Recommended Reading
A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics
By Margaret A. Farley
 Continuum 2007

Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual EthicsIn a 1990 lecture Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, quoted philosopher Paul Feyerabend to justify the Church’s judgment on Galileo: “The Church at the time was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just...”

The Church was wrong about Galileo’s conclusions in spite of what the current Pope says. And the Church is wrong about the ethical basis for its teaching on human sexuality. Its evaluation of the nature of human sexuality is woefully deficient and plain wrongheaded—as much as it was in its estimation of Copernican theory and Galileo’s proofs. We are now in an epic  Copernican-like dispute about another fundamental reality of nature—sex.

Already in 1986 theologian William Shea outlined the “tangle of issues” that clog the vital moral agenda for Roman Catholic leadership that has failed to deal with sex credibly. All the questions have to do with sexuality: “They are: family life, divorce and remarriage, premarital and extra-marital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, the role of women in ministry, their ordination to the priesthood, the celibacy of the clergy, and the male monopoly of leadership.”

The Catholic Church, and much of Christianity, lacks the language to dialogue about these issues and their ethical structure. The Church’s answer to any ethical reasoning about sex is a distortion—their idea of natural law—used to render all sexual behavior save intercourse in a valid marriage open to procreation Intrinsically Evil—a favorite Vatican epitaph to hurl at any (person or) sexual behavior not within the scope of their idiosyncratic (if traditional) idea of natural.

Years ago Jesuit scholar Christopher Mooney instructed me on the correct understanding of natural law. It is not grounded on the sex act or the genitals. Natural law is as Pope John Paul II defined it (even if he eschews this meaning when he deals with human sexuality), "It always has been the conviction of the church that God gave man the ability to arrive, with the light of his reason, at an understanding of the fundamental truths about his life and his destiny and, concretely, at the norms of correct action." That is natural law. And it goes without saying that sex has to do with life, destiny and the norms of correct action.

Church pronouncements inevitably lack credibility when they fail to take account of physics and biology. Most sincere Catholics do not consider church teaching about sex reasonable. In fact, the church’s teachings, and its reasoning on matters sexual are simply not credible to “the sense of the faithful.” Nor are they workable.

Pope John Paul II actually forbad bishops to allow the issues listed above to be discussed.

What has been missing from Christians’ ability to discuss human sexual ethics reasonably and in depth has now been supplied by Margaret Farley. In my estimation she is the Galileo of human sexuality—she outlines a basis for dialogue about sex, as it is, distinct from the glib (and inaccurate) appeal to natural law as used by many theologians.

Farley takes into account, and respects, the history of ethical discourse—scriptural, traditional, cultural, and experiential. She does not shy away from current “hot” topics, but neither does she get bogged down in idle controversy.

In her own words she offers a framework for dialogue about sexual ethics “based on norms of justice.” Norms that “govern all human relationships and those which are particular to the intimacy of sexual relations.”

This book is a gigantic contribution to the discourse and understanding of human sexuality. It is monumental. It turns the entrenched dictates of the Vatican on their head. It is a perspective that unclogs the tangle of non-credible pronouncements from Rome, opens the subject of sex to rational discourse by Christian people, and acknowledges the direction from which the source of light comes—reason and science informed by just love open to all—not prohibitions anchored in archaic and irrational power plays.

Given the Vatican track record they could burn Farley at the stake in a Yale courtyard, wait 400 years to recognize her contribution to truth, or more hopefully, to listen, learn, and start dialoguing according to a new appreciation of the reality and complexity of sexual nature.

A.W. Richard Sipe