Woman theologian stands up to Vatican
A lively exchange of comments online ensued among readers after last week’s column, “Face-off between women religious and Vatican.” The column was about the Vatican patriarchy, particularly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accusing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States of “corporate dissent” and pursuing “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Other “damning” accusations were promoting “a distorted ecclessiological vision, and (having) scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s Faith.”
I purposely did not comment much and left the readers to form their own opinions.
Call it ESP but after writing that column and just before clicking “Send,” I received an e-mail from a respected Filipino woman Catholic theologian—Harvard-trained, if I may add—who shared with me stuff on a related issue. I know Sr. Amelia Vasquez, RSCJ well not only as an intellectual but also as a woman steeped in prayer. She has been involved in spiritual formation for years.
Attached to her e-mail were news reports on the Vatican’s denunciation of the book “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics” by moral theologian Sr. Margaret Farley of the Sisters of Mercy and the support she received from the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Sister Amelia also added a note to say that she had invited Farley to speak in several Filipino theological and spiritual formation institutions where she had taught some years ago. “Margaret Farley is a friend… she is a most respected and admired theologian, religious woman, spiritual companion—top caliber in every way. She initiated a big project in Africa to mobilize and educate the nuns to work in a pro-active way in the AIDS crisis. The Vatican keepers of the gate have inferior knowledge of the whole living tradition compared to her! And she lives it totally!”
Farley was instrumental in the founding of the All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister (AACSS). The project “offers a process to empower African women to more effectively address HIV and AIDS issues and to bring new information and hope to every village and hut in the sub-Sahara.” Check out the website (http://allafrica-sistertosister.org) and be inspired.
The AACSS focuses on women because women in the sub-Sahara make up 60 percent of the HIV positive adults. They are more stigmatized than men and bear a disproportionate share of the burden of the pandemic—both as vulnerable to infection and as primary caregivers to those who are infected.
For a book she wrote (one of many she had written) Farley is now in hot water. Well, women religious who blaze new trails, women who break barriers and create paths in new landscapes, they often must pay the price. Just now I think of the martyred Sr. Dorothy Stang who stood to defy the rapists of the Amazon. I think of our own Filipino women religious who keep pushing into new frontiers where men fear to tread.
According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report by Tim Townsend, on June 4, the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released a five-page “notification” about Farley’s book, saying her writing on sexual ethics did not conform to the teachings of the Magisterium, the church’s teaching authority through the pope and bishops. The report added that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the notification March 16.
Part of the notification read: “Sister Farley either ignores the constant teaching of the Magisterium or, where it is occasionally mentioned, treats it as one opinion among others.” The notification added that the book could not be used “either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”
The Catholic Theological Society of America protested the Vatican’s harshness and supported Farley, a past president of the group and a professor emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School. The theological society said Farley’s work “has prompted a generation of theologians to think more deeply about the Christian meaning of personal relationships and the divine life of love that truly animates them.”
At a gathering of theologians two weeks ago, Farley spoke and addressed for the first time the Vatican criticism of her book. In a National Catholic Reporter (NCR) story by Joshua J. McElwee, Farley was quoted as saying “We clearly have grown in many spheres of knowledge—about humans, about the way the universe runs. It seems reasonable… that if we come to know even a little bit more than we knew before, it might be that the conclusions that we had previously drawn need to be developed. Or even let go of. Because it would be a contradiction to Roman Catholic frameworks for doing moral theology to say that we can’t. That would be to imply that we know everything we can know and there’s nothing more to be done.”
Among the subject matters in the book that raised eyebrows in the Vatican are Farley’s treatment of the morality of masturbation, homosexual relationships and unions, and divorce and remarriage. Said Farley: “My reason for thinking its important for everyone to think about these issues is because people are suffering. All over the place, people are suffering.”
Townsend wrote: “Throughout her career at Yale, Farley developed a knack for finding herself in the middle of theological controversy… Her students asked her all the time why she stayed in a church that so often pushed back her work.
“Because the church ‘is still a source of real life for me,’ she would tell them. ‘It’s worth the struggle. It’s worth getting a real backbone that has compassion tied to it’.”
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