Margaret Farley GRD ’73, a Divinity School professor and member of the Sisters of Mercy whose writings on sexual ethics drew the ire of the Vatican this summer, spoke about her beliefs before a crowd of over 100 Thursday evening.
Farley’s book, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” sparked controversy after its publication because it presented a theological defense of homosexuality, masturbation and sex outside of marriage. During her lecture, entitled “Forgiveness in the Service of Justice,” Farley discussed the need to emphasize forgiveness in modern social justice movements. Though her talk did not directly address the criticism she received from the Vatican, audience members in the St. Thomas More Chapel asked Farley how she dealt with the Church’s condemnation of her values.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body responsible for clarifying issues related to Church doctrine, has called Farley’s interpretation a “defective understanding of natural law” that may cause “grave harm to the faithful,” alleging that she is ignoring centuries of teaching on topics related to sexuality.
“I respect the beliefs of the church though I don’t agree with them,” Farley told the News after her lecture. “I haven’t been trying to argue for or against Church doctrine. Rather, I have taught in an educational setting for 40 years, and that’s the role of a professional ethicist: to help people think things through.”
Farley defended her book during the question and answer portion of her talk, maintaining that her aim was never to spark antagonism with the Church. Still, Farley faulted the Vatican for failing to adopt substantive changes to its procedure for revising doctrine in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which was intended to reform the Church and consider its place in the modern world in the 1960s.
During the talk itself, Farley divided her consideration of forgiveness and its practical implications into three parts, focusing on Biblical text, the meaning of forgiveness and the relationship between the concepts of forgiveness, justice and resistance.
“Biblical text asks something of the Roman Catholic Church that it doesn’t understand,” Farley said. “The message of forgiveness, in essence, constitutes the Christian message in its entirety.”
Farley rejected the notion of passivity in response to injustice, bringing up the truth commissions that existed in Argentina, Chile and South Africa in the latter half of the 20th century as examples of how injustice could be reconciled through mediums that facilitated forgiveness — an approach she described as integral to moving away from large-scale conflict.
Audience members interviewed had mixed reactions to the talk.
Father Bob Beloin, Yale’s Catholic chaplain, defended his decision to host Farley’s lecture at St. Thomas More, adding that he invited Farley to the church three years ago, before the controversy surrounding her new book erupted.
“When [the controversy] began, we found no reason to rescind the invitation because she was never officially silenced by the Church,” he said. “I have a profound appreciation for the personal integrity and scholarship of Margaret Farley.”
Father Joe Donnelly, who travelled from Southbury, Conn. to hear Farley speak, said her poise was “measured, focused and full of faith.”
But Kelly Schumann ’15, who attended the lecture, agreed with some of the criticisms that have been made of Farley’s teaching, adding that she felt Farley’s talk relied too heavily on non-Biblical sources, including the Quran and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
St. Thomas More parishioner Isabel Marin ’12 said she feels Farley’s talk was unnecessarily argumentative.
“I definitely felt there was an implied spirit of attack on the church,” Marin said. “I found this odd, given she never claimed to believe anything the church disagreed with. She seems to be going out of her way to attack it.”
Farley’s book was published in 2008.