Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Jesuit Brings Moral Theology Up Front and Personal. (Catholic Colleges and Universities)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Jesuit Brings Moral Theology Up Front and Personal. (Catholic Colleges and Universities)

Article excerpt

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. …

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