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Ethicist Margaret Farley Hailed as Mentor by Friends, Colleagues and Students

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications
Yale Divinity School

It was the middle of December 2003, and Yale Divinity School Professor Serene Jones was in Cairo at a women's conference aimed at exploring the role of gender in the Middle East conflicts. Religious, cultural and other differences among the participants–representing the U.S. and Arab world in equal numbers–quickly disrupted the formal discussion sessions that were heavily laden with feminist theory.

But mid-way through the conference, during a one-hour cab ride through the streets of Cairo with five other conferees, Jones had an epiphany. One of the women in the packed cab, an Arab woman named Halla, said, "Let me tell you a story," then proceeded to unravel a lengthy retelling of Tales of a Thousand and OnMargaret Farleye Nights –a version with a feminist twist that Halla said she often used in her work with mothers and wives on women's issues.

Jones recalls, "When Halla finally finished, a long silence fell in the cab. We were sad it was over–the story had completely captivated us." For Jones, who teaches theology at Yale Divinity, Halla's heartfelt telling of this tale had done what the tightly focused sessions on feminist theory failed to do: "It gave to those of us who were not Arab or Egyptian a window into a world of gender construal and power negotiations that we would not have been able to find in our postmodern paper sessions."

Attention to Everyday Practices

Jones's anecdote was one of many recounted at an April 15-16, 2005 YDS conference, Just Love: Feminism, Theology and Ethics in a Global Context, honoring the work of Margaret A. Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School and a "progressive" voice within the Roman Catholic Church. Jones, who studied under Farley as a student, offered her Cairo experience as one example of how some of the themes addressed by Farley in over three decades at YDS–in this case, "the dangers of theory" and the need for "attention to everyday practices"–have made their way into the thinking of Farley's students and colleagues.

Prof. Margaret FarleyA high point of the conference was the presentation of a Festschrift manuscript to Farley in honor of her work. Half of the Festschrift authors were members of the four panels featured at the conference. In presenting the Festschrift, A Just and True Love, Feminism at the Frontiers of Theological Ethics," co-editor Brian F. Linnane of the College of the Holy Cross said the 15 essays in the volume "serve to chart the important influence of feminist theory and methodology generally, and Margaret's work particularly on Christian ethical reflection in the contemporary world." The University of Notre Dame Press will release the book in summer 2006.

"I looked out around me this afternoon, and I said, 'I know all of these people,'" remarked Farley as she accepted the Festschrift at a packed reception in the YDS Common Room. "This is a time to celebrate these truly wonderful former students and colleagues I've had at Yale Divinity School."

Reaching Beyond the Academy

Among those former students was M. Shawn Copeland, an African American theologian at Boston College. Farley has had an impact far beyond the academy, Copeland noted, citing as an example her partnership with women African theologians on HIV/AIDS: "Margaret Farley's work has made the most despised sufferers visible, uncovered our commitment to one another in just love, and offered us a grounding, strategic, and disturbing opportunity made possible only through love of God and love of neighbor..."

Observations by other panelists underscored the breadth of the Farley corpus:

  • Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon and self-described "religious skeptic" who served for years with Farley on the Bioethics Committee of Yale-New Haven Hospital, attributed his appropriation of religious language to the sphere of medicine to Farley–words and phrases like "sacred trust," "priesthood of service," and "pastoral."
  • Lisa Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, pointed to Farley's construction of "sexual ethics as global ethics" as an important contribution, along with her emphasis on empowerment of the laity within the Catholic tradition.
  • Maura Ryan of the University of Notre Dame, co-editor of the Festschrift, described Farley's work with women in Africa on the AIDS epidemic as exemplifying "a journey feminist bioethics in general needs to undertake" to force a paradigm shift in global medicine that will de-emphasize physician-client relationships in favor of a human rights framework.
  • Joyce McClure of Oberlin College said Farley's ethics teach that "experience is an indispensable source of moral knowledge" that can "provide insights about peoples' needs."
  • David Hollenbach, a professor of theology at Boston College, spoke of the cross-cultural difficulties he has encountered in working with Africans about female circumcision and pointed to Farley's work in Africa as an example of "genuine dialogue across cultural borders" and evidence that "commitment to universal norms and respect for cultural difference need not be adversaries."
A Fusion of Kant with Feminist Ethics

The diversity and complexity of concrete human experience, in all of its sufferings and joys, is a foundational component of Farley's work, and much of the conference dwelt on those themes under the rubric of "compassionate respect" and its correlative term "just love"–phrases so much at the heart of Farley's thinking that they are being used as a kind of shorthand distillation of her entire ethic. In 2002 Paulist Press published Farley's book Compassionate Respect, A Feminist Approach to Medical Ethics, and in October Continuum Press is scheduled to release her book Just Love, A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. In linking "compassion" with "respect," and "love" with "just," Farley forges a moral imperative that is a call to justice and responsibility informed by warmth and caring.

William O'Neill, who teaches social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA and works in an inner-city parish, described Farley's work as a "fusion of a Kantian morality of respect with a feminist ethics of care."

Letty Russell"An obligation to respect persons requires that we honor their freedom and respond to their needs, that we value difference as well as sameness, that we attend to the concrete realities of our own and others' lives," he told the audience in Marquand Chapel. Such an approach, he argued, would allow the Catholic Church to endorse the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, without "abdicating its overriding commitment to fidelity and abstinence."

Letty Russell, a professor emerita of theology at Yale Divinity School, referenced Farley's association with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. African women theologians involved with the project have published 36 books on their experiences, she noted, making it possible for them to claim "their own history as subjects of the solution and not just as objects of external solutions."

"Compassionate Respect" and the Law

One panelist, acknowledging that Farley's thinking has not penetrated every discipline, suggested that in those cases "it is the task of those of her students who work in such areas to shine the light of her wisdom upon them." M. Cathleen Kaveny, a former student who teaches at Note Dame Law School, went on to analyze a case study she uses in the classroom "to suggest how Margaret's idea of 'compassionate respect' might be used to illuminate the arena of the law, particularly the arena of common law reasoning."

In a concluding statement after the last of four panel presentations, Farley said, "Compassion can go wrong... love can be foolish, it can be destructive. It needs criteria, it needs measure. It needs to be true to what is love... respect and the norms of respect are needed to shape the love so it doesn't destroy."

Helping Shape the Questions

Farley explained, "I don't want to offer all the answers. I want to help shape the questions.... That's really all I'm trying to do." That seemed to be enough for the audience of friends, current and former students, colleagues and fellow ethicists, who expressed their feelings with a standing ovation.

In honor of Farley, Yale Divinity School has established a special fund to endow a junior chair, The Margaret A. Farley Chair in Christian Social Ethics. Janet W. Tanner, M.A.R. '98, a member of the YDS Board of Advisors and another former Farley student, reported at the reception that about half of the $1.25 million necessary for endowing the chair had been raised. "There's no question this is happening," she said. "The only question is whether it will happen in a year or a few years from now."Margaret Farley

A Sister of Mercy, Farley was the first woman appointed to serve full-time on the YDS faculty and shared with Nenri Nouwen the distinction of being the first Roman Catholic faculty member at the Divinity School. She is widely published and the recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America. She has served as president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics. Respected not only as a scholar but as a teacher as well, she appeared on the cover of the Yale Alumni Magazine in 1986 in connection with a feature article on great teachers. She began teaching at Yale Divinity School in 1971 and earned her Ph.D. from the University in 1973.

Nudging Doctrine Forward

While not an "activist" in the public sense–Copeland entitled her remarks Nudging Doctrine Forward: The Scholar-Activism of Margaret A. Farley –Farley has been at work for decades in the academic trenches as a progressive theological voice in a broad range of areas including feminist theology, medical and sexual ethics, the role of women in the church, homosexuality and the church, and religious perspectives on the environment.

Farley is a founder of the Project on Gender, Faith, and Responses to HIV/AIDS, which co-sponsored, with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, a major onference at YDS in 2001, involving 25 women theologians and ministers from Africa and 25 American women theologians and ministers. Additional conferences are planned in Africa.

She is also co-chair of the Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project at Yale, an initiative that brings together teachers and students from around the Yale campus and also hosts visiting scholars who are engaged in bioethics. In 2003, the initiative received a major grant from the Donaghue Foundation to expand its work.


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