Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics"

From 2001 to 2003 I had the good fortunate to study at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities so as to gain a Masters in Theology and the Arts.

While at UTS I experienced many outstanding professors of theology, including Mary Bednarowski, Jann Cather Weaver, Wilson Yates, and Eleazar Fernandez. One professor that I unfortunately didn’t have the privilege of experiencing while at UTS was Paul Capetz, Professor of Historical Theology and author of God: A Brief History.

Recently, a friend shared with me a review by Paul of Margaret Farley’s award-winning book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. As you’ll see from the following excerpts, Paul believes that “there is no better book on Christian sexual ethics” than Farley’s Just Love.


Farley, a professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School since 1971, has written a wise and thoughtful study of sexual ethics that should be required reading for all clergy, seminaries, and lay persons who, for reasons of heart and mind, have concluded that certain traditional moral prescriptions handed down by churches through the centuries are neither appropriate to their lived experience of themselves as gendered and sexual beings nor adequate in light of historical, philosophical and psychological understanding of human sexuality and personhood.

By way of introducing her topic Farley adeptly guides the reader through the various theoretical discussions and empirical studies that have shaped our contemporary approach to thought about human sexuality. Of particular import are the moral challenges coming from feminism’s insistence upon the full equality of women with men as well as from gay and lesbian persons whose voices have been marginalized in classical and modern discourse about sexual ethics.

What is required, therefore, is a reconsideration of the scriptures and the post-biblical traditions that have set the discursive categories for how Christians have thought about what is moral and immoral in matters pertaining to sexual relations. This historical reexamination of the traditional sources of Christian ethics includes a critical assessment of the philosophical influences upon classical Christianity such as the influential “natural law” tradition so important in the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas among others.

Farley’s own normative proposal involves two terms: justice and love. While much of the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition has elevated love as the supreme principle of ethics, Farley correctly argues that love is too easily sentimentalized and thus distorted if it does not presuppose justice as its more inclusive framework. Without justice, there can be no love worthy of the name. Justice requires that equals be treated equally, thereby undermining any rational for hierarchical relationships between men and women as was the case historically in biblical and Christian understandings of marriage. It also precludes violence within the marriage relation. Justice treats the other person an an end in her- or himself and includes respect for the other’s capacities of self-determination.

Love, which is the most appropriate context for the embodied expression of sexuality, requires justice as its sine qua non. While love, as the cherishing of another human being, goes beyond justice, love must never leave justice behind. From within this revised ethical framework wherein love informed by justice is the supreme moral norm for evaluating the appropriateness of sexual relations, traditional prohibitions against homosexuality can no longer be sustained. At the same time, however, consensual and committed relations between persons of the same gender are beholden to the same moral criterion of just love as are heterosexual relations.

Farley is a disciplined scholar who has mastered all the relevant historic sources of Christian ethics, Catholic and Protestant. Moreover, she is completely conversant with the voluminous contemporary literature on gender and sexuality from multiple secular disciplines. As befits an ethicist standing in the Roman Catholic tradition, Farley affirms the importance of attending to insights from non-theological disciplines such as those derived from the social sciences. For that reason, her work will not appeal to conservative Protestants who continue to maintain that the Bible, if not the sole source of Christian ethics, is nonetheless the absolute source of norms overriding considerations from any other source. Still, her reflections will appeal to liberal Protestants whose model of ethical reflection has more formal affinities with that of classical Catholic moral theology than with biblicism in either its cruder or more sophisticated varieties.

. . . [Farley’s] book validates the experiential and intellectual reasons persons have to be critical of the church’s inherited sexual morality at the same time that she clarifies why Christian faith itself provides a warrant for ethical revision on behalf of its distinctive vision of what human life may and should be when lived out of a love that is just.

There is no better book on Christian sexual ethics. Tolle, lege: take and read.

Paul E. Capetz

For other theologians highlighted at The Wild Reed, visit:
Hans Küng: Still Speaking from the Heart of the Church
In the Garden of Spirituality: Uta Ranke-Heinemann
John Allen on the Censuring of Jon Sobrino
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
“The Non-negotiables of Human Sex”– An Interview with Daniel Helminiak
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman
Mary Hunt and Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Cletus Wessels on the Holarchical Church
Cletus Wessels on the Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Mary Bednarowski on the Power of Our Stories
Richard Gaillardetz on Reading the Documents of Vatican II
Monica Hellwig on the “Divine Hospitality of Eucharist”
In the Garden of Spirituality: Michael Morwood
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Chittister

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