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Is Pleasure a Sin?
It’s hard to say what is weirder:
A Sister of Mercy writing about the Kama Sutra, sexual desire and “our yearnings for pleasure.”
Or the Vatican getting so hot and bothered about the academic treatise on sexuality that the pope censures it, causing it to shoot from obscurity to the top tier of Amazon.com’s best-seller list six years after it was published.
Just the latest chapter in the Vatican’s thuggish crusade to push American nuns — and all Catholic women — back into moldy subservience.
Even for a church that moves glacially, this was classic. “Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” by Sister Margaret Farley — a 77-year-old professor emeritus at Yale’s Divinity School, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and an award-winning scholar — came out in 2006.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which seems as hostile to women as the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, spent years pondering it, then censured it on March 30 but didn’t publicly release the statement until Monday.
The denunciation of Sister Farley’s book is based on the fact that she deals with the modern world as it is. She refuses to fall in line with a Vatican rigidly clinging to an inbred, illusory world where men rule with no backtalk from women, gays are deviants, the divorced can’t remarry, men and women can’t use contraception, masturbation is a grave disorder and celibacy is enshrined, even as a global pedophilia scandal rages.
In old-fashioned prose steeped in historical and global perspective, Sister Farley’s main argument is that justice needs to govern relationships. In the interest of justice to oneself, she contends that “self-pleasuring” needs “to be moved out of the realm of taboo morality.”
Immanuel Kant, who considered masturbation “below the level of animals,” must give way to Alfred Kinsey. “It is surely the case that many women, following the ‘our bodies our selves’ movement in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, have found great good in self-pleasuring — perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure — something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers,” she writes. “In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them.”
A breath of fresh air in the stultifying church, she makes the case for same-sex relationships and remarriage after divorce. “When it truly becomes impossible to sustain a marriage relationship, the obligation to do so is released,” she writes, adding, “as when in the Middle Ages a broken leg made it impossible to continue on a pilgrimage to which one had committed oneself.”
Taking on the Council of Trent and a church that has taken a stand against pleasure, Sister Farley asserts that procreation is not the only reason couples should have sex. Fruitfulness need not “refer only to the conceiving of children,” she writes. “It can refer to multiple forms of fruitfulness in love of others, care for others, making the world a better place for others” rather than just succumbing to “an égoisme à deux.”
The Vatican showed no mercy to the Sister of Mercy, proclaiming that “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty” outside of marriage or procreation, or on one’s own, is wrong; that homosexual sex acts are “deviant,” and that marriages are by and large indissoluble. Sister Farley issued a statement that she did not intend for the book to be an expression or criticism of current official Catholic teaching, and academics and the head of her order rushed to her defense.
This latest ignoble fight with a noble nun adds to the picture of a Catholic Church in a permanent defensive crouch, steeped in Borgia-like corruption and sexual scandals, lashing out at anyone who notes the obvious: They have lost track of right and wrong.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York blasted The New York Times after Laurie Goodstein wrote that, as the archbishop of Milwaukee in 2003, he authorized payments of up to $20,000 to sexually abusive priests “as an incentive for them to agree to dismissal from the priesthood.”
Cardinal Dolan insisted through a spokesman that it was “charity,” not “payoffs.” But if you were the parent of a boy abused by a priest who went away with 20,000 bucks, maybe “charity” is not the word that would come to mind.
Its crisis has made the church cruel. The hierarchy should read Sister Farley’s opprobrium against adults harming vulnerable children and adolescents by sexually exploiting them; respect for the individual and requirement of free consent, she says, mean that rape, violence and pedophilia against unwilling victims are never justified.
“Seduction and manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power, are ruled out,” she writes.
If only the church could muster that kind of clarity, rather than Dolan-style “charity.”