The board of the second-largest membership organization of U.S. theologians issued a statement Sunday regarding the Vatican's sharp criticism of a prominent member in its ranks, expressing its "deep gratitude" for her work and "urgently" calling for bishops and theologians to better communicate.
Writing that Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley has made "many contributions to the field of Christian moral theology" and "has reached out to diverse audiences," the board of the 900-member College Theology Society writes that they "urgently encourage Catholic bishops and theologians to improve the ways in which they communicate with each other."
The statement from the society is the second such sign of support from theologians for Farley, whose 2006 book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticized June 4.
In its formal notification on the matter, the Vatican congregation said the book, which aims to apply theories of justice to sexual ethics, "cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue."
Farely's positions on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage "contradicts," "is opposed to" or "does not conform to" church teaching, the Vatican notification said.
Sandra Yocum, president of the College Theology Society, said Monday that with their statement, the society's board wanted to "pay special attention" to theologians' role as teachers. One of the board's primary concerns, Yocum said, was "thinking about the ways in which teaching theology in a university or college setting is distinct from, not necessarily contrary to, the kind of teaching that occurs in an explicitly catechetical setting."
In the statement, signed by the society's 12 board members, the society says while some of the positions taken by Farley in her book are "different from those currently taught by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church," theologians "communicate their findings not only to members within the Church but also to many others seeking to live justly in the pluralistic societies in which they live."
"In committing themselves to the theological task of faith seeking understanding, theologians frequently pose difficult questions in light of the lived experiences of the people of God," the statement continues.
The statement also notes that "among the most challenging aspects of exploring such questions" are "the deep divisions which plague not only our society but also our Church."
"To heal the divisions in our polarized Church, we urgently encourage Catholic bishops and theologians to improve the ways in which they communicate with each other, and to collaborate in developing better structures and more transparent procedures to discuss theological differences in a more just and respectful manner," the statement concludes.
"We, the Board Members of the CTS, have identified this important task as a priority in the coming year and look forward to discerning constructive ways forward."
Yocum, who is also the chair of the religious studies department at the Marianist-run University of Dayton, said in calling for a better dialogue between bishops and theologians, the board members "wanted to recognize that there are people within our own society who might be more sympathetic with the bishops' position on the particular positions taken by Dr. Farley."
"We also wanted to be sensitive to that, and to think about ways in which we might be able to foster a more constructive dialog about the different roles that we play in terms of exploring theological positions, both within the Catholic tradition and within our conversations with other Christian theologians," she said.
On June 7, the board of the other membership society for theologians, the 1,500-member Catholic Theological Society of America, released a statement supporting Farley, saying the board was "especially concerned" that the Vatican's criticism of the theologian presents a limiting understanding of the role of Catholic theology.
The statement was later endorsed by the society's entire membership at its annual meeting June 8 in St. Louis.
The statement said the Vatican's move regarding Farley's book "risks giving the impression that there can be no constructive role in the life of the Church for works of theology" that attempt to:
- "give voice to the experience and concerns of ordinary believers";
- "raise questions about the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions"; or
- "offer alternative theological frameworks as potentially helpful contributions to the authentic development of doctrine."
"Such an understanding of the nature of theology inappropriately conflates the distinctive tasks of catechesis and theology," that statement continues.
Yocum said at the moment, the newly elected board of the College Theology Society "doesn't have any new ideas" about how to further the discussion between bishops and theologians. The group's new leadership was elected at the society's annual meeting May 31 to June 3 in San Antonio, just before the Vatican's June 4 notification regarding Farley's book.
The College Theology Society board plans to hold a meeting in November, when it hopes to further discuss dialogue, Yocum said. One of the key questions for the board, she said, is how theologians and bishops can begin to focus on the areas in which they agree.
"In many ways, I think we share a lot of common commitments," she said. "So one of the questions is, How do we work on those common commitments?"
Yocum, who succeeded Fordham University theologian Bradford Hinze as the group's president at the group's San Antonio convention, also said some of the challenges facing the society revolve around younger theologians who are "trying to sort out the directions that they want to go in."
While many of those theologians may have been inspired by Pope John Paul II and are "trying to figure out where they fit in relationship to an older generation," she said others may have been inspired by "other kinds of theological movements," like liberation theology.
The question, Yocum said, is: "How do we understand ourselves as working in some kind of a common project, and finding our way?"
[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is email@example.com.]
Here is the full statement of the College Theology Society, which is also available here.
Public Statement on Dr. Margaret Farley's Contribution to the Field of Christian Moral Theology and the Role of the Theologian Today
The Board of Directors of the College Theology Society expresses its deep gratitude to Dr. Margaret Farley for her many contributions to the field of Christian moral theology. In a distinguished career at the Yale Divinity School spanning over four decades, Dr. Farley has written many books, articles, and lectures articulating her commitment to ethical behavior in a world scarred by injustices against the poor, against those suffering from illness, and against women. As a recipient of the Catholic Theological Society of America's John Courtney Murray Award, a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Institute Award, and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, Dr. Farley has received commendations for her work from theologians, from diplomats, and from her fellow Religious Sisters of Mercy. As a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society of America, she has reached out to diverse audiences including theologians from various religious traditions, medical professionals, and Christians across the world in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America.
As Dr. Farley herself has clearly noted, certain theological positions in her 2006 book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, are different from those currently taught by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. Whether or not individual Roman Catholics agree with Dr. Farley's conclusions in Just Love, most Catholics recognize that Catholic theologians communicate their findings not only to members within the Church but also to many others seeking to live justly in the pluralistic societies in which they live. In committing themselves to the theological task of faith seeking understanding, theologians frequently pose difficult questions in light of the lived experiences of the people of God. Among the most challenging aspects of exploring such questions in our current cultural context are the deep divisions which plague not only our society but also our Church. To heal the divisions in our polarized Church, we urgently encourage Catholic bishops and theologians to improve the ways in which they communicate with each other, and to collaborate in developing better structures and more transparent procedures to discuss theological differences in a more just and respectful manner. We, the Board Members of the CTS, have identified this important task as a priority in the coming year and look forward to discerning constructive ways forward.
Sandra Yocum, Ph.D.
University of Dayton
Maureen H. O'Connell, Ph.D.
New York, NY
Bradford Hinze, Ph.D.
New York, NY
William Collinge, Ph.D.
Mount Saint Mary'sUniversity
Chairperson & Editor of Research & Publications
Brian Flanagan, Ph.D.
Nicholas Rademacher, Ph.D.
Mark J. Allman, Ph.D.
North Andover, MA
Colleen Carpenter, Ph.D.
St. Catherine University
St. Paul, MN
Christopher Denny, Ph.D.
Saint John's University
Patrick J. Lynch, Ph.D.
Margaret Pfeil, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, IN
Tobias Winright, Ph.D.
Saint Louis University
Saint Louis, MO