Monday, June 11, 2012

Condemning Just Love

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
The Vatican has been officially condemning some things lately. This is after many years of pretty much letting anything go in terms of doctrine.We will see if this new active CDF continues. It might just be that Cardinal Levada is getting ready to retire and is clearing his desk. It might also be Pope Benedict has decided such action is needed. Initially he felt Catholicism had an image as a negative way of thinking. He wanted to emphasize the positive. He may have decided he needs to give a few firm No's to go with the many Yes's.


Mary Hunt attacks the Vatican over their action against a book on sexual ethics written by a theologian and nun from Yale.
If Margaret A. Farley’s fine theo-ethical work causes “grave harm to the faithful,” Catholics live very graced lives. War, poverty, ecocide, racism, colonialism, sex and gender injustices of all sorts come to mind in the “grave harm” category. But not in the wildest imagination of anyone other than a Vatican bureaucrat would Dr. Farley’s sexual ethics qualify. 
Dr Hunt is a theologian. So I assume she understands that bad theology can do grave harm. I am not sure if she just thinks sexual ethics are in a category where getting them wrong is not a serious matter. Even that is hard to believe. But this kind of talk is standard. Somehow when the Vatican talks about theology people act like it is instead of helping the poor or doing some other good deed. It is veiled sentimentalism. We should not work hard to seek truth. We should just do what feels right. We should especially refrain from thinking about sexual ethics.  Such thinking could interfere with our fun. But, of course, making that argument is thinking about sexual ethics. So it amounts to question begging. This is unimportant because I don't agree with it. The insinuation that everyone thinks this is wildly out of bounds really means everyone who agrees with me.
How fortunate we are to have a scholar of her caliber, and how appropriate that she is appreciated widely. Recent attention to her work only serves to deepen her impact and broaden her audience; 24 hours after news broke of the Vatican censure the book was propelled from an Amazon ranking of 142,982 to 16. 
She does get her 15 minutes of fame from this. The CDF did not say she is a bad scholar. Quite the opposite. It takes some skill to cause "grave hard to the faithful." I don't doubt she argues her points well. The issue is whether she causes confusion about what is the orthodox Catholic position.
The June 4th Notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) titled “Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.,” left many scandalized by the intellectually embarrassing and morally tawdry work of a group that obviously needs a permanent vacation. William Cardinal Levada and company at the CDF are simply out of their league theologically when it takes them 6 years (the book was published in 2006) to comment on an important work—and they still get it wrong.
This is mostly just name calling.  She talks about "intellectually embarrassing." I do think this real scholars try and avoid throwing mud like this. Scholars use arguments to interact intelligently with ideas. Not sure what she means by "morally tawdry." Does she know something we don't about Cardinal Levads's motives for this notification? 
A first-year graduate student could have handled the analysis in a week. S/he would have figured out that Dr. Farley was dealing with ethical method—how we frame and approach moral questions—not defending the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Grawemeyer Award committee that chose Margaret for that prestigious and generous prize ($200,000 is real money in the theological business) realized Margaret was doing an outstanding job as a moral theologian in the broad interreligious conversation that is now the gold standard in the field.
OK, after all this trash talk Dr Hunt now gets to the meat of what she wants to say. Unfortunately she is confused. She admits that Dr Farley's position is not compatible with the teaching of the Catholic church. I am not sure what she thinks a CDF notification is. That is the central point. She is a Catholic theologian and she is teaching non-Catholic doctrines. How fashionable her ideas are is not important here. She can win all sorts of praise from all sort of scholars. That would be just more reason for the CDF to want to make clear the ideas she is articulating are not Catholic.
Vatican interlocutors, who obviously have no clue about such matters, only embarrass themselves by publishing their ignorance in six languages. They leave the distinct impression that they are oblivious to the fact that postmodern ethical analysis emerges from multi-disciplinary, multi-religious discussions grounded in concrete actions for justice.
It is not that they have no clue. It is that they don't care much about the mutual admiration that postmodern theologians have going. They just care if the ideas are Catholic.  They are not. Dr Hunt might not care about that but she should at least be able to grasp why the CDF would care.
A scholar of Margaret Farley’s stature must terrify the staff of the CDF. She is, after all, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School; a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America which gave her its highest award in 1992; as well as a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics. Dr. Farley holds 11 honorary degrees. In addition to 7 books, she has contributed more than 100 chapters and papers to the field. Her lengthy resume of lectures, workshops, and consultations attests to the fact that this modest woman of quiet confidence is simply an excellent scholar.
Again she can't grasp what the CDF is about. Why would an impressive academic resume terrify the CDF? They don't really have to be able to argue with her. They just have to be able to tell if she rejects settled Catholic teaching. The fact that her ideas are well known and well understood makes it easier discern whether they are orthodox. As far as the criticism they might take for publishing such a notice? They know they will take some heat when they accept a job with the CDF.
Dr. Farley’s scholarly work is characterized by a careful, reasoned, realism about the human condition. She brings a thorough grounding in the Christian tradition with an emphasis on Catholic thought to her books on commitment, embodiment, respect, and, the most recent and controversial one, on love. Rather than embrace her project and explore, as she does, the range of ways that good people try to love—with an emphasis on the demands of justice in every intimate relationship—the CDF theologians boiled down her opus into five cherry-picked nuggets on sex and marriage that reflect their priorities, not hers. They missed the forest for the trees. Their statement is deeply insulting, not to mention morally suspect, in that such a stellar scholar’s reputation is impugned. As my mother would say, “Consider the source.”
Again Dr Hunt seems confused. Nobody is saying her work has no good thinking in it.They are picking out five points because they feel there is a pastoral need to do so. That is their priority and not hers. There is no claim that these 5 points capture the essence of her published work. They are commenting on the trees and not the forest. They are commenting not on her intelligence but on her obedience. How many examples of persistent disobedience do you need to show there is an issue? If you don't value obedience as a virtue for theologians then you are not going to get this.
I do not traffic in ulterior motives, nor is it especially productive to speculate on why Margaret Farley, like Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood and a theologian at Fordham University, was singled out for scrutiny. But their canonical vulnerability as members of “an Institute of Consecrated Life” plays a significant role in their selection for negative attention. There are other women theologians who are not members of congregations whose views parallel, and in some instances outdistance, Dr. Farley’s on contested issues. They/we are simply not canonically vulnerable in the same way.
Dr Hunt already questioned motives in this article so why stop now? But she is kind of right. What she calls "canonical vulnerability" Catholics would call a vow of obedience. As nuns they take such vows and as nuns they have more credibility as representatives of the Catholic church. People expect teachings from nuns to be orthodox. When they are not the church has more of a reason to note this so the faithful are not confused.


The church also tends to make the charitable assumption that nuns want to keep their vows and correct any heresy they might be teachings. Remember the desired outcome is not to shame the theologian but to bring them back into thinking with the church. Likewise those who followed their leadership because they are nuns are more likely to see the error of their ways and follow the true church teaching instead. You can call it "selection for negative attention" but there is just no good reason to assume the outcome will be purely negative.
The Roman men are hell-bent on reining in American nuns, if only to prove that they can rein in somebody in a world that pays them increasingly little heed. They fear that such intellectually powerful and theologically persuasive women, who identify with the institutional Roman Catholic Church through their membership in canonical communities, will trump them in the public arena.
Good thing she does not traffic in ulterior motives! If the CDF has this problem you wonder why they missed so many  opportunities to reign in these nuns. It is not like they have been pictures of orthodoxy. This is actually a new strategy. They have waited for decades for nuns and Catholic theologians to resolve these issues on their own. At some point the Vatican has to disassociate itself from these teachings.
This is what happened when Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, and Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, parted company with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops not once, but twice, in the health care debates. Their Catholicism trumped the Catholicism of the bishops in the minds of legislators and perhaps of the President himself. So it is with Margaret and Elizabeth that their well-reasoned, experience-encompassing, pastorally sensitive work simply trumps the bishops’ tired repetition of their own outdated thinking.
There is no Catholicism  other than "the Catholicism of the bishops." They are the successors of the apostles. They hold the principle teaching office in the church. Theologians like to think of themselves as defining Catholicism but what matters is ordination not education. Education is human. Ordination is divine. So saying Sr Keehan and Sr Campbell have a different religion than the Catholic bishops is the same as saying they are not Catholic. 
The Notification’s 5 little points need no rehearsal. Her critics simply miss the fact that Margaret Farley does not do ethics the way that they do. She does not share their ethical priorities on what Catholic moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire calls matters of the “pelvic zone.” Her scope is justice writ large—beginning in places where people are oppressed, violated, and demeaned. That the Vatican places masturbation at the top of its list highlights its perverted priorities in a deeply troubled world.
Again she missed the point. Having interesting thinking on a high level does not mean one can ignore errors  on a lower level. What if she had arrived at false conclusions about morals around violence? Say she said it was OK for a husband to beat his wife. Would Dr Hunt be saying one should look at the big picture and ignore the details? I doubt it. So why should we ignore false conclusions on sexual morality? Because sexual morality does not matter? Again you are begging the question.
It is impossible to imagine the discourse as the men took under their scholarly consideration Margaret’s understated, but nonetheless robust, affirmation of women finding “great good in self-pleasuring…something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers” (p. 236). I am confident that this came as unwelcome news to many of the men gathered. But the fact that they would dwell on it speaks volumes about their ethics and their rapidly eroding power. Sexual power is power, and more and more women have it. Apparently the struggle to wrest it back is high on the agenda of those who live on the 110 acres called the Vatican.
She is right that the Vatican does not do ethics this way. Sexual morality is not a zero sum game between men and women. Either men get their way or women get theirs. Catholics actually believe in God. That asking whether what we do is consistent with the way God designed sex is important. That does not pit male pleasure against female pleasure. They actually claim God designed sex with more in mind than just pleasure. I know it is hard for modern thinkers to get their minds around this.  That is where having access to out-dated thinking is an advantage.
A more adequate understanding of Farley’s theological project can be gleaned by looking at 3 elements by which every scholar is measured: work, students, and impact. Farley’s work speaks for itself. Just Love is a standard ethics textbook in many seminaries and universities. Ironically, as noted earlier, it became a bestseller courtesy of the Notification. Thanks, guys. Even in retirement, she is a much sought after lecturer and writer whose wisdom has influence.
Again, she seems to think the CDF is denying this. The fact that the book is used in seminaries and universities is a good reason to tell people about problems with it.  Is the Vatican just supposed to say that if they are using it it must be fine? That is not the role of the pope in the church.  


I deleted several stories about Dr Farley being an all round nice person. Again, a CDF notification is not a declaration that they think she is a demon. It means that she has taught the specific errors specified in the document. Dr Hunt did not go into those specifics. So she misses the point.
Long after the Vatican’s Notification has been forgotten, generations will recognize that the HIV/AIDS pandemic occasioned a seismic shift in moral theology. Real world experience drives the discussion. Margaret Farley’s name will forever be associated with Catholic moral theology that does justice. Notify that!
If HIV/AIDS causes such a shift in moral theology would it not have more rules around sex? But the CDF is saying Dr Farley's morality is too permissive rather than too restrictive. I can understand why she might favor gay marriage. I don't get how the presence of AIDS is a reason to favor gay marriage. Logic seems to go the other way.


There is the huge confidence that the inevitable march of progress is on their side. But it is not like getting rid of sexual morals is a great new idea that has never been thought of before. The Catholic church has a long memory. Modern intellectuals just don't. So they think every idea is a new idea. So the church is the one that actually progresses. Remembering your mistakes makes progress possible. Assuming thinking can be ignored because it is out-dated actually tends to make the same ideas come into fashion over and over.

1 comment: