A condemnation becomes a recommendation

In Western culture, at least since its Christian formation, there has been a perduring tendency to give too much importance to the morality of sex. The sexual has threatened to take over the moral focus of whole generations of persons. Everything about the “sexual” is considered “moral” or “immoral,” and “morality” is almost reduced to “sexual morality.” All of this is to the detriment of concerns about economic justice, the oppression of whole peoples, political dishonesty, and even theft and the taking of life.

That’s from the introduction to Sr. Margaret A. Farley’s book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, quoted by Stephen Prothero in an op-ed titled, “Vatican is unjust to condemn nun’s ‘Just Love.’

Prothero summarizes Farley’s central conclusions. For Farley:

Love is just when it meets three criteria: “it is a true response to the reality of the beloved, a genuine union between the one who loves and the one loved, and an accurate and adequate affective affirmation of the loved.” In short, “persons are not to be loved as if they were things.”

Turning to the ethics of sex, Farley advances a parallel argument, though this time she articulates seven norms: “do no unjust harm,” “free consent of partners,” “mutuality,” “equality,” “commitment,” “fruitfulness” and “social justice.”

I haven’t read Farley’s book. I hadn’t even heard of it until the Vatican drew my attention to it by sweeping it up into its larger crackdown on women. But I admire this approach to sexual ethics — an approach that actually tries to apply ethics to sexuality, rather than just drawing one big bright line at marriage and saying everything on one side of that line is good and everything on the other side is bad.

So I suppose I’m grateful to the Vatican for highlighting this book for me, and for millions of other people. Farley’s book came out in 2008, but now, thanks to stern condemnation from the Catholic hierarchy, it’s the No. 1 religion book on Amazon and No. 14 book overall.

Farley’s publisher is probably scrambling to see if they can get the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to condemn the rest of their catalogue. As Ron Charles writes in a post titled “Sister Farley’s revenge“:

From papyrus to vellum to paper to e-books, two principles of publishing have not changed over the centuries:

1. Churches can’t resist the temptation to condemn books.

2. Nothing boosts book sales like condemnation by a church.

Oh, and speaking of the Vatican’s impressive powers of promotion-by-condemnation, here is some excellent news for the Episcopal Church: “Pope Benedict XVI refuses to allow communion for Catholic divorcees.”

It’s always a pastoral disaster when you draw a line to insist that people were made for the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath made for people. This is not a bold stand for doctrinal purity. It’s simply pastoral malpractice. Cruel and right are not the same thing.

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  • I was really struck by just how wishy-washy the response was from the president of my alma mater, who apparently studied under Farley. He quite rightly worried about the possible chilling effects on academic freedom, but then went on to explain that the vatican was totes right to censure it,  because it’s only for scholarly use, not for your average every-day teaching about sexual morality, and that it was totally not a censure against Farley herself, just against the one specific book, and it’s not like anyone was actually going to teach it as a book on general religious education on sexual morality for non-experts anyway.


  • Ursula L

    The Catholic Church banned Galileo’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo in 1633 and it promptly became a 17th-century bestseller. 


    And in 1633, the Reformation had already happened, so that large portions of Europe were outside the control of the Catholic Church, and the book in question could be published quite safely in those areas.  And control of national boarders was by modern standards, very loose, so printed copies could easily be smuggled into Catholic-controlled areas.  

    Plus, even in areas that were nominally Catholic, the control of the Catholic Church varied greatly.  Some areas were actually part of the Papal States. Other areas had Catholic rulers, but those rulers created and enforced laws based on their own agendas, rather than being mindlessly in lock-step with the Church’s agenda.

    Also, even in the Papal States, the Catholic Church didn’t enforce a level of social control that is anywhere near as oppressive as some other examples in human history.  East Germany, North Korea, Stalin’s USSR, or Hitler’s Germany* are a examples of places that were/are much more focused on ideological control of the population.  And they are places where people are known to have chosen to hide or destroy portions of their own private libraries, rather than face the risk of being caught with banned books.  


    *Exception to Godwin’s rule, I’m not calling them Nazis, I’m saying they’re not as bad as Nazis.  But “Not As Bad As Nazis” is a completely insufficient marker for judging whether a regime is benevolent or harmful.  

  • In real life, I have met real women, (some of them atheists, fwiw) who consider masturbation to be a kind of unfaithfulness. It seemed to be tied up in the idea that “Exclusive control over his access to orgasms is my power in this relationship.”

    Also worth noting. When the Church says that masturbation is “gravely disordered”, that’s a specific thing with a specific meaning, and not just generically “bad”. 

    I mentioned a while back about the catholic church being locked into hierarchical mindsets, and that’s what they’re talking about here: their beef with masturbation (at least, their *theological* beef) is that in the catholic theological mindset, sex, like everything else, is supposed to slot into this gigantic hierarchy of being, and that masturbation elevates “your own physical pleasure” over the other purposes the recognize for sexual activity.

    It’d be no less wrong, but one could easily imagine (very easily, given the way asexuals get marginalized) an entirely secular argument against masturbation along the  same lines: that masturbation is sex without sharing, and therefore inherently selfish.

  • P J Evans

     Even further back: John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider makes that same point. It’s set in a society where a lot of people are treated as things.

  • P J Evans

     Even further back: John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider makes that same point. It’s set in a society where a lot of people are treated as things.

  • P J Evans

     Even further back: John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider makes that same point. It’s set in a society where a lot of people are treated as things.

  • P J Evans

    ‘Catholic’ is okay (it just mean something like ‘universal’) – but they should avoid ‘Roman’.

  • Parasum

    One can be gay and single, but it is still a no-no. There, got away w/out using the word.

    Another angle: the CC has a high view of chastity, so it’s understandable that anything that seems not to be, would be forbidden.

    IMO, the Church would have more success in commending chastity if the accent were not on sex all the time. Chastity is like other virtues – it affects all of one’s personality. STM the Church’s  is far too compartmentalised. There is no sense in the CC – ISTM – that to encourage people to grow in virtue, one should invite them to be virtuous, & should emphasise that virtue is to be *loved*. And that therefore, chastity is to be loved, because it is lovable, to be desired, longed-for, enjoyed.  “Laying down the law” & saying “Because I say so”, is a miserable makeshift for what people could be given. It really is vomit-inducing that ther is this huge gap between how the CC approaches chastity, & how it [i]could[/i] approach it.  Teaching chastity by saying only that “X is bad” does not give a positive vision of chastity – just a list of “dont”s.

  • My (atheist) first boyfriend thought masturbation was cheating.

    I am so so so glad I didn’t end up with him permanently. That was not the only way in which he was messed up. 

  • Is chastity anything but a list of “don’t”s? Besides chastity kink, which somehow I don’t think the Vatican would approve of, particularly because it is usually something that dominant women do to submissive men. 

    Good sex, including masturbation, does some very positive things for one’s personality and health, both physical and emotional. I don’t see how avoiding all sex always could do anything good for anyone who has any kind of sex drive whatsoever.

  • I have seen so many people insult Stephenie Meyer by saying she wrote down her sexual fantasies and sold them. Which… yeah? This is wrong because why now? There seems to be an immediate “ick” reaction in certain people to women daring to have sexual fantasies at all. We’re supposed to be the objects of fantasies, not the ones doing the fantasizing. 

  • Keromaru5

    And also, “catholic” is still used by the Orthodox, Anglicans, and, well, just about anybody who uses the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds.

    I’d also argue that “Roman” is legitimate, as it recalls the original jurisdictional structure of the Church, with the patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.  It’s the same way you also have a “Greek” and “Russian” Orthodox Church.  It’s all about which bishop is overseeing your territory.

    In fact, one of the major beefs the Orthodox have with the Papacy is its insistence of authority over all other churches.  That’s just not how they do things.

    Now, if American Catholics could somehow set up an American Catholic Church with its own patriarch and episcopal structure, you might have a case.  There’s a canon from the Council of Nicea forbidding one bishop from overseeing another bishop’s territory.  A Greek bishop has no jurisdiction over a Russian, nor a Russian over an Antiochan; and if in some strange future, Rome and the Orthodox world reunited, the Orthodox bishops would have no say over what the Pope does (they recognize him as “first among equals,” not as leader of all Christians everywhere).  If there were a Patriarch of America (or even the Americas), the Pope would theoretically have no authority over him.

    Problem is, there’s virtually no precedent for it in the RCC.  There is in Orthodoxy, not as a form of protest, just as a kind of maturation for a local church.  If the Orthodox Church of America, for example, were recognized as autocephalous by the other jurisdictions, it would be the American Orthodox Church, and presumably all the Greek, Russian, and Antiochan dioceses would be turned over to it, and all Orthodox in North America would have their own independent set of bishops.  But in the RCC?  There have been attempts to set up competing Bishops of Rome, but I’m not aware of anyone who’s tried setting up their own patriarch alongside the Pope.
    This is basically how the Anglican Communion is run, too, and a source of controversy.  When Katherine Jefferts-Schori was made Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, several conservatives sought ordination from the head of the Nigerian Church, as an extension of that church.  But since there’s already an American Anglican Church, we’ve wound up with overlapping jurisdictions, in violation of the Nicene canon.  To my knowledge, that American Nigerian Anglican Church is not recognized as a part of the Anglican Communion.

    So, um, yeah.  Hope you enjoyed that lecture on high-church episcopal polity.

  • Keromaru5

    The Church Fathers tended to put it more in terms of self-control.  Early Christianity was all about learning to control your passions so you could better pursue union with God.  They saw non-marital sexual activities as acts of selfishness, which keep the person turned away from God.

    Not saying I entirely agree with this, just that I can kind of follow the thought process.

  • I get the feeling that a lot of the anti-sex culture warriors tend to be General Ripper types, waging a war motivated by their own largely unconscious sexual frustrations.  I would think that being better in touch with their own sexual identities would get them to loosen up a little and not be so down on people who make other choices.  

    The constant self-denial that one has a sexual identity (outside of very strict ideals) cannot be good for one’s psychological well-being.  

  • I’ve heard a lot of comments re: romance novels that either are this or sound like this underneath. Blah blah “unrealistic expectations” blah blah “dissatisfaction with real men”

    ……far as I can tell, it amounts to straight guys freaking out because oh my God women might develop standards or something.

    I would hesitate to make an assumption, but if I were, I would be assuming that there is something of a double-standard at work when it comes to erotica directed at heterosexual men.  

    Incidentally, as a heterosexual male, I want women to have standards, I want to be judged. I would rather have a certain standard of decency are care that I be expected to live up to, as opposed to the alternative.

  • I have seen so many people insult Stephenie Meyer by saying she wrote down her sexual fantasies and sold them. Which… yeah? This is wrong because why now? There seems to be an immediate “ick” reaction in certain people to women daring to have sexual fantasies at all. We’re supposed to be the objects of fantasies, not the ones doing the fantasizing.  

    This is hardly unique to Meyer.  Anne Rice did exactly the same thing, as did Laurell K. Hamilton.  A person can make a lot of good money doing that.  I think that the difference with Meyer is that she seems very self-unaware that is what she is doing.  I guess for my part, I like it when people own their own stuff, and the denial of that tends earn some ire.  

  •   who consider masturbation to be a kind of unfaithfulness.

    Then I suggest you learn to do your own laundry and clean your browser. ;-)

    It’d be no less wrong, but one could easily imagine (very easily, given
    the way asexuals get marginalized) an entirely secular argument against
    masturbation along the  same lines: that masturbation is sex without
    sharing, and therefore inherently selfish.

    The wonderful Captain Awkward does a splendid take-down analysis of that attitude here:

    “Vaginas, penises, hands, tongues, mouths, brains (big sexy filthy
    brains!)….don’t wear out with use. There is no finite amount of pleasure
    to be had in this world; you can have all of it. I don’t know why
    that’s so terrifying to some people.
    Masturbation, for you, is self-care. You’re taking care of your own
    sexuality. You’re relieving stress. You’re making yourself feel great.
    You’re reveling in your own fantasies. It’s not something that takes
    anything away from your partner or how you feel about your partner,
    because your body belongs to you and your brain belongs to you. You get
    to be the protagonist of your own sex life.”

  • Is it possible that the Catholic Church is actually some kind of stealth  marketing organization? They’ve built up a certain reputation for themselves which they exploit for the benefit of authors by ‘banning’ their books, thus guaranteeing a spike in sales.

  • Isabel C.

    And, okay, publishing your fantasies (sex or power or whatever) without filing the numbers off well enough does have its problems. I don’t really need bits of comics that could be subtitled Alan Moore Does Hot Chicks, any more than I need bits of TV that could be subtitled Joss Wheedon Is an Angry Existentialist With Daddy Issues or Ten Years Later, Aaron Sorkin is Still Not Over Whatsherface, or books that could be subtitled Hey, Has Terry Goodkind Mentioned That He’s Objectivist?

    But…those guys don’t get half the mainstream flack that Meyer does, and while I don’t have any particular love for Meyer or her work, I can’t help but think that gender’s related there. It’s reasonable to point out that the author’s fantasies don’t appeal to everyone, that a certain section comes off as self-indulgent, or that, you know, I don’t pay $7.99 to be part of your therapy session, buddy or that OH MY GOD SHUT UP TERRY GOODKIND. Just…be clear about what you’re objecting to. 

  • AnonymousSam

    Did you know socialism is inherently evil? I bet you had no idea! Surely you wouldn’t have gotten that notion from Faith of the Fallen. It’s a very subtle detail. Like Aslan being Jesus.

  • Tonio

     Or book cycles subtitled Robert Heinlein Wants to Be Hugh Hefner.

  • Yeah, there is a reason why I never read The Sword of Truth series beyond “Wizard’s First Rule”.  

    Incidentally, even that was not free of author fetish-insertion.  Yes Mister Goodkind, you want to be tied up and abused by women in leather outfits, I get it.  Can we move on now?  

  • Tonio

    “Union with God” has no meaning outside of a Christian context, so the thought process hits a wall if one doesn’t subscribe to the assumptions the Church Fathers used. But more importantly, the concept seems disconnected from any goal of making the world a better place to live for everyone.

  • malpollyon

    For me Piers Anthony heads the list for creepy author fantasy syndrome. I really do not need pages explaining why it’s totally okay for older men to like young girls, but I especially do not need it from an older male author of books aimed at tweens called things like “The Color of Her Panties”. I also do not need a long “Author’s Note” at the end of the Book telling me how Piers Anthony is the greatest author since Isaac Asimov because he always answers his fanmail and never gets writers block (seriously, WTF?).

  • Tricksterson

    I’m not sure it’s that so much as a lot of people find her particular sexual fantasies to be on the creepy side.

  • How do you define “mainstream flak”? If Terry Goodkind doesn’t get bashed as often as Stephanie Meyer does, it’s only because his books aren’t as well-known as hers are. It seems to me that Goodkind gets derided at least as much as Meyer has, and the criticisms are (justifiably, in my opinion) a good deal more vicious, especially from the former fans of his work who managed to enjoy “Wizard’s First Rule” (a pure if generic fantasy novel) only to be smacked in the face by the overt Objectivism (as well as the increasingly violent misogyny) in the later books.

  • Tricksterson

    Not quite sure what the difference would be between a “competing Bishop of Rome” and “their own patriarch alongside the Pope” but here are a couple of references that might fit the bill

  • Honestly, I really don’t want to read the sexual fantasies of strangers, especially when I don’t share them. That’s not saying that she’s wrong to publish them (clearly it worked out for her, especially after the book deal and the successful movie franchise), but you can’t just leap to conclusion that anyone who criticizes her on that basis is doing it because she’s a woman.

    Male authors who do that can be just as annoying. In fact, Meyer is the least annoying of that set because her books started out as being wish fulfillment, which meant that if you didn’t like that sort of thing you could put the book down before you became invested in the series. A lot of other writers (Terry Goodkind, Laurel K. Hamilton) start out in one genre and gradually shift into porn/political ranting/some combination of the two after their runaway success loosens editorial controls. This wouldn’t be bad if it was still well-written, but the plunge in writing quality can be a little jarring.

    I certainly don’t think that this concept is wrong in the sense of being bad business sense or even immoral; I just don’t think it’s very interesting and I don’t really like being called a misogynist for criticizing what I think is badly-written porn.

  • Keromaru5

    Neither does Hell, and non-Christians still take that seriously.  I certainly find theosis a better incentive than avoiding Hell.

    I’d also argue that seeking union with God has everything to do with making the world a better place, since a key component of it is conquering Sin to more easily embody the Kingdom of God within oneself and more easily see the Image of God in others, as well as own up to mistakes* when they happen.  Of course, to really do justice to this concept, I’d basically have to give you a crash course in Patristic and modern Orthodox theology, and I don’t have time for that.

    * which is probably closer to the original Greek meaning of sin than the modern-day connotation.

  • Keromaru5

    The difference is that the antipopes were usually making competing claims to the same Papacy.  A new patriarchate would be independent from Rome and able to govern itself, but still in communion and with the same canonical system.  The Pope wouldn’t be able to boss them around; though he could keep appointing competing bishops to undermine them.  Again, it would be just like how Russia and Romania can have separate patriarchs from Constantinople, and from each other, but not be separate.

  • Tonio

    The difference with Hell is that there’s nothing vague about the popular notion of concept itself – you disobey in life, you suffer for eternity after death. (That’s separate from what the theologies actually say about Hell.)

    My point about “union with God” and “non-marital sexual
    activities as acts of selfishness, which keep the person turned away
    from God” is that these don’t seem to necessarily translate into consequentialist principles for how one should treat others. That’s what I mean by “making a world a better place.” The core question is how can people outside the religion know that there is such a thing as “union with God” without automatically accepting the assumptions inherent in the theology.

  • hapax

    “Union with God” has no meaning outside of a Christian context

    There are an awful lot of Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, neo-Platonic Pagans, etc. etc. who would be very surprised to hear that.

    the concept seems disconnected from any goal of making the world a better place to live for everyone

    That depends on one’s approach.  Personally, if I aim for “union with God”, I’d better make the world around me a fit place for God to inhabit.  Indeed, that’s the first step towards mystical union.

  • Tonio

     I was specifically addressing one religion’s union concept, and those other religions own concepts may differ, but you have a valid point. I would think that the term “God” excludes religions like Hinduism and the Pagan ones, since that word is a name used by monotheistic religions.

    The reason I’m questioning the doctrine is because it appears to insist that all people in the world (not just Christians) are required to abstain from non-martial sexual activities. That’s different from, say, the Amish prohibition on utility service.

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    Frankly, the fact that the current papacy continues to cover-up and turn a blind eye to the abuse of children and has begun deliberately persecuting and oppressing women makes me think that not Christ, but his old enemy Satan is running the show in the Vatican. “By their fruits ye shall know them”, and the fruit of this papacy is so rotten that no good person should have aught to do with it. I regard the edicts of this current papacy as the cawing of crows and the yapping of jackals–and certainly no guide to morality or faith.

  • “Union with God” has no meaning outside of a Christian context, so the thought process hits a wall if one doesn’t subscribe to the assumptions the Church Fathers used. But more importantly, the concept seems disconnected from any goal of making the world a better place to live for everyone. 

    “Union with God” has a bit more specific of a meaning to the Unitologists.  

    Make us whole…

  • The_L1985

     It originated in the 19th century.