Reclaiming pluralism in the Church with Margaret Farley

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Reclaiming pluralism in the Church with Margaret Farley

In this series of articles, we are becoming acquainted with Catholic women who took their place in their Church. We are learning from the ways they succeeded in voicing their truths, even in a male-dominated environment.

Margaret Farley wants the Catholic Church to be more inclusive. How does she challenge her Church in a bold yet non-confrontational way?

Margaret Farley is an American nun and ethicist. As a Catholic scholar, her capacity to write about some topics was dependent on the Vatican’s (dis)approval.[1] She nevertheless risked her position in academia and in the Church, choosing to challenge the Catholic status quo in ethics.[2]

Farley raised not only her voice, but the voices of many Catholics and humans that were not being taken into account by the Church. At critical moments in the history of the Church, she drew attention to the concerns of those who were on the margins. How did she manage to make heterosexual couples who considered abortion heard? How did she further make room in ethical debates for African and LGBTQ+ people to express their need for life-saving contraception during the AIDS epidemic?

Raising dissenting voices

In June 2022, the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court revealed how contrasting Catholic views on abortion are. It appeared that the Christian unanimity against abortion was an illusion. Yet, Catholics like Farley had already acknowledged this long ago.

Together with 91 female theologians and 4 male theologians, she co-signed A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion. This declaration was published in the New York Times in October 1984.[3] The signatories expressed that the Church’s leaders did not speak for all Catholic scholars and clergy. It read:

“Statements of recent Popes and of the Catholic hierarchy have condemned the direct termination of pre-natal life as morally wrong in all instances. There is the mistaken belief in American society that this is the only legitimate Catholic position. In fact, a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics.”[4]

This collective affirmation aimed at balancing the self-referentiality of the Catholic Church’s moral teachings by inviting new voices into ethical debates. Raising the voices of women was one of Farley’s priorities.

Keeping cool in times of injustice

In response to the 1984 statement, the Vatican contacted the superiors of the signatories. The nuns especially were threatened with expulsion from their religious order. Their superiors needed to testify that the nuns’ actual position was “in accord with the teaching of the Church” to avoid their sisters’ expulsion. In the meantime, the Vatican considered that the nuns who were said to comply with the Church de facto regretted their statement. No Church official got in touch with the nuns themselves.[5]

This policy towards the signatories caused 35 female theologians (of the original 92) to publish a second statement in 1985. On the one hand, they were shocked that their initial declaration had been manipulated. On the other hand, they were infuriated that their voices had been ignored. They reclaimed their opinions, writing:

“We are appalled by the recent action of the Vatican against women who are members of religious orders. (…) It seeks to stifle freedom of speech and public discussion in the Roman Catholic Church and create the appearance of a consensus where none exists.”[6]

As far as she was concerned, Farley refused to retract her signature.[7] Yet, she was not expelled. In fact, she suggested that the Catholic hierarchy must be happy with her, since no one had contacted her to discuss her views. In 1986, she concluded “I’m still assuming my case is closed.”[8] Perhaps for Farley, Church officials would only be credible if they addressed her directly?

Making room for other people

One of the reasons Farley did not become enraged when the Vatican overlooked the 1984 Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion might have been a certain form of relativism. She studied many different injustices and empathised with those who were different from her.

As early as in 1975, she published a paper named Moral imperatives for the Ordination of Women.[9] Most strikingly, Farley was one of the Catholic theologians who sent a message of hope and compassion to those with HIV and AIDS in the 80s and 90s. In 2009, she rejoiced that 40% of the care to infected people was now provided by faith-based organisations. Still, she asked for more efforts in applying charity to African women and “individuals whose sexual behavior is judged not in accord with certain stipulated norms.”[10] Farley refused to be complicit with the Catholic Church’s official position, namely: refusing that people access life-saving contraception means.[11]

What do we learn from Margaret Farley’s commitment?

Farley is a Catholic woman who raised the voices of other women, LGBTQ+ people, and anyone who suffered from injustice. Ultimately, she asked that in any given debate, the Catholic Church makes room for stakeholders to contribute.

Like Teresa of Avila, Farley staged her ‘feminine naivety’ and used irony to get by. Nevertheless, she was mostly interested in letting other people tell their own story and become active members of their Church. This non-confrontational way of tackling injustices within the Church remains “challenging” for the institution.[12] She can be a role model of someone whose power comes from making room for others, knowing that others’ emancipation is integral to one’s own.

For contemporary women, accommodating male-dominated Churches requires solidarity. Networking and empowering each other may be successful strategies. That is the least we can say, seeing that Farley received the Monika K. Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life in 2022,[13] and that her books are best sellers.

Stay tuned this September and learn more about how women have been taking their place in the Catholic Church! In the next article, we will get to know the feminist Catholic Alix Bayle.

Clémence Sauty

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[1] “Again the question must be raised of whether or not this censorship is a form of repression or an attempt to maintain the identity of the community. Is the mandatum for Catholic Theology professors, for example, a kind of controlling restraint or an attempt to maintain the integrity of the community and its teachings?” See here: The Catholic Church and Censorship in Literature, Books, Drama, and Film

[2] Sister Margaret Farley Denounced by Vatican – The New York Times

[3] A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion – Wikipedia

[4] A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion – Wikipedia

[5] A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion – Wikipedia

[6] Nun denies retracting signature on abortion-related ad – UPI Archives Religion: Shutting the Door on Dissent, Time Magazine

[7] Nun denies retracting signature on abortion-related ad – UPI Archives

[8] Nun denies retracting signature on abortion-related ad – UPI Archives

[9] At first, she noted that Catholic women who are called to priesthood are imperfect and should carefully learn how to properly minister to the Church. Afterwards, she insists that women are capable of leadership, and are no less representative of God or humanity than men are. See here: Moral Imperatives for the Ordination of Women – Margaret Farley, RSM

[10] HIV/AIDS: MEETING THE CHALLENGES, EXPLORING THE QUESTIONS1 Margaret A. Farley RSM

[11] Catholic Church and HIV/AIDS – Wikipedia.

[12] The Road Ahead: Moral Theology after the Margaret Farley Case | America Magazine

[13] 2022 Honoree Sr. Margaret A. Farley, RSM- Monika K. Hellwig Award