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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By James F. Keenan
Sheed and Ward, 190 pages, $17.95
By James F. Keenan
Sheed and Ward, 128 pages, $14.95
On the role of conscience, sin and love

The moral life and Catholic tradition


We know that today many Catholics look with hesitancy to the authoritative teachers in the church. Many of those in authority think most ordinary Catholics hesitate to follow their lead because they would rather follow the lead of their own desires. In Moral Wisdom and Works of Mercy, Jesuit Fr. James F. Keenan, a professor of moral theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., suggests that maybe one reason people don’t take sufficient account of the traditional teachers is that the tradition, as it developed after 1221, emphasized sin rather than love -- the first part of the primary natural law principle, “avoid evil,” rather than the entire principle, “do good and avoid evil.” One stands still by saying “no” to the bad and leads by saying “yes” to the good. If we spend all our time saying “no,” we are not going anywhere. A leader will be someone who shows us good things to do and be.

Moral Wisdom is a rewriting of a series of lectures Fr. Keenan gave at St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in New York and at the Loyola School of Theology in Quezon City, Philippines. Works of Mercy is a reproduction of his column in Church magazine. Moral Wisdom has footnotes and some dense theological reflection, while Works of Mercy is a lighter set of reflections cast at times in the context of personal stories. It repeats many of the ideas and wording of the first book.

Where does moral wisdom begin? Whereas some would begin with freedom (Joseph Fuchs) and others, truth (John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI), Fr. Keenan, following theologians like Gerard Gilleman, begins with God’s love of us. Our response to God’s love is a call to grow, and this call is present within us as our conscience.

The conscience is, according to Fr. Keenan, not so much our superego providing norms, although that is necessary; it is rather that inner demand to love God, self and others. It is this formed conscience that must be followed, even if at times it is erroneous. Being wrong does not mean that you are bad. Humans often get things wrong. Just as being right is no guarantee that you are good, so being wrong does not mean you are sinful.

That is also why sin is being bad, not being wrong. Sin is the opposite of striving to be good. Contrary to much contemporary sociology, which starts with the presupposition that we are good, or at the very least that we are neutral toward striving for goodness, the Catholic tradition says that most of the time we don’t strive to be good. We don’t bother to love.

These, then, are the experiences upon which all moral life must be grounded: 1) God’s love and our response, 2) responding to the voice that demands we are responsible for our response, 3) acknowledging our deafness to that voice, and 4) opening our hearts to that voice by listening to the sufferers who surround us.

The key “texts” of moral wisdom, according to Fr. Keenan, are: the person of Jesus in the New Testament, the Ten Commandments, the practice of the corporal works of mercy, and the development of the four cardinal virtues.

The Ten Commandments were not central to Christian moral life for the first 1,500 years of our tradition. The seven deadly sins were central until the Protestant Reformation. From the 16th century onward, the Ten Commandments held center stage. (An interesting aside is how many pages were allotted to each commandment in the first moral manuals using them. In that of Francisco de Toledo, which was continually published from 1598 until 1716, the seventh commandment had 88 pages, and the 10th had 35. The eighth had 31. The sixth had 12 and the ninth had none.)

While the Ten Commandments are foundational for all Christians and Jews, the works of mercy, according to Fr. Keenan, provide distinctiveness to Catholic moral wisdom.

St. Thomas held that there are four basic ways of acting that influence our entire Catholic life. These are the cardinal virtues, of which the virtue of prudence is most important, simply because, in Thomas’ theology, it ties one’s whole life together. God is the ultimate end of life. Prudence is our habit of choosing the good means to that end.

Fr. Keenan does not disagree with the importance of Thomas’ list, but while admitting the paradigm of good end and good means, he uses another model of life, the model of life as relational. As he says: “Virtues do not realize so much interior dispositions as much as they help us grow in the different ways we are in relationships.” While keeping prudence, he then adds care of the self and fidelity to his list of cardinal virtues while moving temperance and fortitude to “auxiliary virtues.”

Moral Wisdom ends with a description of how the virtue of hope should be present in our leaders.

Both of Fr. Keenan’s books can be recommended to different audiences: One might take up The Works of Mercy as a source of prayer and meditation whereas Moral Wisdom is a book to make us think. However, I wonder about the incomplete presentation of a central idea in the books: love as it relates to the affective dimension of the human personality.

Jesus’ command of love -- agape in Greek, ‘ahebh in Hebrew -- has always needed clarification. An oft-used distinction between eros, philos and agape surfaces the difficulty of understanding what Jesus is commanding. Are we to have deep feelings for everyone? Are we to treat everyone as a friend? Are we to treat all with some type of care and concern that does/does not have feelings associated with it?

Fr. Keenan reviews these ideas of love by advocating that they are descriptions of types of unity. He clearly distinguishes between love of God and love of neighbor. He also seems to take the position that agape love is fidelity. But his treatment of love leaves me wondering how we are to feel when we love God and love neighbor; are loved by God and by our neighbor. Is love a univocal attitude toward sexual partner, friend and those in need? Some Protestant commentators claim that if we get too much out of the love, we are doing it for the affection, not the faith commitment. It is not agape.

The reason I mention this idea is that U.S. culture seems to demand we get something out of what we do. Why help others? Because it makes us feel good. If our Catholic tradition is to view love (agape) and mercy (hesid) as essential to life in the Kingdom, does it also accept the notion in our contemporary culture that love for and mercy toward others must result in not only helping them but in making us feel a certain way? A discussion of this issue must be part of our contemporary moral wisdom.

Nathan Kollar is a professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., and senior lecturer in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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