Religion and women’s rights. They have a history of awkwardly bumping into each other, what with anti-choice activists on the one hand and misogynists flailing their arms over the unholy suggestion of female priests in the other. It’s enough to make a gal sceptical when someone mentions the word, “reform.”
But, lo! Sister Margaret A. Farley to the rescue. The catholic nun boasts an impressive resume: A Ph.D from Yale University, numerous articles that have received academic praise, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and all round proponent of women’s voices in the church. This is the woman who signed A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion, which called for greater discussion on abortion within the church. This is the woman who declared that the ordination of women within the catholic church was “a moral imperative.” This is the woman who wrote Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics in 2006.
And that is where the holy shit hits the fan.
Just Love has received polarized reviews. It has elicited critical praise and been called a “spur” to further discussion on sexual ethics within the church. It’s also been called inappropriate and unorthodox. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned Farley’s book as “a cause of confusion among the faithful.”
Just what kinds of words are in this book that could elicit such a vocal response? Well, honestly nothing too shocking. The book gives a nod to masturbation, saying that pleasuring yourself, “usually does not raise any moral questions at all.” Gay marriage within the realms of Catholicism is not sinful, or an aberration as some might claim. In fact, Farley says that laws recognizing gay marriage may help to reverse the, “hatred…and stigmatization of gays and lesbians,” that is still found throughout much of society. Farley even goes so far as to question the “indissolubility of marriage,” generally a no-no for hard-core Catholics who believe in the “sanctity of marriage.”
So, Farley is pro-gay rights, chill with masturbation, accepts that divorce occurs and is vocal about the need to represent women in a religious setting. Sounds good to me. What does the church think about it?
They think Farley—and her compatriots in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious who are estimated to represent 80 percent of america’s nuns— are confused. Terribly, sinfully confused. A statement from the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith was issued saying that Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics is in blatant contradiction with the church’s stance on issues including abortion, marriage, homosexuality and masturbation. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Farley were further called “political feminists”— likely a bad word from an orthodox perspective — and implicitly told that what they thought meant little, since the church’s bishops have the final word on scripture’s “authentic interpretation.”
The Church tried to put a positive spin on it, saying, “this moment of discernment will bear abundant spiritual fruit for the revitalization and strengthening of… communities in fidelity to Christ and the Church… ” In other words, let’s use this as an opportunity to go back to Leviticus style women’s rights.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious were understandably unpleased with this. They released a statement of their own, saying that they were “stunned” by the Vatican’s reaction.
I can’t say that I’m stunned — if the pope had given anything but a conservative response, then I might have been pleasantly surprised. But orthodox religion relegating women’s voices to the backseat — that I don’t find so shocking. Disappointing, but not shocking.
Farley’s book and the support she has received via social media show a positive outlook. I believe it demonstrates people rallying to a new, more open-minded faith that embraces women and the LGBTQ community, regardless of what ancient scripture might say to contradict the matter. Women becoming more prominent in organized faith are a significant part of this modernizing epoch.
As women come to the foreground in religion, so too will women’s voices and so too will women’s rights. For that, religious or not, I think we can all give an “amen.”