Acknowledging that many will be "deeply saddened" by Monday's announcement of the Vatican's criticism of Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, the head of the global Mercy order has asked her sisters for their "careful and compassionate accompanying" of those discouraged by the move.
"I am sure that some of you will be angered and frustrated by this news and I totally understand your feelings and thoughts," writes Sr. Patricia McDermott, the president of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, in a letter addressed to all Mercy sisters and lay associates.
"I have no doubt that many in our Church -- including theologians, ethicists, pastoral ministers and concerned laity -- will also be distressed with the public statement by [the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.]
"I ask for your careful and compassionate accompanying of Margaret during this time as well as for those who will be saddened and discouraged by this announcement."
McDermott's letter, which was marked confidential but obtained by NCR from several sources who asked to remain anonymous, was sent early Monday along with the first news that the Vatican congregation sharply criticized Farley's book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, saying that in some areas Farley's position "contradicts" or "is opposed to" or "does not conform to" church teaching.
In the 2006 book, Farley tries to develop how theories of justice might be applied to help create "norms" to guide our sexual actions.
After developing those norms, Farley applies them to the morality of several aspects of sexuality, including masturbation, homosexual relationships and unions, and divorce and remarriage -- areas in which the Vatican letter cited specific concerns regarding Farley's views.
In her letter, McDermott also outlines in detail the four-year process undertaken by the Vatican in criticizing Farley's book. McDermott says the investigation of the book first began in November 2008, when the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life contacted McDermott's predecessor as head of the Mercy sisters, Sr. Mary Waskowiak.
In that first contact from the congregation, McDermott wrote that the congregation told Waskowiak it wanted "to alert her to concerns that CICLSAL had regarding Margaret's 'reported position' related to sexual ethics that CICLSAL deemed to be contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium."
It was only in the months that followed, McDermott writes, that oversight for the investigation of Farley moved to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and focused specifically on Just Love.
After a series of letters among Waskowiak, McDermott, Farley and the CDF in 2009, McDermott writes that she and Waskowiak met with Cardinal William Levada, the head of the Vatican congregation, in early 2010. In the meeting, McDermott writes, she and Waskowiak "spoke strongly to Cardinal Levada about Margaret's integrity, her careful scholarship, her love of the Church and the pain that this investigation was causing her."
More of the timeline of events, from the letter:
By the end of 2010, a formal and canonical review had been initiated by CDF of Margaret's book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Again, throughout these months, Margaret and we consulted widely with canonists and theologians seeking to find a way to bring this review to closure. In April 2011, Cardinal Levada informed us that a Commission was being established "to identify formally the errors in the book Just Love."
In July 2011, Margaret was given two months to provide a written correction or explanation of a few positions in her text; Margaret did provide a response. Margaret's text was to be accompanied by an "opinion" by her canonical superior. I did provide that opinion and asked Mary, who had then finished her term as Institute President, to write a letter to accompany the materials.
Throughout this process, McDermott writes, Farley "acted always with respect for our Church and its positions ... and sought ways to engage CDF in a careful review of her understandings."
McDermott also writes that she herself is "deeply saddened that Margaret has had to carry this burden for over three years."
Ending her letter with a reference the current liturgical season of Pentecost -- when she says "the Spirit of God comes once again to renew us as a people of God and as Sisters of Mercy" -- McDermott quotes a talk Farley gave at a Mercy community gathering in 2010: "The Spirit, we believe is within the church, and God will not fail to assist God's servants. But what kind of cleansing, forgiveness, new life there is to come, is not yet clear."
Signing "with love," McDermott concludes: "Come, Holy Spirit, come and renew the face of the Earth."
[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is email@example.com.]