The National Catholic Review
This long-awaited work by America’s leading Catholic feminist theological ethicist, Margaret A. Farley, is the product of years of experience, reflection, scholarship and wisdom. Just Love is decisively shaped by Farley’s longstanding interests in the sexual equality of women and men, and of gay and straight couples; and, more recently, in advocacy for people affected by AIDS, especially women in Africa. Just Love’s thesis is that justice is central to sexual morality, especially justice in the sense of respect for the real identity and needs of the other.

This is an important message in a time in which sexual abuse and violence are rampant, and the Catholic Church has failed to protect children from sexual exploitation, while campaigning against the unions that many gays and lesbians view as essential expressions of their identities. It is just as important a message for a culture, like ours, that often reduces sexual morality to freedom and enjoyment, and regards commitment as an ideal or a luxury. It is even more important under conditions that systemically expose women to threats to their sexual integrity and health, and to their very lives.

In her first book, Personal Commitments (1986), Farley reflected the consensus of many religious ethicists that traditional certitudes and platitudes call for re-examination in light of individual experience. A task of the era was to reconsider the role of procreation in marriage, given the impact of Humanae vitae, and the rapid expansion of social roles of women beyond the domestic sphere. Farley and others reached the conclusion that sexual and marital morality is more defined by commitment than by childbearing. The latter represents a realm of fulfillment and responsibility, but it does not establish a normative requirement for all sex acts and sexual loves. While taking commitments, covenants and fidelity very seriously, Farley envisions conditions that could justify changing and breaking commitments, including marriage. Her focus was the difficulty of personal integration and responsibility, given the realities of change and of circumstances beyond individual control.

Just Love continues Farley’s reflections on the phenomenology and morality of sex, love and relationship. A chapter on Sexuality and Its Meanings is classic Farley: insightful, creative, sensitive and nuanced in conveying the intricacies and mysteries of human beings as embodied spirits and inspirited bodies. Further, Just Love carries to a new level Farley’s analysis of different worldviews and cultural systems that influence the way we experience our bodies, our sexuality, our identities as men and women and the institutions of marriage and family. Particular attention is given to contemporary African cultures, Hinduism, Islam and the lasting troubles of colonialism and its legacy.

Worldwide, sexuality is defined as much by kinship and childbearing as it is by self-expression, mutual love and pleasure. Yet despite great variety in sexual realities and experiences, Farley offers a norm for all sexual unions: just love. This means respect, freedom, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness as responsibility for a wider community and social justice as social and legal respect for all in matters of sex, marriage and family. Farley recognizes that commitment as a sexual norm is highly problematic today, if not impossible. The book reaffirms her conviction that commitment is necessary to sustain love and desire and to bring sexual love to its greatest joys.

Equal, mutual sexual commitment and love require certain conditions and safeguards. An important dimension of Margaret Farley’s current work on sexual justice is practical. She has become an international innovator in women’s collaboration against H.I.V./AIDS. In Compassionate Respect (2002), Farley tells of participating in a summit meeting on AIDS of religious leaders at the White House in 2001. The next year she convened an interfaith consultation for women from North America and Africa. Outcomes included a fellowship program for African women scholars at Yale Divinity School, where Farley is a faculty member; and a series of conferences in Africa, at which women can come together to confront the massive impact of the AIDS crisis on women’s welfare, and to begin to develop women’s strategies and solutions.

Engagement with the lives of African women is much in evidence in Just Love. In most of the world’s cultures and religions, men and women experience sex and sexual identity very differently, due to social expectations and constraints. Farley elaborates on this in the African context, showing that justice is more than an abstraction or a set of ideals or abstract norms. Justice requires attentiveness to the concrete realities defining the realities and possibilities of the individual other. She concludes Just Love by revisiting Personal Commitments and its challenge to work toward permanent fidelity despite the obstacles all lovers face.

Yet the more recent work exhibits a new stage and a new achievement of Farley’s thought. An ethic of sexual mutuality and equality, especially for women, must become a social ethic with a global outlook. The message of Just Love is that justice means equal respect, but the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to individual and cultural differences. Sexual ethics is not just about sex as such, it is also about love and commitment. But genuine love and commitment require a favorable social context that allows persons to make these choices. Just and true love and commitment, as well as just sex, presuppose that both women and men have access to all the goods of social life that support personal integrity, freedom and flourishing.

As a theologian, Farley gives us a social ethic of sex that incorporates both the biblical option for the poor and the orientation of Catholic social thought to the universal common good. As a feminist, she reminds Catholics that their tradition should make its global option for women more consistent, more explicit and more effective, especially in the areas of sex, motherhood, marriage and family.

Lisa Sowle Cahill is a professor of theology at Boston College and the author of many books, including Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics.