The text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s "Notification" regarding the book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Sister Margaret Farley, appears in the 6 June issue of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper (English edition, pp. 5-6).
A quick survey of this work immediately signals that it simply does not reflect authentic Catholic theology, nor does it amount to a scholarly effort to do acceptable theology in a serious manner. After leafing through it when it first came out in 2007, I could only dismiss it not only for its evident errors but also for its being a brief distraction from a host of enormously rich and promising monographs about things theological, especially in the arena of bioethics, which requires continuous, concentrated reading these days.
The CDF’s critique of the book is clear, concise and highly instructive. (Note the phrase, "of the book." The critique here is not directed to a person; e.g., an author; but rather to what represents the author’s position as set forth in the book. This must be emphasized because the secular media and academia seem unable to distinguish between the two. It is the author’s position, specifically her theology, that Catholic theology rejects, and the Vatican has every right to reject this position. By this standard, I also have the right to dismiss the author’s theories – and in the light of my faith as well as my office, likewise to discard them.)
Again, when I first glanced at the book, I deemed it a total waste of time. But the Vatican’s formal critique, published in a document, provides an opportunity to stress its errors; errors which, contrary to some press accounts, were pointed out to the author, who failed to make necessary corrections or adjustments.
Among the errors noted by the CDF are unacceptable theories regarding homosexual behavior, masturbation, so-called "gay marriage," the indissolubility of marriage, and the problem of divorce and remarriage.
In assessing the above contexts, the author is either not sufficiently immersed in the ancient, settled, perennial teachings of the Church’s Magisterium, or is willing to view Church doctrine as merely one opinion among others. She also fails to evidence an understanding of the "objective nature of the natural moral law, choosing instead to argue on the basis of conclusions selected from certain philosophical currents or from her own understanding of ‘contemporary experience.’" (CDF "Notification")
Authentic Catholic theology must always begin and proceed from Sacred Scripture as read within the Church, as well as reason illumined by Scripture. The great French Dominican theologian Yves Congar (who has been called "the Father of Vatican Council II," since two of his most profound interests, ecumenism and the sacred role of laity, were intensely discussed at the Council), once insisted that theology must rest primarily on the donnée (the "given"); specifically, the Bible and Tradition. (I had the privilege of hearing Cardinal Congar at Fairfield’s Sacred Heart University once when he spoke on closed circuit television in Connecticut.)
This means that anyone who purports to "do theology," must commence with God’s word, and not on a personal experience, or on any one philosopher’s ideas, or (in "liberation theology") on praxis as distinguished from doxis, or sociological polls; or, at the bottom of the barrel, the whims of academics and/or media personnel such as columnists.
Thus, anyone aspiring to be a truly Catholic theologian must not only know and believe Sacred Scripture as read within the Church, but the solid conclusions of reason enlightened by Scripture. This, in turn, demands a thorough grasp of the early Church Fathers – Augustine, Gregory, Jerome, Basil, etc.
Where does one go in order to find a solid, readable analysis of human sexuality within the ambiance of Catholic Biblical Tradition? Certainly not to a volume like Just Love, which is seriously deficient both in theological vision and scholarly character, not to mention its overall doctrinal weaknesses and, unquestionably, errors. Personally, I can’t even guess as to why anyone in quest of truth would want to read it, let alone credit many of its practical norms.
However, there are superb manuals available on the subject of human sexuality; every adult Catholic should be acquainted with at least three of them: Catholic Sexual Ethics, by Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle and William E. May (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1998); Marriage, the Rock on Which the Family is Built, by William E. May (Ignatius Press, 1995); and the epoch-making Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla, (1981, reprinted by Ignatius Press, 1993). For official Church documents, one should read Familiaris Consortio, by Pope John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (1994), and John Paul II’s Letter to Families (1994).
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of
The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.