The Inquisition Is Alive, But Is It Well?
The inquisition continues to this day, albeit under a different name and with different methods. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), formerly called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, has made news lately with its investigation of women religious and most recently with its Notification severely critiquing the book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Yale Divinity School professor Sr. Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M. for its departure from the Vatican’s official line on sexual morality.
The Notification warns the faithful that the book is not in conformity with Church teaching and that it “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”
What “official” consequences this will have for Sr. Farley is not yet clear, but the CDF has given her book an unintended but very foreseeable Colbert Bump. Its Amazon.com rating jumped from 147,982 to…wait for it…14! That’s right: far from keeping the obedient faithful away from Sr. Farley’s heretical ideas, the Vatican has turned her offending book into a best seller. Not of a few of her new readers will entertain the notion Catholic sexual ethics could conceivably change despite the protestations of the Church’s teaching authority. Andrew Sullivan will rejoice.
How did this happen, you ask. Examining the text of the Notification, which as a friend of mine remarked reads like it was largely copied and pasted from other notifications, I was struck by the way it avoids detailed analysis and nuanced argumentation. Not surprise there; that’s how these critiques are written, but because of its simple and straightforward assertiveness and reliance on assertions, it lends itself to going viral in the age of the Internet. Little work is required to pull quotes in context. Boom! There it is. The Vatican’s condemned a book by a nun who’s a well-respected theologian. The news story writes itself. Commentary comes easily. And Sr. Farley becomes a name in both religious and secular press.
Few Catholics take CDF statements seriously, of course. Few Catholics assent to the authority of the Church as the Church understands that authority. Consequently, arguments from authority, such as this Notification, simply aren’t going to work for it any longer, and they’re likely to backfire. The Vatican has too many critics with a voice, both inside and outside the church, for it to fall back on the “we’re the experts in humanity” line.