Cherchez la femme

Women. They're so easily led astray. Culture of Life Foundation ethicist E. Christian Brugger is full of paternal concern for the weaker sex in his response to the CDF's notification regarding Margaret Farley's book Just Love: "Three Cheers for the CDF: A Long Overdue Admonition."

Brugger starts by relating a story "we all know," the one about how dissenting theologians started tearing down the Church's moral teachings following Vatican II. "The undisputed matriarch of dissenting US Catholic ethicists," he says, "is the influential emerita professor of ethics at Yale Divinity School and Religious Sister of Mercy, Margaret A. Farley" -- who, he adds, is "an old woman now."

The CDF's notification declares that Farley's book "is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church. Consequently it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue." Sr. Farley responds -- "straightforwardly," as Brugger acknowledges -- "I do not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching. In the end, I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching."

Women's Table at Yale

But there's still cause for alarm, Brugger explains, because Farley "has trained and placed in academic positions a generation of gifted female Catholic ethicists sympathetic to her methods and ready to lay down their lives for her conclusions." Not bad for an old woman! You do have to wonder how the many men who have studied with Farley over the years have avoided being thus bewitched. But then, as we will see, Brugger is possibly under the impression that Farley teaches only female students. Perhaps he imagines some ladies' annex of the Yale Divinity School, where women talk about their own sexual pleasure without recourse to the Magisterium, and people still remember Geraldine Ferraro ("who?" indeed).

Yes, the situation is dire. But never fear: Rome knows about this army of loyal, "gifted" but deluded Catholic lady ethicists. "The cardinal prefect of the CDF is well aware that Sister Farley is widely considered a courageous and far-sighted and utterly integral member of the Catholic theological community. And that's how she'll be presented to credulous college freshman in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world." Will no one think of the children?

Like Brugger, I am fond of the final sentence of the notification from the CDF: "The Congregation wishes to encourage theologians to pursue the task of studying and teaching moral theology in full concord with the principles of Catholic doctrine." They're just being encouraging! But Brugger has a strong last line of his own: "I fear that this paternal and salutary admonition is likely to fall on deaf ears on the girls at Yale."

At least he didn't say "coeds."

I was once among the girls at Yale -- though I never had the pleasure of studying with Sr. Farley -- And I suspect he's right. Then, as now, I had trouble accepting salutary admonitions delivered with a condescending pat on the head. It's almost as though overt paternalism is destined to appeal only to boys -- and only to a certain type of boy, at that. But that's just my opinion, and you know how impressionable girls are.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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