Every time I hear something about the Catholic Church and how it’s losing relevance in this day and age, I laugh a little on the inside. While it might make for good press to insist that a hierarchy which has endured for the better part of two thousand years is now of all times fading into obscurity, it does little to repress the media’s apparent fascination with the latest in Church developments.
Case in point, this summer, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a statement affirming Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality (will wonders never cease?). Six years ago, a slightly less-than orthodox nun by the name of Margaret Farley of the Sisters of Mercy published a book called Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2006). Normally, one could expect such a framework outlined by a member of the women religious not to depart in any large way from magisterial teaching on the subject, but these days, even that seems too much to ask for. Not content to side with two millennia worth of consistent Catholic doctrine on the subject, Sister Farley apparently felt the need to come up with her own particular justification for things like sacramental divorce, homosexual unions, and “self pleasuring.”1
After multiple examinations and attempts to get Sister Farley to clarify the position expressed in her book, the Congregation issued a notification to the faithful presenting the doctrinal difficulties contained therein. Her general approach not being “consistent with Catholic Theology,”2 it naturally left the door wide open for some considerable muddying of the waters of discourse when it comes to anything having to do with authentic Catholic teaching on sexuality. The Congregation decided that while the book might have been well-intentioned, “it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and inter religious dialogue.”3
As usual, the statement was scarcely uttered before the secular press began to get all hot and bothered about it. Every media outlet from The Washington Post to The Daily Beast decided to chime in on the subject, spilling a considerable amount of ink (both actual and metaphorical) in Sister Farley’s defense. Though the opinions were many and varied, I found they could more or less be distilled into a fairly consistent message:
How dare the Catholic Church decide what it teaches.
A pox on all you condemning the idea of threats to religious liberty as “oh, so sixteenth century.” Back in the bad old days of Catherine de Medici and Betsy Tudor, it was counted as a type of patriotism to protest someone teaching their faith. Nowadays, it’s just another way of being open-minded. But I digress.
Though I can understand why certain champions of the contemporary punditry would hang on each and every word uttered by a body like the CDF, their feigned astonishment at its ruling seems a little less than entirely believable. What could one expect from an organ of the Magisterium of the Church other than orthodox Catholic teaching?
But the wave of support in favor of Sister Farley has led me to believe they really do expect something different. Coming largely from academics and non-Catholics, the outcry has pretty much conformed to the secular line—”Just when will that gaggle of pointy-hatted old fogies step out of the Dark Ages and bring the Church into the twenty-first century?“ I brace myself for the day when someone levies some truly innovative criticism.
Of course, most of the ridicule is the kind of stuff that could only be said by one of the willful captives of the ivory tower. The inconvenient truth of the matter is that the heyday of the theology of Sister Farley, et alia has already come and gone.
In the name of tolerance, religious dialogue, or some other bastard child of Vatican II, ideas like Sister Farley’s “contemporary interpretations”4 of sexual ethics have already had top billing in a large number of Catholic universities, parishes, and religious orders for the last four decades. Passed off in many cases as simply part of the inevitable “wave of the future,” they were typically entertained in the absence of more orthodox teachings on the subject, a move that’s long since left its mark on the Church. That is, if “mark” is really the right word for it.
The issue with poor theology is that it comes on either like a plague or a famine—either infecting the soul with harmful doctrines or simply starving it of good ones. As far as I can tell, we’re dealing with the latter case here. The real summation of the work of anyone who seeks to develop Catholic doctrine by essentially reconfiguring it to a more secular mindset isn’t so much that they’ve done any great good or harm to the Church, but that they’ve caused people to look elsewhere for any kind of real spiritual nourishment. Ideas have consequences, and when you start to tinker with ideas of faith, God, and the human person by injecting them solely with your own notions of how they should be, you run the risk of suffering from one of the most dire consequences of all. People will just stop listening to you.
And indeed, that’s exactly what’s been happening. The Congregation’s notification on Sister Farley’s book reads much less like a condemnation of a real and present danger to the status quo of the Church and much more like a definition of what does and what doesn’t constitute real Catholic teaching. As much as her supporters might like them to be, the leaders in the Church aren’t rushing in to attack Sister Farley, they’re taking a step back from her, and for good reason.
Any detailed look at the state of the Church today will show you that the once-burning torch of nonconformity with established Catholic doctrine has been left smoldering on the ground. Despite the number of journalists and academics who’ve came to her defense on the issue, Sister Farley has failed to gain support where it matters most, with the young faithful. The people flooding into the seminaries, parishes, and religious orders today aren’t exactly what you’d call the heirs of the progressive theologians of the post-Vatican II era. For all their obsession with bringing the Church into congruence with the contemporary moral climate du jour, folks like Sister Farley and her supporters haven’t done much to pass on their ideology to the next generation. They might be taking a stand against the establishment, but their ranks are diminishing, not increasing. All the books, education, and tenure money can buy might assure you a place where your voice will be heard, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually listening.
It might be said that good trees produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit, but really bad trees produce no fruit. The vestiges of an era where it was preferred for the culture to baptize the Church instead of the other way around might still be with us, speaking the same line they’ve been uttering for the last forty years, but they’ve long passed their prime. What once might have been considered daring, progressive, or influential now sounds like little more than the echo of an outdated mindset, making a last bid for relevance in a Church that has all but entirely left it behind.
- Statement from Margaret Farley. http://www.sistersofmercy.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3765&Itemid=180#farley.
- Notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M. http://press.catholica.va/news_services/bulletin/news/29292.php?index=29292&lang=en#.
- Statement from Margaret Farley.