The double entendre of the title, Just Love, is only the start of an excellent book. Margaret Farley examines the meaning of human sexuality and how this meaning can be incorporated into what she terms “a moral view of human and Christian life.” Eschewing simple answers to what can be murky questions, and withholding judgment based in either a strictly deontological approach or a relativized culturally conditioned ethic on sexual issues, Farley sets out to establish adequate criteria to judge the goodness or rightness of human sexual interaction. While she neither denies nor dismisses the insights of western culture, including the teaching and tradition of the Catholic church, she embraces the healthy anthropology of that tradition that assumes human beings can continue to learn more about themselves and their sexuality. Insights can be found in many areas, including the conclusions of alternative sexual ethical frameworks proposed by contemporary thinkers. New knowledge may press beyond past conclusions, resulting in the development of new normative positions. The author does not promise answers, but rather proposes a framework from which answers can be derived. The marvel of the book is that she has managed in just 300 pages to cover so much ground and do it so well.
The first portion of the book examines the sexual mores in western culture and across cultures throughout history. This section is an expansion of an earlier piece Farley wrote for the massive Encyclopedia of Bioethics (1995). She treats a vast corpus of sometimes turgid material with clarity and openness. She draws on the work of French philosopher, Michael Foucault, as well as that of feminist scholar, Catherine MacKinnon, to set the framework for her own exploration of the history of sexual ethics.
Following the historical considerations is a section which explores how the body matters, whether gender matters, and what meanings can be constructed about the elements of human experience of love, desire, and sexuality. Farley proposes a normative criterion for human sexual relationships. For sexual relationships to be morally appropriate, they should be characterized by justice. Her “just love” requires respect for the autonomy of the person, consideration of the quality of the relationship into which the parties enter freely, and the greater concerns within a just society. Just love does not harm self or other, preserves and encourages the freedom of each person, recognizes the uniqueness and equality of each. Such a love involves commitment and fruitfulness, but not necessarily in the restrictive traditional sense of producing children. In this section Farley draws broadly on the characteristics of the human person as outlined in Gaudium et spes and in the work of the late Belgian theologian, Louis Janssens.
In the final part of the book the author applies her justice criterion to specific patterns of relationship: marriage in the traditional sense, same-sex relationships, divorce and remarriage. She questions the traditional model recurrent in much of Christian writing on marriage: two in one flesh. If the metaphor is to be believed, the ideal of two halves needing to be joined to become whole indicates that someone without a spouse cannot ever be complete. An interesting challenge to the celibate and the single! She addresses such contemporary issues as cohabitation, bisexuality, etc. only as they relate to her major themes. It is unfortunate that the last issue to be treated is the undoing of love that is divorce, although the book ends on the positive theme of God’s grace and its ability to heal.
Farley’s footnotes are often as rich as the text, adding distinctions and insight in addition to the requisite, and in this case, extensive “sources.” As she reads the book, this reviewer found herself asking questions which Farley appears not to have addressed. Several paragraphs or pages later those questions are answered, in the thorough and thoughtful manner that characterizes the author’s work. Perhaps the only thing that could have been added—probably expanding the book by another hundred pages—were anecdotes or examples to help the reader make more concrete the ideas that pack the pages—a kind of palate-cleansing for the brain, if a mixed metaphor is allowed.
No topic more than sexuality needs to be treated in a dispassionate manner. Nevertheless, as with all of Farley’s work, the patina of her practical wisdom and passionate caring gives heart to what is a highly scholarly work. The author’s colleagues, students, and other readers—dare I say “devotees”—will not be disappointed in Just Love. Farley has, in her usual fashion, covered the topic with impeccable scholarship, practical wisdom, and a compassion and acceptance for the existential reality of human beings in a sexual world. The book, while clearly not the ideal beach book, will keep the reader interested to the end.