No Self-Love

Vatican Bans Book on Female Masturbation

The Catholic Church cracks down on a nun’s book in praise of self-love.

Right: Yale Divinity School

It is no secret that the members of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are tough when it comes to the finer points of church creed. And this year, under the direction of Cardinal William Levada, they’ve been especially busy inspecting various branches of the Catholic Church. In April, they came down hard on American nuns for pushing “radical feminist themes” by focusing too much on the poor and not enough on the Church’s pet issues like opposition to same-sex marriage and the ordination of women priests. In May, they chastised the Girl Scouts for linking to groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Oxfam, which advocate condom use to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Now, the CDF is pointing a condemnatory finger at a book called Just Love, by one Sister Margaret A. Farley, and the author’s apparently controversial take that self-love—i.e., masturbation—is just fine. The Vatican slammed the autoerotic act as “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” in their latest mandate released yesterday, and dating from March 30, in response to the 2006 tome. (The book’s full title is Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.)

Farley, who is a Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale University’s Divinity School, meant for her book to give guidance on sexual mores, geared to a modern Catholic audience. Instead, the CDF said, it “has been a cause of confusion among the faithful” and that “the Congregation decided to undertake an examination following the procedure for ‘examination in cases of urgency’”—basically, a vehicle to institute a book ban. Among the CDF’s many complaints, the group says the book is dangerous reading because “it contains erroneous propositions, the dissemination of which risks grave harm to the faithful.” They go on to accuse Farley of blatantly ignoring church doctrine when it comes to masturbation, homosexual acts, and divorce.

So what does Sister Farley have to say about the “gravely disordered action”? In a passage that seems to take its cue from Dr. Ruth, she writes, “Masturbation usually does not raise any moral questions at all ... it is surely the case that many women 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. In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them.” Farley also goes on to note that “same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities … therefore same-sex oriented persons as well as their activities can and should be respected whether or not they have a choice to be otherwise.”

The Vatican handily disagrees on both points, and said so in the notification sent to Sister Farley. “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose. For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.” In other words, the old Catholic argument that sex is for procreation, not pleasure.

Using the same logic, the CDF slammed Farley’s tolerance of homosexuality, declaring, “basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

The CDF’s notification to Sister Farley is effectively a book ban, in that it warns Catholic teachers against referring to the text. “The Congregation warns the faithful that her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church,” the CDF declared. “Consequently it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”

In her own response to the statement posted on the Yale website, Sister Farley defended her work. “Although my responses to some particular sexual ethical questions do depart from some traditional Christian responses, I have tried to show that they nonetheless reflect a deep coherence with the central aims and insights of these theological and moral traditions,” she said.

“Whether through interpretation of biblical texts, or through an attempt to understand ‘concrete reality’ (an approach at the heart of ‘natural law’), the fact that Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality seems to require that we at least examine the possibility of development in sexual ethics. This is what my book, Just Love, is about.”

Sister Farley says she never intended the book to be used as a teaching tool, but rather as an assessment of modern human sexuality in the context of Catholic life—a topic which has proven to be a touchy subject indeed, especially at the Vatican.