Margaret Farley: The Embrace of Love and Justice

By Delgado, Teresa | National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Margaret Farley: The Embrace of Love and Justice


Delgado, Teresa, National Catholic Reporter


The work of Mercy Sr. Margaret A. Farley, spanning nearly half a century, has influenced and inspired countless women and men. Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in the field of theological ethics and moral theology. A central theme emergent in her work has been "relationality," particularly in the development of moral norms.

As a fundamental starting point of feminist methodology in theological ethics, relationality is attentive to the particularities and contexts of a given ethical dilemma; Farley, 78, has employed an understanding of Christian relationality--how our relationship with each other as human beings reflects our relationship with God--to the most pressing moral challenges facing the Christian community, in wider terms, and the Roman Catholic church more specifically. In doing so, she has emphasized the two central attributes of the Christian understanding of God, love and justice, to assert that these attributes take priority in our assessment of human relationship.

As early as the 1966 publication of A Metaphysics of Being and God, coauthored with James V. McGlynn, Farley presents the anthropological question of who we are as human beings in relation to who God is, as a universal norm of human existence. If we make claims about the metaphysics of God, Farley and McGlynn suggest we are also saying something about the nature of God's creation, especially humanity, as intimately linked to our understanding of God.

With her publication of Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing (1986, revised edition published in April 2013), Farley makes her feminist methodology more explicit through discernment of the ways our commitments to others--both individually and communally--reflect an understanding of God's covenant with humanity. This question guides her analysis: "Can our thin understanding of 'commitment' reach all the way to the power and the tenderness, the everydayness and the awesome mystery of what we recognize as the covenant that God makes with human persons?" The mantra of the feminist movement--the personal is political--is operative in Farley's analysis of commitment; a feminist epistemology of relationality reflective of our experience of personal commitment is no less political or social. In fact, when one considers the Christian understanding of the human person as made in the image of God, Farley would extend the feminist equation to this: The personal is theological.

Farley brought together Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist perspectives for the volume Embodiment, Morality, and Medicine (1995), co-edited with Lisa Sowle Cahill, to reflect theologically on the ethical challenges faced when modern medical technologies encounter the living, embodied persons upon whom these technologies are advanced. Again, the theme of relationality is central within both Western medical and Christian theological traditions that have served to bifurcate the body and the spirit. Feminist methodology informs the corrective for both: that is, the relative disassociation of the physical body from other aspects of human "being" so prevalent in the major religious traditions is rejected by a feminist epistemology of embodiment that values the body in equal measure to the mind, spirit, soul and reason. In fact, one cannot be understood fully without consideration of its relationship to the other. This unified understanding of the body has had tremendous impact on the theory and practice of medicine, as well as the moral implications of these in a variety of health care settings.

While the latter decades of the 20th century witnessed a shift in the Roman Catholic church's official stance on a number of timely social and scientific issues, such as ecumenism and evolution, its position on important questions raised within the context of feminist theology seemed to become all the more definitive, without leaving much room for debate or discussion. In spite of this climate, Farley--along with preeminent Catholic ethicists Fr. …

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