The Vatican is ramping up its efforts to rein in a host of unruly nuns. A few days ago, it criticized a group of U.S. nuns for teaching “radical feminist ideology,” focusing too much on poverty, and turning a blind eye to issues like abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia. It has now condemned an American nun for advocating same-sex unions and masturbation in a book on sexual ethics. It is only the latest in a series of signs portending a dramatic shift in Catholic values, one which may very well shake the church to its foundations.
Sister Margaret Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics was published back in 2006 and earned her the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2008. In the book, Farley defends gay unions and same-sex marriage, arguing that “same-sex oriented persons as well as their activities can and should be respected,” and that legalizing gay marriage can help reverse homophobic stigmatization. She also promotes female masturbation, pointing out that many women “have found great good in self-pleasuring–perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure–something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers.” She posits that masturbation actually serves loving and healthy relationships, not hinder them.
The Vatican had already censured the Leadership Conference of Women Religious a few days earlier when the church’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued its notification condemning Farley’s book. According to the letter, she ignored “Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity” when she expressed her support for same-sex relationships, while her view on masturbation contradicts the official Vatican position that the practice is a “grave disordered action.” The letter summarized Farley’s work as “a defective understanding of the objective nature of the natural moral law” which “is not consistent with authentic Catholic theology“–a theology defined solely by males.
But the Catholic Church’s position on these issues isn’t really backed up by science. An extensive body of research shows that masturbation has a variety of health benefits: it has been shown to alleviate depression and increases self-esteem, lowers blood pressure, increases sexual harmony in relationships, reduces the risk of prostate cancer, correlates with decreased coronary heart disease, and, in some researchers’ views, improves cardiovascular health. The church’s views on homosexuality are similarly dubious–many of the more common arguments launched against homosexuality from the Catholic church have been criticized here and here on the ULC Monastery blog.
If the church cares so deeply about people’s health and wellbeing, and if it cares about strong, healthy relationships, shouldn’t it be encouraging the things that Farley does? It is a mystery why the church’s official position should diverge so radically from hers. She admits that the views described in her book veer from church teaching, but she adds, “I tried to show that they nonetheless reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights of these theological and moral traditions,” and that “the fact that Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality seems to require that we at least examine the possibility of development in sexual ethics.” Perhaps it is time for the bishops to listen to women, and perhaps it is time for the church to accept the validity of different modes of sexuality.