Margaret A. FARLEY. Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing. Revised Edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013. pp 190. $20.00 pb. ISBN: 9781626980273. Reviewed by Eric W. HENDRY, Plano, TX 75026
Farley has recently revised her groundbreaking text on human commitments, first issued in 1986 and long since out of print. This new 2013 edition happens to follow last year’s highly publicized negative assessment by Vatican doctrinal officials over her 2006 book, Just Love. While clearly undaunted by this negative attention (she is highly supported by those in professional theological guilds), Farley remains remarkably true to her original, pioneering vision and scope for this earlier text, now refined after several decades of lecturing, ongoing discussions with students and colleagues, and reflection on the sweeping cultural developments affecting church life.
Farley is a clever writer, a talented storyteller and has a particular gift for explaining the most complicated aspects of interpersonal ethics in an accessible, down to earth style. The decision to place all her reference material as endnotes – where its technical erudition displays her great breadth of knowledge and reflection – only adds to the text’s immediate readability, warmth and potential market appeal to wide readership. She intuitively presents the a priori ethical concerns existing behind the life-long personal commitments that humans make i.e. in marriage, religious vows, consecrated life, etc. Her overall framework places a particular emphasis on individual practical ethics which precede and inform – or should precede and inform – the concrete details that are involved in beginning, keeping or changing any of these life-long commitments.
Throughout my read of Farley’s text, I found myself frequently pausing over deep questions – e.g. why so many of these a priori and common-sense concerns are not directly addressed and might often be avoided, unintentionally glossed over or, perhaps more often than not, simply presumed as settled questions in the young couples preparing to enter the commitment of marriage – or individuals who may be discerning a possible call to some form of religious life, consecrated life, or celibate ordained ministry.
Farley continually penetrates past the obvious, and deep inside the conscious decision-making process of those about to embark upon any personal life-long commitment. She asks readers to examine the nature of commitment-making, the discontent that is inevitable in any relationships, the meaning of making promises, the experience of free choice and love, presence and the way of fidelity, the experience of human time, the loss of original vision, the loss of presence, etc. I found Farley to be especially creative and insightful in chapter seven, “Discerning Obligation: A Just Love,” (e.g. considerations on the nature of obligation, possibilities of release, the concept of promise, the impossibility of commitment, loss of meaning, conflicting commitments, and alternate superseding obligations) and also in chapter eight, “Commitment, Covenant and Faith,” (e.g. the historic Judeo-Christian meanings of covenant, universality, equality in mutuality, and the individual desire to attain human wholeness).
Occasionally, academics come across a text that can fill a lacuna in an otherwise carefully constructed course or its syllabus. Farley’s Personal Commitments fills a gaping hole, when dealing with the ethical and theological foundations of any life-long commitment. I foresee that it could be especially helpful in three specific areas: First, when used at the very beginning of any theology course on Christian Marriage, it could clearly help to establish a better foundation for later discussion on topics such as discerning a vocation to marriage, the sacramental meaning of marriage, basic canonical requirements and impediments to a commitment, sexual ethics, procreation, the nuptial liturgy, etc – topics which often consume the bulk of very limited time in a semester-long course. Second, it will clearly benefit the vocational discernment process of individuals who enter seminary formation programs, novitiate communities and houses of study. Finally, this text will continue to be helpful to counselors and pastoral ministers who deal with the variety of vocations within Church communities.
Farley’s Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing is a much anticipated and welcome revision in the field of Christian social ethics. I highly recommend it!