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Catholic Colleges & Universities

Jesuit brings moral theology up front and personal

Cambridge, Mass.

Much in the life of Jesuit Fr. James F. Keenan runs like an all-terrain vehicle. Teaching and preaching, writing and speaking out, he travels wide stretches over the bumpy, thorny territory of ethical issues. His sturdy chassis is the Catholic moral tradition shod with the flexible tires of Christ’s compassionate vision.

Keenan has taught theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology since 1991. He has recently written to the Catholic bishops arguing against U.S. military intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq. His views are also widely known on hot-button social issues, such as condom use and clean needle exchange in the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Most recently, Keenan’s outspokenness on homosexuality and the church crisis has drawn fire from conservatives.

Those who know him best attest to a deeply caring priest, one whose primary moral operative is the Christ-centered virtue of mercy.

One of his colleagues described him this way: “He’s personally brilliant, widely read in his field. That knowledge expands all over the place, everywhere from medical to social ethics, from this subject to that one. Yet, he’s somebody who can communicate to ordinary people. He is what a Jesuit scholar should be. He knows his field, but at the same time he’s a minister of the word, preaching and teaching on every occasion,” said New Testament professor and Jesuit Fr. Daniel J. Harrington.

Harrington and Keenan together lead a New Testament and ethics seminar at Weston. They have written a new book, due out soon, titled Jesus and Virtue Ethics. Moreover, another book that Keenan edited -- Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention -- has just won the Alpha Sigma Nu National Jesuit Book award in the discipline of philosophy and ethics.

Harrington marveled at the enormous richness and depth that Keenan brings to their course. “I can outline what I am going to do with fairly technical, dry -- not to me -- scriptural material.” Quickly, “Jim jumps in and comes across with new ideas, fresh perspectives, and very thoughtful perceptions making connections to the wider concerns of moral theology.”

Those wider concerns Keenan explores in his fundamental moral theology course. Keenan’s foundational course is one of the most popular, drawing students not only from Weston, but also from any number of the eight other schools in the Boston Theological Institute, an ecumenical consortium.

Traversing the landscape

This semester, for example, more than 50 people have enrolled in the introductory course at Weston Jesuit, an international theological center sponsored by the Society of Jesus, both a graduate divinity school and a pontifical faculty of theology. Students pack the classroom on a bright, sunny, early-in-the-semester morning. Keenan stands before them, up front and personal, delivering the lecture and facilitating the discussion that follows.

The morning’s subject is part one of a two-session focus on scripture and moral theology. “Moral theology should be rooted in scripture and nourished by charity,” he said, “so that the truth of Christian vocation is made manifest. The question arises, however: How do we get to a moral theology nourished by scripture?”

Today is only the beginning, as students ponder the course syllabus. In 25 two-hour sessions Keenan traverses the entire landscape, the history of moral theology, all the way from the first millennium to the medieval era, from the 16th century through World War II to moral concerns in contemporary life.

Students learn to speak about ethics and moral theology with their own voice. Nurturing the development of that individual point of view on ethics is a hallmark of Keenan’s mentoring style. “I’ve been encouraged to become confident of my own theological perspective,” said Jayme Hennessy, a laywoman and doctoral student whom Keenan advises.

What also attracted Hennessy to study under Keenan was his approach to virtue ethics, especially his promotion of mercy. “Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” Hennessy said, in describing Keenan’s perspective. “That approach captured my imagination,” she said. “This vision of mercy moves us into the experience of the one who’s suffering, enabling us to get a sense of what’s really going on there.”

Suffering is no stranger to the life of Jim Keenan, who grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The son of a Manhattan police officer, his mother was a secretary and homemaker, raising five children. “We were five. I have two brothers and two sisters,” he told NCR.

Before Keenan entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 17, one tragedy had already struck. The Keenan family home burned to the ground, and the family relocated to Long Island where Jim attended a diocesan high school. Through the years there were other Keenan family tragedies to bear. His brother Bob drowned in the bathtub after suffering a seizure. Keenan’s father died unexpectedly. Most recently, his young niece Megan died after a painful battle with leukemia.

“All of these were major family-centered traumas,” said colleague Jesuit Fr. Jon D. Fuller, a physician who together with Keenan teaches an ethics seminar on AIDS and HIV prevention.

Dan Harrington remarked upon the effect of these life events on Keenan. “He entered into those things in a very profound way, letting them influence him as a person and moral theologian,” Harrington said.

Keenan graduated from Fordham University in 1976. He briefly taught high school, before earning a master of divinity degree (with honors) at Weston.

During his second year at Weston, he was told to earn a doctorate. “I went to Rome’s Gregorian University to study with two people, Klaus Demmer and Josef Fuchs.” Under Fuchs, Keenan wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Being Good and Doing the Right in Saint Thomas’ Summa Theologiae.” Before joining the faculty at Weston, Keenan taught moral theology at Fordham.

Because of his European theological training, Keenan saw the potential for more international students at Weston Jesuit. “When I came here there were only eight people in our licentiate program and no doctoral students. Now we have 40 to 45 students pursuing the [licentiate in sacred theology], many of whom are from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. There are 18 students enrolled in the doctoral program,” which Keenan also directs.

“Our students really love theology,” he explained. “There’s a certain honesty about the students, lay students, Jesuits, other religious, African priests. People are pretty humble about where they are. They’ll acknowledge quite quickly what they need to learn.”

Over the years, he said, “I learned a lot about the Catholic moral tradition, and I felt it was important to teach it to graduate students. Too many conservatives -- or reactionaries -- teach it. More people could be teaching the tradition the way, for instance, Charlie Curran teaches it,” Keenan said.

“I found in lecturing that students liked using the tradition of making moral distinctions. They also liked that they were not only getting the history and tradition, but also getting it very positively, as opposed to a restrained way. It was urging them to become better people,” he said.

That observation cuts to the core of Keenan’s emphasis on virtue ethics. It’s more than problem solving or simply doing good deeds. “It’s the life of the whole person,” explained Harrington. “Jim’s always building from that life, the life of Christian spirituality, and how the Christ event informs a person’s life.” It’s ethics from the inside out.

Perhaps no other event has shaken the faithful in the Boston archdiocese as much as the sex abuse scandal. Yet in the wake of this tragedy, Keenan sees all kinds of good people, speaking out in positive ways in churches and in the media.

‘A great time to be a priest’

“It’s a great time to be a priest,” he said, “and to be a layperson today. There’s never been more of a need for active laypeople or for caring, active clergy,” he said. “When have we ever seen so many of our faculty involved with the media and speaking up? And it’s not like people are knocking on the door, saying, ‘I’ve got something to say. I’ve got something to do.’ People are making real linkages between theology and church history, biblical studies, systematic theology, and ethics and the life of the church. It’s just great, this type of response that is emerging -- most of it from laypeople. That’s how I got involved. Parishioners at St. Peter’s in Cambridge asked, ‘Are you going to say anything in your sermons about the crisis?’ ”

Keenan has indeed preached, spoken out and written about the scandal-ridden local diocese and church universal. One article in particular, published last spring in the British publication The Tablet, “Sex abuse and power,” drew fire from the Catholic right. “The molestation and raping of children are not primarily sexual acts, they are violent acts of power,” Keenan wrote. Gay priests are not to blame, he argued.

George Weigel, for example, wrote this: “When a prominent Jesuit theologian argues that the issue in the molestation of teenage boys by priests is not homosexuality but a distorted sense of ‘power,’ it seems clear that there’s a lot left to fix in the theologian’s guild.” Weigel is a senior fellow of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

It’s not so much the ugly name-calling as much as the suspicion and casting of those with whom one disagrees as outsiders that Keenan finds interesting. “Releasing statements questioning people’s orthodoxy -- even of their fellow bishops -- this is not good for the church,” he said. “I disagree with plenty of people, but I don’t have to say they are unorthodox. When you say someone is unorthodox, you’re saying their opinion should not be heard in your tradition,” he explained.

“I never heard Thomas Aquinas call Peter Lombard unorthodox. But he did say he was wrong,” Keenan added. “It’s very unfortunate that people don’t believe we can disagree but instead need to mark people, ‘outsiding’ them,” he said.

Keenan cited the case of Fr. Donald Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood. “Now I have disagreed with Don Cozzens [over gay priests], but this is a great person in the church right now. This is a monsignor who ran a major seminary, whose book is so important. To question his orthodoxy, what’s that all about?” he said. “This playing of the orthodoxy card is a big problem right now,” he added.

Keenan voiced other concerns, emerging in ecclesial life of the church, brought about by scandal and crisis. During an interview, he identified problems that need to be addressed, issues such as the “culture of administration in the church today that is really so medieval, with its secrecy and hierarchy, its lack of accountability,” he said.

Recently, “I read a book by Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights,” he said. “The concept of personal human rights is not a construct of the Enlightenment, Tierney argued, but of the famous canon decrees of the 11th through 13th centuries. So, the idea of human rights came from the church.”

Yet, “Why is it that the notions of due process are so arcane, so unknown in this archdiocese, in most archdioceses, in our congregations in Rome? We have to be asking why the institution that gave us personal rights, articulated them, even institutionalized them, why is it now so far behind the democratic and just instincts we find in other institutions around the world?”

These are the kinds of razor-sharp questions and comments that perk up the ears. Jon Fuller recalled one other occasion a while back when Keenan challenged the Society of Christian Ethics to deal with the AIDS crisis as it affects the lives of real people.

Yes, Keenan is “tenacious,” Fuller said. But, his theological and pastoral voice is that of mercy. Fuller recalled a comment by Sr. Aelred Timmins, a Scottish nun who ministers with the homeless and people living with AIDS: “ ‘The only principle I really need is mercy,’ [she said]. Her insight really struck a chord with Jim,” he said.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002