Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Does compassion require truth? Sister Margaret Farley

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 05, 2012

In 2006, Sr. Margaret Farley, now professor emerita at Yale Divinity School, published a book which contradicts, confuses or undermines Catholic teaching on, among other things, “masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage.” This is the judgment issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on June 4th regarding her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

The errors are predictable, of course. They are the same errors which have dominated Catholic moral theology ever since so many of its practitioners decided to draw their moral data from the prevailing trends of modern culture. The exercise is very much like discerning one’s moral values by examining sin.

But the defense of Sister Margaret by the representatives of the moral status quo is also predictable. We have grown to expect the CDF’s judgments to be rejected based on assertions of academic respectability, protestations of deep commitment, and insistence on compassion and sensitivity (all qualities which, presumably, the CDF cannot grasp). This case is no exception, as evidenced by the remarks of Sister Patricia McDermott, the head of Sister Margaret’s order:

Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, is a highly respected and valued member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas…. Sister Margaret has given witness to the highest quality of academic work and compassionate presence. She assiduously attempts to present the Catholic tradition as formative of her own rich experience while recognizing the ecumenical audience she often engages. While being faithful to her own faith tradition and commitments, her sensitivity to the varied circumstances, realities and needs of her students is the context she consistently honors.

The CDF, of course, did not question whether Sister Margaret had the respect of her peers, or was a successful academic. Nor did it look into allegations that Sister Margaret lacked a “compassionate presence.” Nor would it score points with the CDF that Sister Margaret presents “the Catholic tradition as formative of her own rich experience”, for all this says is that Catholicism is part of the author’s rich and widely divergent background. None of this says anything about whether Sister Margaret actually regards the Catholic Tradition as normative. And that, of course, is precisely the issue which the CDF was bound to address.

It is true that Sister Patricia insists that Sister Margaret is “faithful to her own faith tradition and commitments”, but this is exactly what the CDF has found, after three years of study and discussion, not to be the case. Sister Patricia would have us believe that the CDF has confused Sister Margaret’s fidelity with her “sensitivity to the varied circumstances, realities, and needs of her students”. But it is precisely the CDF’s point that Sister Margaret is the one who has fallen into this confusion. Many in the modern world—and not just students—are looking for ways to justify immoral sexual activity. Therefore, in her supreme sensitivity, Sister Margaret has written that immoral sexual activity is not really immoral at all.

If the purpose of moral theology is to provide arguments for those who wish to violate the moral law, then presumably Sister Margaret has done a passable job. This is what it means for moral theology to draw its norms from the dominant culture, which is precisely the endemic problem the CDF wishes to correct. But if it is the purpose of moral theology to deepen our understanding of Divine Revelation and the natural law so that we can more easily perceive, embrace and live the truth about virtue and vice, then Sister Margaret has not done this at all and, to speak honestly, she probably did not even attempt to do it.

The arguments for the defense in this cases are so predictable that one wonders whether they are simply selected from a pre-printed menu prepared by a short-order cook. It all sounds good, but a few questions suggest that the actual flavor is not going to satisfy:

  • Can it really be evidence of the “highest quality of academic work” to be so swayed by modern habits as to ignore the very foundation of one’s discipline? After all, Catholic theology cannot even exist unless it seeks to understand and articulate an objective Revelation.
  • Does it really show the formative importance of Catholic tradition to ignore the Magisterial authority of the Church? After all, only the Magisterium can properly distinguish Tradition as a source of Revelation from mere human traditions which lack normative value.
  • Is it truly a mark of “sensitivity” and a “compassionate presence” to tell sinners what they want to hear? A doctor cannot cure a real disease by carefully explaining that the patient is not sick.

Indeed, how does it “honor” the circumstances of Sister Margaret’s students and readers, who are drowning in moral relativism, to throw them a brick when they need a life ring? To quote another famous relativist, “Let’s be real.”

At first glance, I suppose, we might breathe a sigh of relief that Sister Patricia has not trotted out the standard charge that the CDF did not follow proper procedure, that it did not consult real experts, that it did everything in the dark, that it did not give Sister Margaret a chance to explain, and that it rushed through the investigation without adequate scholarly reflection. These too are part of the usual litany.

But, alas, even these charges are present in an inverted form. Since the process was so obviously long and thorough, Sister Patricia decided not to try to dismiss it for its inadequacy. Instead, she suggested that the CDF was too thorough:

The process initiated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been lengthy, arduous and extremely difficult. I am deeply saddened that Sister Margaret has had to engage in this process for more than three years and that the Congregation has rendered this Notification concerning the significant pastoral and ethical thinking that are represented in her book, Just Love.

Apparently Sister Margaret has not been lightly dismissed. But was she tortured?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jun. 05, 2012 4:02 PM ET USA

    "I would not believe in the sexual revolution myself if the authority of the liberal secularists did not move me to do so." - Not St. Augustine of Hippo