A Revisionist Sexual Ethics on Display

The following two paragraphs are taken from Boston College professor of theology Lisa Sowle Cahill’s America magazine review of Sr. Margaret Farley, R.S.M.’s controversial book, Just Love (See “Patterns of Relationship,” December 11, 2006). The book, published in 2006 by Continuum with the subtitle A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, was recently criticized in a “notification” by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on March 30, 2012.

In her first book, Personal Commitments (1986), Farley reflected the consensus of many religious ethicists that traditional certitudes and platitudes call for re-examination in light of individual experience. A task of the era was to reconsider the role of procreation in marriage, given the impact of Humanae vitae, and the rapid expansion of social roles of women beyond the domestic sphere. Farley and others reached the conclusion that sexual and marital morality is more defined by commitment than by childbearing. The latter represents a realm of fulfillment and responsibility, but it does not establish a normative requirement for all sex acts and sexual loves. While taking commitments, covenants and fidelity very seriously, Farley envisions conditions that could justify changing and breaking commitments, including marriage. Her focus was the difficulty of personal integration and responsibility, given the realities of change and of circumstances beyond individual control.

loveWorldwide, sexuality is defined as much by kinship and childbearing as it is by self-expression, mutual love and pleasure. Yet despite great variety in sexual realities and experiences, Farley offers a norm for all sexual unions: “just love”. This means respect, freedom, mutuality, equality, commitment, “fruitfulness” as responsibility for a wider community and social justice as social and legal respect for all in matters of sex, marriage and family. Farley recognizes that commitment as a sexual norm is highly “problematic” today, if not “impossible.” The book reaffirms her conviction that commitment is necessary to sustain love and desire and to bring sexual love to its greatest joys.

I will offer some comments and criticisms of the thought expressed in these two paragraphs above.

I. What’s “Just Love” Got to Do with It?

First, as we’ve seen, Cahill says there’s the idea that “sexual and marital morality is more defined by commitment than by childbearing”, according to Farley and others. While procreation is important, “it does not establish a normative requirement for all sex acts and sexual loves.” Yet, despite the elevated role of commitment over children in Farley’s sexual ethics, Cahill notes that Farley foresees situations that “could justify changing and breaking commitments, including marriage.”

Secondly, Cahill tells us that Farley’s “norm for all sexual unions” is “just love.” Again, this entails “respect, freedom, mutuality, equality, commitment, ‘fruitfulness’ as responsibility for a wider community and social justice as social and legal respect for all in matters of sex, marriage and family.” But this norm is really no norm at all. It is vague beyond anything that would be of use to someone to help form his or her conscience and guide his or her action. How, for example, do we define what is “mutual” or what is “social justice”? The characteristics of this norm recall the fuzzy, content-missing criteria (e.g. “creative growth toward integration”) put forth by the authors of the dissenting work, Human Sexuality: New Directions in Catholic Thought (1977), a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America and edited by the Reverend Anthony Kosnik. At the time, both the U.S. Bishops and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith severely criticized this book.

Moreover, a moral norm is meant to guide our free choices so that they are made in conformity with moral truth.  But Farley’s “just love” norm includes the notion of freedom (Maybe to speak of “consent” would have been better). Nonetheless, “respect,” “equality,” and so on should characterize all non-sexual human relationships: for example, relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters, casual friends of the same or opposite sex, and so on. But marriage, being an intimate sexual friendship of a very unique kind calls for moral criteria suitable to the kind of relationship that it is: one between a man and a woman that is permanent and open to the transmission of new human life. While respect would definitely be included in the criteria, much more would be as well, such as the norm that the connection between the unitive and procreative goods of sexual intercourse is not to be intentionally violated.

Finally, Cahill shows us that Farley’s understanding of “fruitfulness” is more figurative than literal – not so much physical fecundity as spiritual fecundity. This explains away fecundity or procreation as a basic value, however, rather than describes the central role it has in marriage.  Indeed, it is procreation that provides the very rationale – biology teaches as much – for why marriage involves the two opposite sexes to begin with and for why it is to be life-long.  In saying this, we’re not implying that procreation is a higher value or the only value in marriage; we’re simply pointing out that it is what objectively defines marriage to be the kind of intimate bodily relationship that it is – different from all of the other friendships that men and women have.

II. A Halfhearted Commitment

But then, we recall that Farley does not limit genital sexual expression to marriage or to one man and one woman. That is, pre-marital sex can be morally legitimate, as can homosexual or lesbian sexual relationships. There’s nothing intrinsic to her “just love” norm that would exclude any of these. What’s crucial for Farley is that these relationships be respectful, involve mutuality, achieve equality, etc.

Although Farley gives the notion of “commitment” a more significant role over “fruitfulness”, we’ve seen that her understanding of commitment is a rather pale image of its traditional Catholic understanding: it does not include absolute permanency. Commitments can “change” and even be “broken.” Marriage is not immune to this dissolution and thus divorce is, potentially, a morally good choice for her.

Farley also questions, as we saw, whether “commitment” (or covenant) can function as a credible “sexual norm” in today’s world. In this context, Cahill states that Farley’s “focus was the difficulty of personal integration and responsibility, given the realities of change and of circumstances beyond individual control.” This seems to be a fancier way of saying, “We can’t get our lives together and be responsible adults, and so, given all of the external pressures working against us that are outside our control, we don’t have to live up to the objective norms of marriage and sexual morality.”


Cahill informs us that Farley’s first book had as its goal the criticism of traditional sexual morality in the light of “individual experience.” But our human experience, it must be noted, is an experience not only of Redemption but of the Fall – of brokenness, of sin (original, personal, and social). Therefore, the Catholic Church has insisted that divine revelation must judge the authenticity of personal experience rather than the other way around.

As well, Cahill observes that Farley is not willing to make “childbearing” [I would say procreation] “a normative requirement for all sex acts and sexual loves.” This is the most revolutionary, if not new, move that Farley makes in the practical order, for it “pulls the rug out from under” the entire holistic, love-and-life together sexual ethic of the Catholic Church. Not only is contraception permitted in Farley’s view, but so too – by a logic both revisionists and traditionalists grasp – masturbation, sodomy, and other sexual perversions.

No wonder the CDF stepped in. It was right to do so, even if long overdue.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
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  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    The rationale for these revisionist sexual ethics are so lame. They amount to this type of specious argument: The Church’s teaching must change and adapt to accommodate the practices of modern customs. The Church must not be idealistic or sublime in its teaching but conform to the wishes of the majority. Instead of man surrendering and submitting to God’s teachings, God must adapt to man’s preferences and desires. In other words, God must be more tolerant, moderate, and not judgmental. Even after the tragic consequences of abortion, the contraceptive mentality, no-fault divorce, and Planned parenthood sex education, the revisionist ethics thinkers refuse to see the consequences of their ideas and choices. Thank you for exposing the sophistry of their reasoning.

    • Mark Latkovic

      Thanks for your great comments, Mitchell.

  • Valerie

    I feel very left out of these arguments as a woman unable to bear children.
    Often although I side with procreation as one important purpose of marriage. I find myself looking at my infertility and finding myself incomplete. Often I do hear the the issues of infertility addressed in these arguments but only as an afterthought and with concern that here is where the homosexuality issue might try and gain ground. I wish I could hear one argument about marriage that doesn’t leave the infertile catholic woman as an afterthought .

    I always enjoy your arguments just kind of hoping you might take me up on this issue 🙂