian sexual ethics.” I leave it to the reader of this review to determine how Christian, never mind how Catholic, it is.

This is not the first time Sr. Margaret has publicly opposed the Church on moral issues. In 1982, when the Sisters of Mercy sent a letter to all their hospitals recommending that tubal ligations be performed in violation of Church teaching against sterilization, Pope John Paul II gave the Sisters an ultimatum, causing them to withdraw their letter. Sr. Margaret justified their “capitulation” on the ground that “material cooperation in evil for the sake of a ‘proportionate good'” was morally permissible. In other words, she declared that obedience to the Pope was tantamount to cooperation in evil, and that the Sisters were justified in doing it only because their obedience prevented “greater harm, namely the loss of the institutions that expressed the Mercy ministry.”

Two years later she signed an ad paid for by Catholics for Free Choice and published in The New York Times on October 7, 1984. The ad consisted of a statement composed by Daniel Maguire and Frances Kissling titled “A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists Among Committed Catholics.” Sr. Margaret was one of 97 Catholics who signed, including two priests, two brothers, and 26 nuns from 14 communities. Sr. Margaret waited until her presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America in 2000 to attack the Vatican for its “overwhelming preoccupation” with abortion, calling its defense of babies “scandalous” and asking for an end to its “opposition to abortion” until the “credibility gap regarding women and the church” has been closed. Sr. Margaret has long complained of the “narrow scope” of the Church’s “discourse” on abortion, demanding that the morality of killing a preborn child be decided by the “social and relational context,” “the ambiguity of fetal status,” and “the complex and intimate nature of women’s experience of pregnancy.” More recently, in Compassionate Respect (2002), she defended the use of condoms in Africa because of the AIDS crisis, and condemned the “reiteration of long-standing sexual rules” that fail to respond to “present experiences.”

In Just Love, Sr. Margaret once again stands in brazen opposition to the Church. For one thing, she never cites with approval (in fact, hardly cites at all) the teachings of councils, papal encyclicals, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. She admits that the Church “officially” endorses the morality of “the past,” but rejoices that moral theologians like the notorious Charles Curran and Richard McCormick embrace “pluralism” on the issues of premarital sex and homosexual acts. Sr. Margaret says that sex and gender are “unstable, debatable categories,” which feminists like her see as “socially constructed.” But she contradicts herself: At one point she keeps insisting that “my body” is “me” and can’t be separated from “my mind,” but then, shortly after, declares that when transsexuals have “their bodily identity” altered by surgery, they affirm more deeply their “personal identity.” Go figure. She says of women who enter cloisters that they need “redemption” through “alienation from the body by virginity.” When did Catholics ever regard virginity as alienation? That sure would be news to Mother Mary, Queen of Virgins, and her vast retinue of virgin-saints.

Sr. Margaret discusses the four sources of her sexual ethics: Scripture, Tradition, secular disciplines, and contemporary experience. She calls Scripture “spare and often confusing” as a guide to sexual ethics. Here is a sample of the exegetical prowess that once raised her to the presidency of the Catholic Theological Society of America: She says that the entire Old Testament is subverted by Ruth and the Song of Songs; she sees the presentation of God as “forgiving husband” and Israel as “adulteress wife” as encouraging a “patriarchal depreciation of women”; and she cites approvingly Jesus’ words (Jn. 8:10) to the adulterous woman, “Neither do I condemn you,” but she omits to mention, “sin no more.”

Her second source is Tradition, which for her is as “confusing” as the Bible, though she never once mentions that the Church is the legitimate interpreter of both the Bible and Tradition. In fact, she concludes that our Tradition’s “practices and beliefs” related to sexuality need to be “challenged” and ultimately “replaced.”

Her third source consists of academic disciplines like biology, sociology, and history. She thinks these too require “exegesis” and “discernment” to be useful, but at least they provide access to “reality” — something for which she never credits the Bible and Tradition.

Her fourth source is experience in the “sexual sphere.” She deplores the fact that some sexual activity is experienced as “evil” or “deviant” only because it has been constructed that way by religion and society. She believes that the “worldviews” behind such constructions can now be “overturned.” Then she asks whether experience should be made “subject” to the previous three sources. Her answer is no. Why? Because experience can “assert an authority that modifies prior norms that would order it.” Yes, she actually cites an authority! So there is such a thing — only it’s not in the Church, you see, it’s in feminist experience. Indeed, she calls feminism the “measure against which the other sources are tested.” So, what really trumps the Bible, Tradition, and secular disciplines is the experience of feminists in the “sexual sphere.”

Sr. Margaret then proposes a “framework” for sexual ethics in which Catholic principles related to chastity are to be replaced by new miasmic guidelines like “autonomy” and “relationality.” One of the wrongs she castigates here is the “neg­ligence regarding what we know we must do for sex to be ‘safe sex.'” She speaks at length of “mutuality” as a norm, but notes that mutuality differs “in kind and degree” in a one-night stand, a short fling, or love with commitment. One waits in vain for her to say that such sexual activity is sinful. No, there’s not a single defense of chastity in this book. Sr. Margaret even refuses to say that teenage “hooking up,” which she defines as sex “without any relationship,” is grave­ly immoral. In fact, all her warnings are in the opposite direction — against a return to what she calls “sexual taboo morality.” She fears that teenagers might be rebuked for “hooking up” and then end up with a sense of “shame and guilt.” Heaven forbid!

She has nothing but disdain for traditional morality, as when she remarks that we already know the “dangers” and “ineffectiveness of moralism” and of “narrowly construed moral systems.” She even defends masturbation, which the Catechism calls a “gravely disordered action” (#2352), as the “great good” of “self-pleasuring.” Yes, take it from Reverend Mother Libertine, this sin is a great good. And she is sure that not all viewing of pornography is “harmful to individuals” either, because it does not necessarily distort “gender relations” or eroticize “sexual violence.” Never mind that the Catechism denounces pornography as “a grave offense” (#2354) — and not just when it happens to offend feminists.

What is most shocking in this book is that the author, a practical apostate, insists on bringing up “the presence of God” and the “sacramental dimension” of human sexuality — yes, sacramental — in the context of endorsing all this gravely immoral sexual activity. There’s a blasphemous ring to her quotations from our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (as if it were on her side) in a section approving of impurity as “liberty of spirit.” After all, it was in the Sermon on the Mount that our divine Savior declared, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Sr. Margaret, on the contrary, sees the pure of heart as narrow-minded and wants to liberate everyone from “zealous moral­isms.” So when she says that the “ideal” for Christians is to “integrate” their “multiple loves” into the “love of God,” one is tempted to ask, What god? Who else but Satan would inspire contempt for alleged “pinch-faced virtue”?

Sr. Margaret also heaps contempt on the Catholic view that marriage involves the “total gift” of self. Such a gift would involve “self-sacrifice,” she wails, and that’s not good for women! She also gives this strange piece of advice: No child “should be conceived” unless there’s a context for the child’s development in “autonomy and relationality.” Well, suppose conception occurs anyway. What then? Let’s connect the dots — earlier she defined person as one who is “born.”

Sr. Margaret contradicts the teaching of the Catholic Church by endorsing divorce and remarriage, and for this reason among others: “a new love arises, and it becomes too late to ‘turn back.'” And, don’t you know, “grace” extends in all “directions” in such cases — though what she calls “grace” has elsewhere been termed the broad path to perdition.

Finally, at the climactic point of the book comes her full-throated defense of homosexual relationships. She begins by saying that her “ethical framework” for heterosexuals applies equally to homosexuals, so she returns briefly to her “four sources” for sexual ethics. First, she decon­structs every biblical verse that forbids sodomy: when in Leviticus it is forbidden for a man to lie with another man as with a woman (18:22; 20:13), this is about idolatry; when Genesis speaks of the sin of Sodom (19:1-29), this is about inhospitality; and when St. Paul condemns sodomy (Rom. 1:26-27), this is about heterosexuals going against what’s natural for themselves. From this farrago of nonsense she draws what she calls the “modest conclusion” that there is “no solid ground” in Scripture for any “absolute prohibition” of homosexual acts. And even if there were, she smirks, how “relevant” would such “isolated texts” be to our life today?

So much for the Bible. As for Tradition, she says it’s in a “state of flux” and as ambiguous as Scripture, and so no “absolute prohibition” can be drawn from it. What we need, she asserts acidly, is a “process” of interpretation to discern (her favorite word) why Christians have ever viewed homosexuality negatively. (Here she tries to drive to the wall all those who follow the perennial moral law.) Christianity used to emphasize procreation as the norm, she says, but now “natural family planning,” which she fallaciously calls a form of “contraception,” has “relativized” this norm for heterosexuals, though it remains “ab­solutized” for homosexuals. Even so, she declares, there has been a dramatic change in the Church: Even if the “official” position is that homosexual acts are “objectively” immoral, Catholics may now regard them as “subjectively” moral, depending on a person’s “state of mind and intentions.” Her two sources for this startling claim are the U.S. bishops’ “Always Our Children” (1997) and the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s “A Ministry to Lesbian and Gay Catholic Persons” (1981). Thus she turns the irenic language of the American bishops directly against the moral teachings of the Church.

With regard to secular disciplines, she states that scientists should stop trying to identify the causes of homosexuality and should instead try to find out why homosexuality was so long “constructed as an object of moral opprobrium,” rather than an “alternative orientation.” Here again, the point is to drive the alleged “homophobes” to the wall.

After deciding that Scripture, Tradition, and the sciences are “inconclusive” regarding same-sex activity, Sr. Margaret turns to “concrete experience” as the “determining source on this issue.” Stand aside, Church! Here is a nun proposing homosexual experience as the ultimate test of truth — about homosexual intercourse. Ah, but her claim that experience alone proves the “intrinsic goodness” of same-sex fornication is curiously undercut by a footnote in which she makes it clear that we should not expect the homosexual witnesses to be virtuous. She cites Mary Rose D’Angelo to the effect that we need not look to receive from homosexuals the “added testimony of an exemplary life or of Christian fidelity.” This is called shooting oneself in the foot. How can the testimony of the unethical contribute to a new ethics?

Mention must also be made of the honor she does to the Catholic philosopher John Finnis in another footnote in which she excoriates him for his orthodox judgment of homosexual acts. She speaks of judgments like his as based on “myths” and “unreasoned” taboos. Her scorn easily applies to the Magisterium. She warns angrily that even verbal condemnation of homosexuality is a threat to the “common good.” A little despotism anyone?

What Margaret Farley has performed in Just Love is a more egregious act of apostasy than those of the self-proclaimed “Catholic” politicians and judges who have promoted the Culture of Death. Alas, I haven’t heard of any bishop advising Reverend Mother Libertine not to approach the Blessed Sacrament without first publicly repenting. I haven’t heard of her religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, showing her the door. I haven’t heard a cry of outrage from Catholic academe at the gross sexual immorality advanced in her book.

On the contrary, a chorus of praise is rising from her Catholic admirers in academe — among them Brian Linnane, S.J., president of Loyola College, Maryland, who praises her for creating an alternative sexual ethic without the Church’s emphasis on “abstinence”; Fr. Charles Curran, who praises her for having opposed for years “papal teachings on contraception, sterilization, divorce, homosexuality, and direct abortion”; and Lisa Sowle Cahill, a theology professor at Boston College who hails Sr. Margaret for subjecting the Vatican to a “critique from the perspective of gender equality.” These are only three of a line-up of Catholics who have contributed essays to a festschrift in her honor, A Just and True Love: Feminism at the Frontiers of Theological Ethics, published by the University of Notre Dame, with an enthusiastic blurb on the back from James F. Keenan, S.J. If the Vatican and the U.S. bishops ever decide to excommunicate the self-styled “Catholics” who ride brazenly on the bandwagon of the Culture of Death, is it too much to ask that they start with libertine theologians like Sr. Margaret Farley?


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