Don’t Know Much about Theology . . .
Why two Catholic stories are grossly misinterpreted.

Sister Margaret Farley


George Weigel

Deep currents in various forms of the mainline Protestantism that shaped American religious culture from the colonial period through the Second World War help explain this 21st-century incapacity to grasp the idea of doctrine, or authoritative religious truth. Intellectual laziness also plays a role. So does the master narrative of Catholic life that got set in journalistic concrete at Vatican II (1962–65) and has proven immovable ever since: the idea that everything in the Catholic Church can be sliced, diced, and understood in terms of a continuing power-struggle between good “progressives” and evil “traditionalists.” That master narrative is, of course, utterly incapable of grasping the complexities and cross-currents of contemporary Catholic intellectual, spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral life. But inadequate as it is, the master narrative survives — and survives in part because it is regularly reinforced by numerous card-carrying members of the contemporary Catholic theological guild, the pathologies of which have been on full display in the LCWR and Farley controversies.

At its recent annual meeting in St. Louis, the Catholic Theological Society of America decided to stand with the Obama administration rather than the bishops of the United States, tabling “indefinitely” a resolution that expressed “deep concern” over the HHS “contraceptive mandate.” (See Joshua McElwee’s National Catholic Reporter story on the CTSA convention.)  The resolution, proposed by eleven brave souls willing to challenge their colleagues’ conventional gauchisme, acknowledged that “differences of opinion exist” within American society over “the morality of contraception and sterilization” but would have placed the CTSA on record as affirming “religious liberty as well as the fundamental right of both individuals and institutions to not be forced to act contrary to their informed consciences.” That, however, was a bridge too far for the likes of Father David Hollenbach, S.J., of Boston College, who argued that “the mandate to provide health care, including contraception . . . is an appropriate limit on the religious freedom of some people.” (Memo to Father Hollenbach: Please read the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and consider whether it does not affirm a more robust concept of religious freedom that you seem willing to countenance.)

The CTSA’s fecklessness on the HHS mandate embodied some of the confusions within U.S. Catholic theology at the intersection of gauchiste theology and gauchiste politics; the society’s expression of deep concern over the Vatican critique of Sister Margaret Farley (a former CTSA president) was entirely predictable. But the depths of confusion in the understanding that many CTSA members have of their own discipline were even more clearly evident in the statements by individual Catholic theologians on L’affaire Farley.

There is not a whole lot in dispute about Just Love’s contents. Not to put a fine point on it, but Just Love makes claims about sexual morality — on just about every imaginable question, from the morality of homosexual acts, to contraception, to masturbation, and on to the nature of marriage, etc. — that are the polar opposite of what is settled Catholic teaching. Or, to put the matter differently, Sister Margaret Farley evidently believes that what the Catholic Church teaches about the ethics of human love is false, and that what she teaches is true. Her book is in fact a series of permission slips for the sort of upper-middle-class self-indulgences and naughtiness that have wrought havoc throughout American society; in that sense, there is nothing substantively original about Just Love. Still, the author is admirably candid about her views. There is no to-ing and fro-ing here: Sister Margaret Farley does not teach what the Catholic Church teaches about the matters she discusses and does not pretend to do so. What she does claim is that she is a Catholic theologian.