Nun wars: Is the pope Catholic?

Truth be told, for several days now I have been trying to find ways to avoid writing about the whole nun-wars story.

I mean this thing just keeps going on and on. The key is that the story was already several years old when it broke, yet the mainstream press continues to act as if this conflict is brand new and that the powers that be at the Vatican picked this fight. At the same time, it continues to be hard to find coverage that accurately quotes the document at the heart of this story — the “doctrinal assessment” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Now the sisters and nuns of the Catholic left are preparing to barnstorm the nation in buses, lobbying for their causes. Reporters may want to ask if the women who are organizing this effort are seeking input from the bishops of the dioceses they will be visiting.

One thing we have learned for sure: It certainly appears that many, if not most, mainstream journalists assume that the phrase “working for social justice” includes work on behalf of abortion rights and gay rights, as well as helping the poor and the sick, while Pope Benedict XVI and most (but not all) Catholic bishops disagree. It also appears that most journalists assume that the government of the Roman Catholic Church is essentially the same as The Episcopal Church. Hey, the vestments do look a lot alike. That can be confusing.

At the moment, there appears to be a debate on these issues taking place between the Vatican and The New York Times, which is acting on behalf of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. I thought that this was supposed to be a story about a debate between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, with the Times and other elite newsrooms providing accurate, maybe even balanced, coverage of the views on both sides.

In a way, the whole story about Sister Margaret Farley, who taught theology at Yale Divinity School, and her book “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics” is a step forward. The Vatican says this book is not a work of Catholic theology. Most people agree on that, since it is clearly a book criticizing Catholic doctrine and, thus, theology.

It may even help that all the publicity from the case is fueling increased sales of this manifesto on a wide variety of subjects, such as gay sexuality and female masturbation. “Just Love” is creeping up the Amazon sales chart, closer and closer to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” At this point, I think it’s safe to say that the more progressive Catholics read and discuss the contents of this book in public, the stronger the Vatican’s case.

At this point, let me simply quote the commentary of my friend Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A prominent American nun writes a theology textbook advocating for the moral and theological licitness of same-sex marriage and female masturbation, and for a view of marriage and divorce that contradicts Catholic doctrine. The Vatican takes two years to investigate, and finally gets around to condemning the book. The New York Times features the story prominently on its website, because, I suppose, it’s really super-crazy that the Vatican’s doctrinal office would say that a nun’s textbook promoting this stuff is morally inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Hide your kids, hide your wife, the Inquisition is back!

Do you know what those latter-day Torquemadas are doing to that poor old nun? Nothing. Seriously, not a thing. The newspaper quotes the Vatican spokesman as saying that the nun will suffer no sanctions from this action (PDF of the Vatican’s statement here).

And so forth and so on. So what is the key fact in this story, the point that the press may be missing?

As many stories have mentioned, Sister Farley is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. This means that she has been, and remains, a heavy hitter among people who to one degree or another work in higher education and claim the title “Catholic theologian.” I think it is safe to say that the digital files of your typical mainstream religion-beat reporter is packed with the telephone numbers of these women and men, and rightly so since so many of them are important sources on one side of this debate.

Were Vatican officials sending a signal to the Catholic Theological Society of America, just as much as they were expressing displeasure with Sister Farley? Might this have something to do with the decades of debate about the implementation of the late, and now Blessed, Pope John Paul II’s manifesto on Catholic higher education — Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)?

Hey, wait! Wasn’t all of this the subject of a talk by Pope Benedict XVI just the other day, in a chat with a circle of U.S. bishops? And what about that quotation in which the pope refers to Canon 812 and its requirement that Catholic theologians (teaching in a Catholic context) receive a “mandatum (mandate)” document from their bishops to certify that they are in fact “Catholic” theologians and, thus, in Communion with the pope of Rome?

Before all else, I would acknowledge the great progress that has been made in recent years in improving catechesis, reviewing texts and bringing them into conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. …

On the level of higher education, many of you have pointed to a growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel. Yet much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines. The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.

I don’t know about you, but I see a connection. The supporters of Sister Farley may see one, as well. Somebody ask them. OK?

That Benedict guy. He really seems to think that he’s the pope or something. It seems that he is convinced that the man who sits in the chair of St. Peter has something to do with defending centuries of Catholic doctrine. That is so, so, pre-modern.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    What I haven’t seen in all this coverage, and what I would love to see, is more detail on Sister M. Margaret’s explanation of what her book is all about in her Statement:

    “I appreciate the efforts made by the Congregation and its consultants, over several years, to evaluate positions articulated in that book, and I do not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching. In the end, I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching. It is of a different genre altogether.”

    Well, what genre? Nobody seems to have asked that question. It is subtitled “A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics” – not simply ‘a framework for sexual ethics’ or ‘a framework for ethics’ or ‘a review of the modern understanding of sexuality’. That awkward little word “Christian” kinda sorta makes it the Vatican’s business to know what she’s teaching, considering she’s not just an ordinary academic but a member of a religious order of women.

    Although, in all the furore, it’s odd that no-one has pointed out that ultimately both Sr. Margaret and the CDF agree on one thing: her book is not intended to be taken as a standard of Catholic teaching on sexuality:

    “The Congregation warns the faithful that her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church. Consequently it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”

    Also, has there been any mention that this is not her first run-in with “the Vatican”, seeing as how she was one of the group that signed an ad the “New York Times” calling for a dialogue on the issue of abortion, participated in the Mercy Hospitals study where they decided to offer tubal ligation, and supports women’s ordination? It’s not like “the Vatican” just picked a prominent academic out of a hat in order to deliver a smackdown to them uppity wimmin’s orders.

  • Will

    How dare They say it isn’t authentic Catholic teaching! Why, next, someone will say that “Messianic Judaism” isn’t authentic Judaism! Oh, that’s DIFFERENT?

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Thanks, Martha. There are many buzzwords to look at. In the subtitle, “Framework” is certainly a word that connotes advocacy of particular ethical system, which if it is admittedly “not in accord with current official Catholic teaching” is thereby not “not…aimed specifically against” it. Other words are “current” and “official” — the first implying that what Catholic teaching is today is not necessarily what it used to be nor what it might be tomorrow (supposedly after the Framework in question is finally adopted); the second implying that Catholic teaching is broad enough to include “unofficial” but nonetheless valid expressions, such as the one in the book. “Official” has a further purpose of associating “current” teaching with an out-of-date and rickety patriarchy.

    What you see here with this book is what has been called the “Magisterium of Nuns,” meaning folks like Sr Margaret Farley who offer the public an alternative authority structure.

  • Julia

    Neither Aquinas nor Teresa of Avila were immediately embraced by the Church. Ideas need to be absorbed and subject to thought over time.

    Who knows if this sister’s thinking will influence the thinking of the Church in the future.

    Check out the situation of Teilhard de Chardin, one of my favorites, who was told to quit writing and yet has been very influential and even quoted by Benedict decades after his demise.

    The Church thinks in centuries. She was not excommunicated nor forbidden to publish. I see this as a caution to readers and students against understanding her thinking as official church teaching. That’s all. It seems that she understands this. Time will tell.

  • Kim Hatton

    “Neither Aquinas nor Teresa of Avila were immediately embraced by the Church.”

    There is absolutely no way you can compare these with Sr Margaret. Her ideas are on the liberal side of Protestant and will never be embraced by the magisterium. If they were I’d leave the church.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Good point, Julia… But I would be careful comparing Sr. Margaret to Aquinas and Teresa. Very few humans in history are in their league, and there are many distinctions to make in comparing their cases to the one at hand. By the same token, Sr. Margaret in time may also find herself more seriously censored or even excommunicated.

    A lot depends on how she responds. Her statement is not hopeful. In it she admits that she holds views that are contrary to Catholic doctrine, thus implying she also holds that “traditional,” “current,” “official” doctrines are suspect and out of date.

    If her conclusions “nonetheless reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights of these theological and moral traditions,” which by the way does not ensure their validity, it is quite possible that her understanding of those theological and moral traditions is not accurate. I would think that acceptance would be, as you suggest, at least centuries down the road.

  • David A

    There was a time when radically obedient nuns made news, especially when they were *more* Catholic than the Pope.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Julia and Bioethics — let’s be clear, Sister Margaret’s teaching is completely contradictory to the Gospel, period, and will never be accepted by the Church.

    This is what journalists do not understand — the Church has no authority to change the Gospel, the teachings of Christ. We are not the Odd Fellows Club or the Elks or any other kind of social club. This is where so many journalists — and others — get lost. The Fraternal Order of Eagles can change its constitution anytime it wants and still be the FOE. They are self-defining. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, believes that it has been defined by God Himself. To change our teachings to conform to people’s whims would be to deny the One who brought the Church into existence in the first place — it would be to deny her own raison d’etre (I’d been looking for a place to use that phrase and it fits nicely there).

    The media who keep pushing for the Church to “get with the times” don’t realize that those churches that are getting with the times are losing their membership, and there’s only one reason for that — they’ve gotten with the times (or the Times, as the case may be) and lost their identities.

  • Julia

    Note that I didn’t say that this sister’s writing would be accepted. We just don’t know. Doesn’t look like it, but there were others whose thoughts were also not accepted.

    She is acknowledging that her writings are not in line with the Church’s teaching. But she is saying that she is observing basic principles. Maybe she is and maybe she isn’t. I don’t think so – but long after we are all gone, she might be right.

    During her lifetime, Teresa of Avila was in lots of trouble with the Church, particularly the Inquisition in Spain. Now she is a Doctor of the Church. Check it out.

  • Julia

    I was too wordy. The good sister is acknowledging that her writings are meant to give folks something to think about.
    She is not presenting them as Catholic teaching. She is trying to reconcile them with classic Catholic teaching and principles. It will be awhile before a definitive judgment is made.

    In the meantime, Catholics are not to take her writings as official Catholic teaching.

    Really – take a look at what has happened with Teilhard and de Lubac, a real favorite of Benedict, not to mention Newman.

    Benedict has said that he finds it admirable that his old friend Hans Kung is trying to put together an ethics that spans all creeds, even though he disagrees vehemently with much of what Kung writs.

    The Catholic laity, in general, are much more literate and educated than in the days when illiterate peasants were warned against listening to charlatans.

  • Mary De Voe

    The reason for being of the Catholic Church is to offer worship to God through the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ instituted the Catholic Church to offer worship to God, now and forever, eternally. The reason for Jesus Christ’s coming into the world as a man is the salvation of souls, human beings’ souls who belong to God “their Creator” as inscribed in The Declaration of Independence.
    The worship of God, our “Creator” is acknowledged by the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution. (Not so by the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations) America is “one nation under God”. The Catholic Church fulfills its mission to worship God in the Sacrifice of Calvary and by preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to draw all mankind back to “their Creator”.
    Any deviation from the Catholic Church’s mission to worship God is heresy and “non-Catholic” and must be corrected. Any deterrence from the Catholic Church’s mission to worship God is tyrannical and unconstitutional.”…or prohibit the free exercise thereof.”
    Be it Sebelius and the HHS mandate deterring the Catholic Church from fulfilling its mission to worship God from the state or theologians deviating from eternal truth by preaching personal opinions contrary to eternal truth, Truth, Justice and the American Way must conquer all fallacy, all perjury.
    The Catholic Church must worship God and uphold TRUTH. Those who dissent have already self-excommunicated themselves. The Catholic Church is an exclusive church of members who embrace only TRUTH. The TRUTH will set you free.
    Does abortion offer worship to God? Does the HHS mandate offer worship to God? Does homosexual marriage offer worship to God? Does Sister R’s book Just Love offer worship to God?

  • tioedong

    The UK Catholic Herald points out the problem: That Sister cites modern opinions and cherry picks empirical data, and voila, suddenly certain acts morph into being morally neutral:
    “the inconvenient fact that this modern knowledge is not based on any sort of theological reflection, but rather on the rejection of theological tradition.”

    When the good sister cites “empirical data” to prove her case that morality has changed, she doesn’t notice that there is plenty of empirical data against her opinions: family breakdown, divorce, sexual abuse, promiscuity, homeless single moms etc.— that has resulted from the “sexual acts are morally neutral so okay” mindset…

    yet neither her supporters nor the press seem to link the two phenomenum…

  • Jerry

    basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines. The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership:

    I was a bit confused when I read the above.

    First the statement that those who teach theology must be in communion with the teachings of the Catholic church. That’s clear.

    But the second part about the “representatives of Catholic institutions” is an apparent non sequitur. If a representative of a Catholic institution is not and does not claim to be teaching theology, then any apparent dissidence is not covered by the statement about those who teach theology.

    Such apparent inconsistencies with official statements makes life a lot harder on reporters.

  • Martha

    Jerry, I think part of the concern may be the kind of example given below (taken from an article in the “National Catholic Reporter” by a former student of Sr. Farley, emphasis mine):

    “In the interest of full disclosure, I mention that as a student at Yale Divinity School I had the honor of serving as Farley’s research assistant for two years. In the decade since my graduation, she has been a mentor and friend. In recent years when I have taught sexual ethics on a college level, Just Love has been our textbook.”

    Given that Ms. Manson goes on to say that “the book’s overall aim and subject are deeply embedded in the best of our theological tradition”, where “our tradition” is presumbably to be taken as the Roman Catholic tradition, and that her blog says “Jamie was the Pastoral Associate and Director of Faith Formation at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan”, then it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that she may have been assigning this book as a textbook for courses attended by Catholic students or even in Catholic colleges. And I rather imagine that being “Director of Faith Formation” in a parish could be taken as meaning that she was a “representative of a Catholic institution”, so even if she wasn’t teaching in Catholic schools, she may have had some status as some kind of Official Catholic Representative, even if it was only a perception on the part of others (“Hey, our lecturer is employed by a Catholic church and this assigned textbook is written by a nun, so it must be what the Catholics officially teach!”)

  • Kristen

    Actually, it has long been my opinion that EVERYONE knows what the Catholic church prohibits in its broadest outlines – no birth control, no abortion, no divorce– the New York Times does an awesome job of keeping that dissonance front and center. When Catholics leaders like Sr. Farley publicly offer alternative doctrinal comparisons, I honestly don’t think anyone REALLY forgets that the Church is still prohibiting those things, and has been since 1930 when the Episcopal Church decided birth control must be ok. In fact, the Catholic CHurch is just about the only church that has tenaciously held its ground on this point…

    The only story here, in my view, is that Sr. Farley went too far, and the Vatican felt compelled to remind all of us what we already know to be true. Yep. They really do say “no.”

    Another day, another headline. Yawn.

  • Julia

    Martha has hit the nail on the head.

    There used to be reviews of Catholic books by bishops and Cardinals who would give a “Nihil Obstat” and “Imprimatur” – officially printed in the early part of the book – roughly meaning: nothing objectionable, let it be printed.

    That has fallen by the wayside. The academics are offended that they would have to seek such approval. So a Catholic parishioner has nothing to tell him or her whether the text is authoritative or at least not objectionable. I fear the Notification is not going to be noticed by pew sitters.

    Well, what genre?

    My late Jesuit cousin told me that Martin Luther’s posting of his propositions on the church door was the way an academic would call for a debate on the ideas presented. And, in his lifetime, my cousin had to defend his thesis in Latin at an auditorium where all were invited to debate him. This still happens; ten years ago I was at a friend’s presentation and defense of her physics thesis, but it was in English.

    I think the sister meant to do something similar, except that it was published as a text not just among fellow academics for debate, but sent out into the ether where it would be read by non-academics who don’t understand the nature of that kind of thing. Certainly, using a controversial text like that for pastoral catechesis at a parish (like her former assistant) is not kosher and is what the CDF was worried about.

    Its use would be more appropriate along with an authoritative text in a grad school seminar – with each text clearly identified as authoritative, on one hand, and an edgy thought piece, on the other.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz


    I’m quite aware of Teresa of Avila’s position with the Church along with numerous other saints (John of the Cross, Mary McKillop, Faustina, Padre Pio…). But notice that what these saints wrote or how they lived did not contradict the teaching and tradition of the Church. They restated the faith in a new and different way or accentuated something that had not been emphasized before, but it was not a contradiction.

    Sister Margaret’s teaching, on the other hand, is a direct contradiction to the Church. “With this Notification, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expresses profound regret that a member of an Institute of Consecrated Life, Sr. Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M., affirms positions that are in direct contradiction (my emphasis) with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality.” For the media, that’s good. For the faithful, that’s bad.

    “It will be awhile before a definitive judgment is made.” No, the definitive judgment has been made. As we saw with the document on the LCWR that the media are ignoring, the media are again, by and large, ignoring this document.

  • Pete

    When did nuns start wearing earings?

  • Julia


    I don’t think women should be ordained, but there’s lots of other stuff in her book that might influence thinking. Or it might not. It just shouldn’t be taught as authoritative.

    Explain Teilhard de Chardin. His books contradict Genesis and yet he is very influential and even quoted by Benedict.

  • Randy Watson

    Moral theology is a complicated study, because human freedom is complicated. In fact one of the great three mysteries that the Church identifies and clarifies for us is Grace, and how we can be free and at the same time God’s grace work efficaciously in us.

    But orthodox teaching is that the three powers of the soul (that make us unique beings in creation)–that is intellect, will and passions) must work in unity for there to be a moral act. Freedom seperated from the “truth” causes a loss of integrety where the powers of the soul do not work for their ultimate purpose – the vision of God.

    This all hinges around that our acts must be in accord with “reason”. Reason is informed either through 1. Revelation, 2. Infused knowledge or 3. learning. Now “if” the learning is heterodox and not orthodox, then man’s freedom is compromised because they are chosing a lessor good (rather than the universal good that gets us to heaven) or even evil.

    Sister Farely is a theologian. She is a self-proclaimed theologian. She is trying to teach her ideas of what the truth is. The hair splitting that these are not offical teachings of the Church is feigned ignorance. She knows they are CONTRARY to the Church. She has established her own teaching authority (magisterium).

    I don’t doubt she is well meaning. The sisters have done wonderful work. But doing one good (social justice) so you can choose to do (and promulgate) another good that is not in accord with reason (heaven), is bad moral theology. The end does not justify the means.

    And let’s face it, if she knew (and she does) it is not in accord with Church teaching, and she says it in a grand public way, and now she is challenging the faith and moral of the Church….what is the big mystery. She has picked the fight she has wanted all along….that there is no central teaching or governoring authority. It is a slippery slope when each of us can start underminding the truth. A favorite tool of the devil.

  • Thinkling

    Julia, you are setting up a false dichotomy.

    I do not believe the criticism of the book explicitly condemns each and every sentence. No doubt there are statements in the book which are not contrary to her ostensible faith. But the point is, so what? There are clearly many statements which are contrary to the faith. That is what the message is.

  • tmatt


    I was away from keys and let this argument over Catholic DOCTRINE run on way, way to long.

    My fault.

    Let’s try to steer this back to journalism — the accurate coverage of Sister Farley and her critics.