The Real Taboos

One of the things that most struck me about the Sr. Margaret Farley controversy – the Yale professor emerita whose book Just Love was recently the subject of a warning from Rome for its acceptance of masturbation, homosexuality, and remarriage after divorce – is how utterly tired it is. In fact, the only thing mildly surprising about the case is how long Rome took to get around to dealing with a book published in 2006 – and even that, by Roman standards, is not very noteworthy.

If you take out the media spin and put the matter in plain language: a book by a heterodox nun is properly criticized by Catholic authorities as not Catholic in its moral teaching (which she herself partly admits) and, as a result, overnight becomes a cause célèbre in the secular media and is defended by the “Catholic” Theological Society of America (CTSA), of which she is past president.

Further, she’s praised by both for “thinking in new ways” about questions of sexual morality, which just happen to be the same old ways that elite and academic opinion has been traveling for decades.

But of course, that’s the kind of Catholic nun you would expect to be hired as a professor of Catholic studies at an Ivy League institution like Yale. If you read her defenders, Farley is also supposed to be an elegant writer. If you read Farley herself – and I have to confess that I’ve had the stomach only to dip in here and there – you’ll find a moderate style employed in Just Love to reshuffle the old standbys, by which I mean thinkers and modes of analysis prominent in secular academics about two decades ago: non-Western cultures, Michel Foucault, Catherine MacKinnon, Greek antiquity, Africa, the Kamasutra, cross-cultural perspectives, obstacles to new thinking, and such like.

For some purposes, it might be worth doing a careful survey of all these people and things. But if, after an allegedly arduous search and a professed wish not to simplify matters that are very complex, you arrive at a position essentially congruent with the untroubled assumptions of the Zeitgeist, what was this elaborate ceremony all about?

You might just as easily have walked out of the library and taken down what many students and faculty at Yale already believe – without benefit of clergy, or professors.

And please, none of the usual mendacity about “minority positions” struggling bravely for a hearing. It’s quite difficult to assess such things accurately, but the media had no trouble finding various institutions, including Catholic ones, where Farley’s book has been a staple of courses in sexual ethics since it appeared. This is hardly surprising since anyone who tries to take a contrary position on virtually all college campuses will appreciate quite pointedly the true balance of power.

Woman and Man at Yale

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened at the very same Yale University where Sr. Farley teaches to The Catholic Thing’s own Anthony Esolen back in February. You probably didn’t see anything about it in the media, nor was Tony defended by the CTSA when he went to Yale to present a standard Christian view of sex and marriage. Instead, he got tagged as a homophobe – you’re clinically ill if you’re a traditional Christian, whatever your reasoning – and had his lecture disrupted by homosexual and heterosexual couples who, on a predetermined cue, came out of the audience and began kissing.

Ironically, Esolen’s lecture was part of True Love Week – an event organized by some intrepid Yale students themselves to counteract the grossness and lewdness of what has become a staple on the campus: Sex Week. The university administration seems to have tried to curtail some of the more salacious parts of Sex Week, but has also tread lightly for fear of student and faculty backlash.

This year’s organizer of Sex Week told a reporter at The Weekly Standard that the goal of the event was not “about bringing rampant sex to Yale,” but about “creating dialogue.” Well, that’s helpful. No adults in such situations ever seem to point out the utter absurdity of the way that many students committed – in their own minds – to “creating dialogue” will blithely stifle the speech of others, all in the name of justice and diversity.

Happily, there are other currents coming to the fore, even in the Ivy League. For one, there’s now a magazine, The Ivy League Christian Observer, that reports on such outrages. But the effort is not all negative: it also documents the significant, if still fragile efforts to bring a different voice to the institutions that are forming our next generation.

If the media or the Catholic Theological Society or Sr. Margaret Farley herself were really looking for some signs of fresh, alternative voices in the culture, we’d see something – at least once in a while – about the emergence of these brave efforts and maybe, just maybe, that they should be given respect once in a while as sincere and reasoned and not to be demonized.

But the advocates of new approaches aren’t really interested in any such thing and instead dedicate themselves to defending ideas and currents that over the past half-century have wrecked families, harmed children, and made the proper taming of erotic impulses – a task every civilization prior to ours has known is crucial to human happiness and calls for great wisdom – one of the real, not imagined, taboos in American society.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.