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 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.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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37 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    Yeah, of course this was totally predictable. But what does this mean? What are the implications?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      This occurrence is only a sign of a larger problem the Vatican faces: as much at it hates the idea that’s it’s just one voice among many, for all practical purposes it is just one voice among many, and to top it off a voice with little moral authority speaking to a largely hostile audience that can respond through channels of mass and social media. The Vatican has a long road ahead, and to get on its way, it will need to rethink its approach to “the defense of doctrine.”

      • Maybe the Church can hire a social media manager, and we could get tweets like “sr.farley_JUSTLOVE_index prhbted bks not good @heresy.”

      • Tom Van Dyke says:

        I’m not sure you got the Magisterium thing down, Kyle. The Roman church is not a democracy like the Protestant sects.

        The problem has been that orthodoxy has been neglected so much—especially in the American church—that it’s hard to tell just what the official teachings of the Church actually are. What we end up with is an anarchy, where asserting the Church’s magisterial authority is called oppression.

        [Fr. Richard John] Neuhaus’ Law:

        “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

        And so, here we are: where the Church asserts its magisterial authority—a central tenet of Roman Catholicism—gentlepersons like yourself condemn it.

        Sr. Margaret A. Farley can say what she wants, but she needs to drop the “Sister” part and the cover of her order, R.S.M., the Sisters of Mercy, or any title that gives the impression she speaks for or with the imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church.

        I don’t get you sometimes, Mr. Cupp. I understand your theological disagreements with what I presume is your church—and dissent is not necessarily heresy—but not your lack of appreciation for its core, self-defining tenets.

        I’m somewhat aware of what’s been going on in American nunnery, and they have indeed been cutting their own theological course. [The older ones of the Woodstock generation, iirc; the younger ones are more orthodox.] In my view, the Vatican’s reestablishment of its theological authority [which the various orders of nuns formally accept] is long overdue.

        I must admit that Mr. Duck’s suggestion that you might be some sort of Lutheran in rejecting the magisterium had a certain irony to it. “Every man a minister,” saith Brother Martin, each man interprets the scriptures according to his own heart and understanding [and the Holy Spirit of course]. This is a fine and legitimate approach, but it is not Catholicism.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Oh, I don’t condemn magisterial authority, which makes a certain amount of sense if one assumes or believes in the inerrancy of an ambiguous revelation. I’m of the opinion that what magisterial authority exactly means is open to some debate, but I don’t condemn or reject the tenet outright.

          The problem here, as I see it, is not magisterial authority per se, but the failure of that authority to engage a largely hostile audience in ways that 1) reach people where they are and 2) are persuasive. Rightly or wrongly, most Catholics, not to mention others, reject magisterial authority on some issue or other; therefore, the arguments that the church makes in support of its tenets cannot presuppose that authority and still have any moral, philosophical, or theological force.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            The Theology of the Body does not argue from authority, Kyle. And when you have a nun out there using churchly titles and contradicting this normative [not infallible] teaching of the Church, that’s a problem.

            Any Catholic is free to dissent from church teaching and write what they want—except those who have accepted the authority of the Vatican, such as those in religious orders. But what you have here with Sr. Farley and in some of your own posts, is a vehicle for vituperation by those already hostile to the Church. I don’t get it. Who are you writing for, whose approval do you seek? All I see is you bagging on your church and people joining in on the fun.

            Who is Sr. Farley’s intended audience? Disaffected Catholics? Fine, Sister, go start your own church. With 35,000 Protestant sects already, one more won’t hurt.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            The Theology of the Body doesn’t exclusively argue from authority, but it does rely heavily on authoritative interpretations concerning human sexuality. It is a “faithful” theology, a theology undertaken within the official boundaries established by church teaching.

            Sr. Farley’s theological project in her book was not undertaken within those limits, and it was certainly within the jurisdiction of the Vatican to render a judgment. Trouble is, however limited the intended audience of its judgment, the notification, published online, became a public exercise of argument by authority that caught a lot of people’s attention and reinforced the view that the church’s teachings on these matters are reducible to “because we say so.”

            As for me, I fancy myself a faithful Catholic, but I’m also suspicious of power (especially power that tends towards absolutism), clericalism, and anyone, Catholic or otherwise, who claims to speak for God. You might say I’m akin to Doubting Thomas: I don’t reject the faith, but I demand evidence and sound argumentation for proposition about how I’m to live my life.

            The Church needs critics from among its flock. I may not be a good critic, but I’m going to do my part as a Catholic and as a human being.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Your objection conflates sex and the magisterium. The Theology of the Body is not offered as “because the Pope says so.”

            The [liberal] American church, in rejecting the Vatican’s magisterial authority, a—if not the—core ecclesiastical tenet of Roman Catholicism, is creating its own sect. Which is fine, but the Roman church insists that books like Sr. Farleys are counterfeit Catholicism and it has every right to make that loud and clear, lest people get confused.

            Like Nancy Pelosi, who said abortion is not banned by the church.


            Absurd. The Vatican putting its foot down on this confusion and anarchy is long overdue, and frankly, those who are attracted to the Church precisely for its orthodoxy are the ones fleeing the mainstream Protestant sects, whose more “inclusive” teachings on sexuality are driving more people out than they are bringing in.

            And according to its own theology of itself, the magisterial Church has not only the right but the duty to correct these erroneous [in the Church’s eyes] teachings on sexual morality, especially ones like Sr. Farley’s that might be confused with the genuine article, the Theology of the Body.

            My objection here is formal, not getting into the theological debate or cosmic truth of what God thinks about sex. But in my view, many liberal Catholics have already left the Church, despite their protestations that they are only trying to reform it. Theologically, to reject the magisterium is to become a Protestant. Which is fine, but let’s be clear.

            As for the Inquisition itself, don’t fall for the



          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Your objection conflates sex and the magisterium.

            That’s an image I didn’t need, Tom.

            The Theology of the Body is not offered as “because the Pope says so.”

            True, but I didn’t say it was. The theology is premised, however, on a moral and metaphysical understanding of human sexuality that presupposes authoritative assertions by the magisterium. And as I said before, its investigations also consciously stay within the limits of official orthodoxy, even while developing some new territory.

            And according to its own theology of itself, the magisterial Church has not only the right but the duty to correct these erroneous [in the Church’s eyes] teachings on sexual morality, especially ones like Sr. Farley’s that might be confused with the genuine article, the Theology of the Body.

            In warning against Sr. Farley’s book, the CDF did what the CDF is supposed to do. A good many orthodox Roman Catholics would, however, take issue with your assertion that the Theology of the Body is the “genuine article” if by that you mean it’s the official understanding. It isn’t. It is one acceptable understanding of sexuality within the limits of orthodox theology–the specific theology developed by the previous pope as a private theologian–but it’s hardly without controversy within the church. It may or may not have much staying power. Time will tell.

          • MikeSchilling says:

            The Black Legend is that there is a unique cruelty in the Spanish character, and that in particular the Spanish Inquisition was worse than other Inquisitions. In this case, not falling for it means acknowledging that torture in the name of religious orthodoxy was, rather than being confined to Spain, common.


          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            “That’s an image I didn’t need, Tom.” Good one.

            A good many orthodox Roman Catholics would, however, take issue with your assertion that the Theology of the Body is the “genuine article” if by that you mean it’s the official understanding.

            It’s the normative understanding. And Sr. Farley’s is in unacceptable conflict with it and according to her own church’s ecclesiastical tenets, she must distance herself as a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order or any official connection with her church from her dissent as an individual.

            So let’s say the problem here is not theological, but ecclesiastical. Theological dissent from normative teaching or theology is not necessarily heretical. Heresy in private conscience is not necessarily an excommunicatable offense. But being in open ecclesiastical rebellion is. Technically, the Church could excommunicate Sr. Farley for her opinions, I suppose, but that’s not normative practice. The great historical battles on heresy were not for believing heresies, but teaching them.

            It’s her role as a para-clergy or some sort of “Catholic” theologian that’s the problem here.

            Sort of like Fr. Hans Kung, who, “in his writings, has departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith, and therefore … can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role” (Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dec. 15, 1979).

            You Lutherans have your own church and like Luther himself, have made your own way out.

            Look, I see your point and those of liberal Catholics about theological dissent, but the Roman Church is not a democracy. That’s Protestantism, councils of elders, synods, what have you, theological questions settled by majority vote. It’s an ecclesiastical mess.

            It chafes an American to accept an obligation of deference and obedience to the Vatican and the magisterial process, but there is no First Amendment in Roman Catholicism, especially for its clergy and para-clergy.

            The story of Teilhard de Chardin is interesting. Rather than the open rebellion of Hans Kung, he accepted the Vatican’s authority to keep his theological musings chill.


            Eventually some of his ideas won out, and his decidedly non-normative [non-Thomistic] metaphysics of “process theology” is still out there in the ether. Philip K. Dick liked it. As for Sr. Farley on sex, it no doubt has Maureen Dowd’s approval, so who cares about the Vatican anyway?

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            There’s more to it than the Wiki, Mike. That was a teaser. This is a serious discussion, so pls take the hand grenades elsewhere. Por favor.


            This is not a forum for bullshit comments on the Roman church. Although you must admit, Kyle, it often looks like one, which was part of my point back there somewheres. Your sincere dissents attract a lot of ugly, unfortunately.

          • MikeSchilling says:

            Read the article you linked to. It doesn’t deny that people were tortured and burnt at the stake, but denies that the Spanish Inquisition was worse than the rest of Europe, except for the period under Torquemada following the expulsion of 1492, when it was far worse. (It also rationalizes the Inquisition as a necessary evil. Very convincing indeed.)

            You’re shooting the messenger. With blanks, as usual.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Using 21st century aesthetics on the past is bad history, Mike. You’re clearly not interested in any real perspective or understanding, so go in peace.

            Not one person in 1000 knows the Spanish Inquisition was started by the king and not the pope, nor that prisoners actually asked to be transferred to the jurisdiction of the dreaded Torquemada, because he was more fair and less cruel!

            The scene is a plain-looking room with a door to the left. A pleasant young man, pestered by tedious and irrelevant questions, exclaims in a frustrated tone, “I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.” Suddenly the door bursts open to reveal Cardinal Ximinez flanked by Cardinal Fang and Cardinal Biggles. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Ximinez shouts. “Our chief weapon is surprise…surprise and fear…fear and surprise…. Our two weapons are fear and surprise…and ruthless efficiency…. Our three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency…and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope…. Our four…no…. Amongst our weapons…amongst our weaponry…are such elements as fear, surprise…. I’ll come in again.”

            Anyone not living under a rock for the past 30 years will likely recognize this famous scene from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In these sketches three scarlet-clad, inept inquisitors torture their victims with such instruments as pillows and comfy chairs. The whole thing is funny because the audience knows full well that the Spanish Inquisition was neither inept nor comfortable, but ruthless, intolerant, and deadly. One need not have read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum to have heard of the dark dungeons, sadistic churchmen, and excruciating tortures of the Spanish Inquisition. The rack, the iron maiden, the bonfires on which the Catholic Church dumped its enemies by the millions: These are all familiar icons of the Spanish Inquisition set firmly into our culture.

            This image of the Spanish Inquisition is a useful one for those who have little love for the Catholic Church. Anyone wishing to beat the Church about the head and shoulders will not tarry long before grabbing two favorite clubs: the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. I have dealt with the Crusades in a previous issue of Crisis (see “The Real History of the Crusades,” April 2002). Now on to the other club…


          • Kyle Cupp says:

            It’s the normative understanding.

            Says who? Not the Catholic Church. Not even JP2, who wrote the book. Aspects of it are normative, but those aspects predate what we call “the theology of the body.”

          • MikeSchilling says:

            Using 21st century aesthetics on the past is bad history,

            Note that torture and killing are being described as “aesthetics”. I’ll keep this in reserve for the next time moral relativism comes up.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Kyle, Sr. Farley’s book is unreconcilable with normative Church teaching. Period. Let’s cut to the chase.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Yes it is, Tom. Sr. Farley admits as much herself.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            The problem is in calling her “Sister.” She’s “Margaret” for the purposes of this discussion.

            And you and the liberal Catholics of the Catholic Register and of Vox Nova and the like have not dealt with the magisterium problem. And it is indeed your problem, not the Church’s, just as it was Luther’s. And Küng’s. And Barth’s— who was more Lutheran than Luther.]


            the Congregation had said in its declaration: to wit, that it had “issued a public document on Feb. 15, 1975, declaring that some opinions of Professor Küng were opposed in different degree to the doctrine of the church which must be held by all the faithful…. At the same time this sacred congregation warned Professor Küng that he should not continue to teach such opinions…. Hans Küng has in no way sought to conform to the doctrine of the magisterium. Instead he has recently proposed his view again more explicitly….” At this point the Congregation mentions the book that Sheehan purports to review. Further, one must remember that Infallibility? An Inquiry appeared in 1970, and, as Sheehan himself points out, Küng was already suspect in 1957 because of his book Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and A Catholic Reflection. The evidence shows that the Congregation showed great restraint.

            The ambiguous remark in the letter by “seventy American Catholic theologians” that they consider Küng “a Roman Catholic theologian” is pointless or presumptuous. If it means that Küng is a Roman Catholic and a theologian, it is pointless, because the Congregation would agree; since Küng was not excommunicated he remains a Catholic; and Küng is a theologian. What he is not is a theologian teaching theories that are acceptable to that agency responsible for approving official theologians of the Roman Catholic Church. And this is a matter about which only the Congregation has the authority to declare. That is why it is presumptuous for the American theologians to declare that Küng is a Roman Catholic theologian, if that is the sense in which they mean it.

            A. P. Martinich
            University of Texas at Austin

          • Fnord says:

            Well, gee, Tom, I must have missed the announcement that she was excommunicated or expelled from the RSM. Now who’s pretending to speak for the Church?

            If you want to defend the authority of the Catholic hierarchy, you can’t have it both ways. She’s Sister Margaret until her superiors say otherwise.

  2. Nob Akimoto says:

    Meanwhile Cardinal Dolan is allowed to spew bile about victims of sexual abuse by the clergy.

    At some point Catholics need to hold their hierarchy accountable, or else the rest of society is going to do it for them.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The question Catholics face is how to go about holding the hierarchy accountable. The laity have no say in the appointment of priests and bishops or in the election of popes. They could withhold financial contributions, and some d0, but there are moral costs to this respond that hinder more Catholics from doing so. Places of worship and benevolence programs cost money.

      • DensityDuck says:

        “The question Catholics face is how to go about holding the hierarchy accountable.”

        Print this out and nail it to the nearest church door.

      • Nob Akimoto says:

        The alternative of course is that Interpol serves the Vatican a search warrant and impounds its records and arrests its clergy….I don’t know if that’s a desirable outcome, but I’m pretty sure that it’ll be coming within the next couple of decades if they don’t do something concrete.

  3. Rodak says:

    Historically, couldn’t we say that it was a failed attempt (in fact several failed attempts) to hold the Church hierarchy accountable that resulted in the Reformation? Isn’t the point, ultimately, that it won’t be held accountable because its corporate survival mechanism inevitably trumps its commitment to the Truth?

    • Nob Akimoto says:

      This is true. But unlike the 16th-17th century, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of people willing to go to war for the church if society decides to push back.

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    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.

    They apparently learned nothing from Fox vs. Franken. Of course, they learned nothing from the Holocaust, so that’s unsurprising.

  5. Fnord says:

    I knew Sr. Farley personally, though we’ve been out of touch for the past few years. I wonder if I should contact her, see how she’s handling this or if she needs moral support. Popularity bump notwithstanding, I doubt see’s particularly enjoying this experience.

  6. greginak says:

    But the real issue is that public libraries might have this book on their shelves. Catholics pay taxes to have and have a book that goes against their teaching in public libraries. This clearly violates their religious freedom and is shoving this evil down their throats.

    • DensityDuck says:

      You might have a point if overtly Catholic institutions that were run by the Catholic church and made being Catholic a significant part of their identity were being required by regulation–not by law, even, but by the decision of an unelected bureaucrat–to have the book on their shelves.

      • greginak says:

        bingo….i got conservative bingo…you said “unelected bureaucrat” and that won the game for me. I think there is a bonus for the “regulation-not by law”. Woot. There is no right to a library in the constitution, now is there. And the person who picks the books for the library is just some unelected public employee who can never ever be fired for any reason and isn’t accountable to the public.

        You might have more of a point if those Catholic institutions didn’t also function like regular businesses and take public funds.

        • DensityDuck says:

          So is that an actual reply to me or is it just “YOU SAID THE WOOOOOOORD”

          • greginak says:

            It was a reply that mocked the usage of buzzwords. I still don’t see the argument why its okay to crush Catholics first amendment rights at libraries. They are being forced to pay for something that they don’t believe in.

  7. Rodak says:

    By that logic, Greginak, Protestants (and others) should have the right to demand that librarians clear public library shelves of all words Catholic, right?