2012-10-02

Our Bodies Our Selves

Sister Margaret Farley, a Sisters of Mercy Nun and Yale Divinity School professor, has reflected on principles of sexual ethics -- and thereby earned the Vatican's ire. She finds, for instance, that masturbation doesn't raise any moral problems and can actually help relationships rather than hinder them. She argues that not only homosexual people but also their activities should be respected.

You go, Sister.

She is a careful and thoughtful ethicist who looks at sexual relations using criteria of justice. She is among the increasing number of theologians who have been coming to terms with a deeper understanding of human embodiment -- an understanding that our bodies are not corrupted prisons for our pure and ethereal souls, but, rather, our bodies are themselves unique vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. They are integral parts of our identity.

Lake Chalice ventures to express this point in terms of another theological issue: whatever it is that might persist in an afterlife, if it doesn’t include a physical body pretty much like mine, then it isn’t really me in any recognizable sense. Our bodies, our selves, indeed. You might or might not want to say that our natures also include nonphysical elements. You might say we are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies, or you might say we are just bodies. (I am not sure whether that’s truly an ontological difference or just a semantic one.) Whichever we say, we aren’t who we are without embodiment.

When our bodies (and whatever else there may be of us) love, the first awakening of love may not be a matter of choice. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love.

Yet love can be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence our loves
“by choosing to pay attention to certain realities or not, putting ourselves in a position to discover lovableness..., choosing to believe (even if we do not yet “see,”...) in the value of persons or of anything in creation....We can identify with our loves and freely ratify them....We can also repudiate, or defer, some of our loves by choosing not to identify with them.” (Farley)
Where there is choice, there is space for ethical reflection.

Justice means equal respect. Yet the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to cultural differences and to individual differences.

While we certainly want to keep government out of our bedrooms, at the same time, we all, collectively, have a role to play in creating a favorable social context for personal integrity, freedom, flourishing – and thus for individuals to choose just and true love and commitment.

Farley offers seven norms for love based in justice: do no unjust harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice.

1. Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms:
“physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.”
In love and its sexual expression, we are uniquely tender and vulnerable -- so acute attention to the risks of harm is called for.

2. Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent.

This is a point that, unfortunately, needs us to insist upon. I was alarmed and distressed to learn that recently a fraternity group gathered outside the Women’s Center at Yale University to chant, “No means yes; yes means...” I’m not going to say what they said “yes” means.

To stand on the side of love and also of justice, means adamant support for the ethical principle of free consent – which, sadly, is not everywhere secure. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are also aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Just Love: Sexual Ethics Today"
Next: Part 5: "Justice and Love Together"
Previous: Part 3: "Riding Turtles Down Slippery Slopes"
Beginning: Part 1: "Radical Inclusivity"