The National Catholic Review

Cambridge, MA. Another reason for reading Professor Margaret Farley’s Just Love, the book recently censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a reason that might occur mainly to people like me, theologian-cum-Hinduism-scholar-and-comparativist: it talks about the Kama Sutra, India’s famous classical treatise (c. third century CE) on erotic love. Everyone knows that Just Love deals with issues central to Catholic sexual ethics today, but it is worth noting that it also, in an introductory way, looks more widely.

For Professor Farley creates space in the center of the book for learning from non-Western cultures and other religions, and most remarkably, for the Kama Sutra. Chapter 3, “Difficult Crossings,” considers first the reasons – closed-minded, lingering colonial condescension toward the rest of the world, and an Orientalist mentality that uses the East simply to buttress our views about the world and what we want others to be, so that we can admire ourselves all the more confidently. It is obviously very hard, if we need to be reminded, for us to take others’ views to heart; it is hard work to break open the circle of the conversation and learn from the wider world without being too judgmental or oblivious to real points of disagreement. 

Farley goes on then to take up four cases that potentially have a lot to teach about sexuality and how to think about it: the “pre-modern islands of the South Seas,” “African cultures,” the Kama Sutra, and “The world of Islam.” She does not delve deeply into any of these cases, but as it were, opens the door to further reflection. She does not, in this third chapter, draw any normative conclusions; neither does she blandly approve of what she presents.

Let me say a bit more about the Kama Sutra, of which you can find here the old (Victorian) Burton-Arbuthnot translation (now very much superseded by recent Wendy Doniger-Sudhir Kakar translation). The Sutra is one of a series of instructive Sanskrit texts, summaries and condensations, that appeared in medieval India. Some such texts covered the law and society’s rules, or commerce and the best practices of kings; others condensed the true meaning of the scriptures, be it the ritual texts of the Vedic hymns or the more theological meditations of the Upanisads. Some, like the Yoga Sutras, distilled the practical and intellectual insights required for a true discipline of the bodily, psychological, and spiritual reality of human being. The Kama Sutras distill the overall meaning, physical practices, and social conventions of love, sexual and social, in premodern India. Farley is correct in pointing out, in her elegant few pages on the framing insights of the text, that it puts love and pleasure in the context of human life as a whole, and makes kama – desire, pleasure, yearning, delight – available to learned readers. (It notes that even if women, barred from learning Sanskrit, cannot pick up and study the text, they do nevertheless relate to the same human realities of which the Sutras speak.) She made a good case, albeit very briefly, for learning from India’s tradition of erotic love.

What Farley does not do is give us a feel for the vivid teachings of the Sutra on erotic love, the parts of the treatise that make it one of the world’s most famous books. Nor will I do so here, but some of the Sutra's section themes are wonderfully suggestive, again according to the Doniger/Kakar translation: In Book 2, we hear about the lifestyle of the man-about-town; reasons for taking another man’s wife; ways of embracing, and procedures of kissing; types of scratching with the nails; ways of biting and slapping; varieties of sexual positions; the woman playing the man’s part; a man’s sexual strokes; oral sex; how intercourse is to begin, and end. Great detail, indeed. But the rest of the text expands our thinking about love and desire still more widely. Book 3 is about courtship, ways of winning over a bride, how to manage a wedding, while Book 4 talks about home life after marriage, particularly in the situation where the man, as was in some parts of India allowed, had multiple wives. Book 5 is about extramarital sex, and the remarkable Book 6 is advice to courtesans on what do with the men that come as customers. Book 7 is full of detailed, nearly pharmaceutical advice on stimulants, potions, things to sprinkle and things to rub, and all manner of ways of enhancing pleasure and potency.

Farley gives none of this detail - which would be enough to keep Christian ethicists, right and left, busy for quite a while - but nonetheless closes her section on the Sutra wisely, helping us to begin to figure out what to do with all that detail which we can and perhaps should read for ourselves. She cites an instruction near the end of the Sutra, on its overall purpose: “A man who knows [Kamasutra’s] real meaning sees religion, power, and pleasure, his own convictions, and the ways of the world for what they are, and he is not driven by passion. The unusual techniques employed to increase passion, which have been described as this particular book required, are strongly restricted right here in this verse, right after it.” (Doniger/Kakar tr.) The quote goes on, somewhat paradoxically, to observe that a clinically precise description of body parts, arousals, ointments and procedures, manifold forms of union, does not merely encourage one to do such things, but also – perhaps primarily for the author, Vatsyayana, if we take him at his word – instills awareness and then dispassion: this is sex, this is pleasure; it is nothing more or less.

Farley’s own book, in its careful considerations of today’s sexual values and practices in light of tradition and divergence from it, might not serve to encourage such practices – as if anything goes – but perhaps to banish all kinds of false views - vague, naive, disembodied - regarding what sex is about. As she says in concluding the section, the effect of studying a text like the Sutra may be that “our eyes [are] turned forward and backward,” are “sharpened” and our thoughts “both concentrated and provoked.” Love is itself; it is just; it is just love, when the world is full of other things too.

As a comparative theologian, I wish to commend Just Love for where it points us, even if it does not quite take us there: the wisdom, lofty and exceedingly mundane, that other traditions — the Kama Sutra, and her other examples too — have regarding the meaning and flesh-and-blood reality of human love. Today the uproar is about the rest of the book, about Margaret Farley, and about the CDF’s insight into the fact that her book does not represent official Church teaching. Perhaps, though, 20 or 50 or 100 years from now, it may also be remembered as taking a cautious first step into that wider world, where we do well to learn from many cultures and religions and their classic texts - without necessarily approving of everything we learn - before finalizing our thoughts on the meaning of human reality and our deepest passions.



PJ Johnston | 6/24/2012 - 10:57pm
I'm sorry, Fr. C.  I was trying to be helpful, but I should have had the self-knowledge to realize that there are people who see the world so idiosyncratically that everything they do to help others hurts.  Peace.
Beth Cioffoletti | 6/23/2012 - 9:47am
You didn't read the article closely enough, Tim (#5) ... Objectively considering orgies and infidelities allows us to get some perspective on these human passions and desires that can drive and dominate us, causing a lot of chaos in their wake.

It's high time the Catholic Church started looking at human sexuality in an honest way, rather than just condemning and repressing.  Look at the mess that is out there now.
Kang Dole | 6/24/2012 - 7:24pm
My guess is that if Father Clooney wasn't such a gentle lamb, he'd shut you down like a White Castle with too many code violations.
Reply: Thanks, Abe. But regarding this whole series of emails: all of this would work best after everyone reads the Kama Sutra! No shortcuts. Fr Clooney
Tim O'Leary | 6/22/2012 - 10:36pm
And what exactly do orgies and infidelity have to do with love, or justice. This is hilarious!

I suppose Sr. Farley will explain how Playboy (or Playgirl) can be viewed objectively and for insight into true love next. Again - what took the Vatican so long?
Tim O'Leary | 6/24/2012 - 7:22pm
PJ#9 and Beth#10
You are referring to adulterous affairs and prostitutes as ''consensual, mutual relationships''? I think this explains a lot. I wonder if Sr. Farley of Fr. Clooney would agree with you.
Virginia Edman | 6/22/2012 - 1:26pm
Thank you for this insightful column.  It is really good, and I cannot emphasis that enough, to hear a reasonable and fair comment on Sr. Margaret Farley's book Just Love.  I have ordered it and I will read it.  I think an open mind at this time in our history is akin to freedom and consolation.
Beth Cioffoletti | 6/24/2012 - 3:33pm
I really like what you say above (#9), PJ.  Thanks for taking the time to elaborate.

When approached with an attitude of respect, the wisdom of other religious traditions so often make more clear the truths of our own. 
Thomas Farrell | 6/22/2012 - 12:01pm
Fr. Clooney: I want to commend you for writing an entry in which you did not overuse the word "dialogue," which appears to be one of your favorite words to use.
PJ Johnston | 6/24/2012 - 12:48am
Sorry, I was too obscure with that utterance - let me elaborate.

It seems like a reach to interpret even ostensibly male-centered texts like the Kama Sutra as inherently misogynistic and tending to reduce women to sex objects when women themselves reputedly have any number of sexual orientations and styles of relating to other people sexually which make it possible for them to draw positively upon the Kama Sutra with reference to their own lovers and desires.  (Just from some of the contents itemized above, one can presume that the Kama Sutra may appeal to certain lesbians, the submissive, women who want to take on the sexual role of men...)  It's a serious failure of imagination to treat it as a text about heterosexual men exploiting helpless women who are reduced to mere sex objects and don't get any pleasure from it, from which women are excluded and unlikely to derive much erotic inspiration.  If anything, the fact that the text has a chapter directly centered on women themselves makes it within the context of its own culture and time emancipatory of women, whose perspective is frequently invisible or marginalized.

It's also a failure of imagination to believe that consensual, mutual relationships are "just" treating other people as sex objects, unless you have some specific evidence that one or all parties are simply involved in the relationship to pleasure themselves at the expense of hurting/exploiting the other and that there is a notable absence of mutual concern.  How often is that really the case?  Most people want their partners to feel loved and cherished, and though everybody's selfish to some extent, nobody is selfish totally.  We're made as human beings to care about one another, and normally we do.  It is the normal situation to care about and respect one's sexual partners, and actually more unusual to reduce them merely to sex objects, even in patterns of sexual relationship that are non-normative or non-mainstream within the context of a particular culture.
David Pasinski | 6/22/2012 - 9:52am
Thank you for this thoughtful commentary that expands the recommendation for this work in ways that that were not previously so well publicized. Not only the insights from other religions and cultures as noted as ''good'', but also in emphasizing the whole notion of erotic love and pleasure. I know that there's been theoretical inclusion of that notion in some Catholic theologies and I imagine your own work on ''The Song of Songs'' has been particularly insightful here. However, to listen to the hierarchy reminds me of a remark of a coed to an old seminary professor of mine who could laugh at himself when she told him, after one of his classes on sexual morality, ''I never knew sex could be so boring!''
That is too often the tone of Christian dna Catholic theology in particular -despite mystical traditions and allegories-and I the corectives of the notion of ''pleasure'' - post Eden -need this corrective.
PJ Johnston | 6/23/2012 - 11:07pm
I have it on very good authority that women have sexual desires as well.
PJ Johnston | 6/22/2012 - 1:59am
Khajuraho!  (!!!)
Tim O'Leary | 6/23/2012 - 6:43pm
Beth #6.
I read the article again. It would have helped if you produced a quote to show that Sr. Farley was concerned about the moral chaos induced by unfettered passion, or its impact on human rights there. I didn’t see it. Neither Sr. Farley nor Fr. Clooney raises the issue of the false anthropology of reducing women (mostly) to sex pleasure objects. Rather, both bend over backwards to be non-judgmental (which is selective for pleasure sex and ''foreign'' cultures) and Fr. Clooney indicates that Sr. Farley “made a good case, albeit very briefly, for learning from India’s tradition of erotic love.” No mention from this religious sister of what Christianity could offer these Eastern cultures who put such a low value on women, that hundreds of millions have now been killed in the womb or shortly after birth because of their perceived subhuman value. Too much fear of ''closed-minded, lingering colonial condescension.''