St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” Love, as he reckoned it, is not some amorphous amorousness. Rather, the Apostle lists several marks of the sort of Christian love he envisions: Love is patient, kind, truthful, trusting, hopeful and enduring. It is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude; nor does it “rejoice in wrongdoing.” With this book, Margaret Farley would append to Paul’s lyrical litany that love is—or ought to be—just.
Currently professor emerita at Yale Divinity School, where in 1971 she was one of their first, along with Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic faculty members, Farley is a Sister of Mercy who through decades of teaching and scholarship has certainly left her imprint on the field of Christian ethics, especially in North America. Many prominent ethicists and countless clergy cut their theological teeth under her tutelage, and an indication of the respect her research has received is that she has served as president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics. This is a book that Farley says she “never intended or planned to write” (xi). In response to questions about sexual ethics raised by her students and within the wider U.S. society over the years, Farley fashioned a framework of “just love” for fostering understanding, discernment and deliberation for moral decision making with regard to sex. A constructive effort, the book offers more a scaffolding that gives purchase for moving toward an answer rather than a finished edifice of definitive answers to every concrete question about sexual ethics under the sun. Those expecting exhaustive arguments for where she stands on various controversial questions of today will be disappointed, though unduly so, for that is not how Farley views the task of the Christian ethicist. An exemplar of intellectual modesty, she devotes her energies to “search,” “probe,” “explore,” “contextualize,” and “consider” before she attempts to “propose.”
The argument that rivets together each component of the book’s structure is that justice, “to render to each her or his due” (208), which takes into account “the concrete reality of persons” and “the obligating features of personhood” (209-215), offers norms for “what and how we should love—in the sexual sphere as in any other sphere of human life” (xii). Just as what Paul composed about love actually has to do not only with marital love but also with Christian love towards others in the body of Christ and beyond, so too would Farley’s framework of just love be applicable in other kinds of human interactions beyond the sexual. Whereas many treatments of concrete moral questions that Christians face in various spheres of life—such as the political or economic—often must argue that justice must be informed by love, Farley’s book focuses on how sexual love ought to be informed by justice.
Before delving into the prescriptive “ought,” Farley provides a thorough survey of the descriptive “is” in the first half of the book. For anyone preparing to embark on researching the state of the question in history, philosophy, theology, anthropology, medicine, and biology, chapters two through four have done much of the work for them. Throughout, Farley highlights norms and theories of interpreting sex that might shed “some insight into contemporary beliefs and questions” (18). Particularly interesting are pages exploring topics such as polygyny, female circumcision, Islamic understandings of sexuality, Hinduism and the Kamasutra, ethnographic studies in the South Sea Islands, and the cases of intersexuals and transgendered persons. In a section on philosophical theories of the body, Farley’s reflections on how we are “embodied spirits” or “inspirited bodies”—in contrast to either dualism or monism—are profound, especially when she considers how our experiences of seeming disunity, such as during profound suffering and the realities of aging, “nonetheless tell us of the unity of the person” (127).
The fifth chapter examines several alternative frameworks from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish ethicists. Curiously absent, however, is any attention to the Orthodox tradition. It also turns to the classical sources for Christian ethics, including Scripture, tradition, reason, and contemporary experience—all of which require a kind of “exegesis” (189), as a way to understand these other proposed frameworks. The final section of this chapter considers why it is necessary to appeal to “just love” rather than simply “love.” Not all of our loves, though they are loves, are good, she observes. “The question ultimately is, what is a right love, a good, just, and true love” (197)? Here the “ought” returns, and Farley’s personalism provides the basis for the next chapter’s norms for just sex, which are: do no unjust harm; free consent; mutuality; equality; commitment; fruitfulness; and social justice.
Special questions are also considered in the sixth chapter, including the teenage practice of “hooking up,” sexual relations with one’s self, pornography, prostitution, and forms of exploitative and violent sex. The final chapter gives attention to patterns or contexts of relationship—marriage and family; same-sex relationships; and divorce and remarriage—and in each of these Farley argues that the norms of the just love framework ought to apply.
The fruit of exemplary erudition, this book covers a lot of ground—and not superficially, even given Farley’s approach of “proposing.” However, one area where she might have written more has to do with the book’s subtitle: “A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.” Although she attends to distinctively Christian considerations—such as character and the virtues, the Sermon on the Mount, the Christian community, and love for God (240-244)—these comprise a small percentage of the volume. In several places she notes she is proposing “a contemporary human and Christian sexual ethic” (216), which may have been a more accurate subtitle. Also, while the fully human and the Christian may ultimately be the same, Farley might have said more about why she believes this to be the case.
Still, in 2008 Farley was honored, rightly so, with the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion for this book. It is a model for how Christian sexual ethics can be done in the twenty-first century in a way that advances the conversation.