James F. Keenan

James F. Keenan, S.J., is Canisius Professor and Director of the Jesuit Institute and the Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College.

By this author

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Solidarity

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on five prior entries: civility, tolerance, humility, justice and mercy. Today, I want to turn to the sixth virtue, solidarity.

I learned of solidarity by being the son of a New York City police officer.  From my father’s work, I learned about a set of relationships that were neither with family nor friends, but rather with “partners” or fellow officers on the “force.”  These were the people with whom dad enjoyed a certain solidarity, a tangible and very evident one.  At any family event there were aunts and uncles and cousins, there were friends and neighbors, but there was also my dad’s partner, Frank Tornabene and his wife Joan, who fit in just as easily as everyone else.  Frank was never identified as anything but “my partner,” a term filled with meaning.  

At family parties my dad would tell stories from the force, that were always livelier when Frank was there.  My dad was a great raconteur; I heard every type of story from police chases to interrogations to cover-ups.  I developed an appreciation for his vocabulary---at six years of age I knew what a “perp” (aka perpetrator) was.  I am sure that his love for humanity and fairness that so animated those stories is what moved me to be in the field I am in today.  

Later, when he worked in Manhattan South homicide, I would walk into his office in lower Manhattan, and as I did, I knew that everyone knew who I was because like every cop, Dad shared his family with his squad.  From his stories, I knew who they were, and I knew that everyone there had “each other’s back.” There in those offices and from those stories, I learned what solidarity was like.   I was learning about the police force in all these stories and from them I knew that cops relied on one another, reflexively.  They didn’t give it a second thought.  

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Mercy

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on four prior entries: civility, tolerancehumility, and justice. Today, I want to turn to the fifth virtue, mercy which I call “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”      

Since the Gospel reading today is the Good Samaritan parable I thought I would reflect with you on that parable. But I would like to do it today—that is, after a week of racist killings in the US. I want to suggest that if mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” entering into civic discourse is an act of mercy!     

But, we should not be thinking of ourselves as simply being merciful when we enter into civic discourse. We should think of entering into the civic discourse just as Jesus wants us to hear his parable of the Good Samaritan. That is, that we allow ourselves to be decentered.  

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Justice

If you are reading about virtues for civil society for the first time, you might want to catch up on three prior entries: civility, toleration and humility.  In today’s blog I want to propose, as others before me have also done, that the entire purpose of civil discourse is the promotion of justice.  This insight is often forgotten, in part, because in our contemporary world, civil discourse is simply viewed as the autonomous right to say whatever one wants in the public arena.  While that right to free speech is guaranteed in many contemporary democracies, the purpose of civic discourse is not to provide the opportunity to bloviate, but to promote the well being of human society as a whole and of all its members.    

We know that ethics itself exists for human flourishment, that is, ethics exists to improve the well being of each and every one of us.  The future of human society, its common good, depends then on a civic discourse that promotes that ethical search to enrich and develop the common good and the world in which we find it.  Here we can think, for instance, of those discourses that sought to improve the well being of all and yielded significant designs toward that end: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thomas Aquinas recognized the virtue of justice as being about giving to each their due.  In more contemporary theories, John Rawls has understood justice to be about fairness.  There’s a lot of resonance with fairness since a child’s first moral perception is usually expressed as, “That’s not fair.”   When a child makes that expression, the child in all probability is trying to make her/his first entrance into civic discourse.  

The humanity of this insight is that while the child is capable of recognizing that fairness is in jeopardy, but the child often cannot name what specifically would be fair.  Still, the child’s remark reminds us, that the child has been dependent on and the recipient of fair distribution until this one day, when something provokes the child to question whether the daily modes of distribution are fair.

Virtues for Civil Society: Humility

If you are reading about virtues for civil society for the first time, you might want to catch up on two prior entries: I began with civility and then toleration

As I start on this installment, I am not surprised that many of the comments are about the limits of tolerance and civility. I appreciate these issues, but inasmuch as I wrote this series because I believed there was too little virtue in civil discourse, I am not really that interested in matters pertaining to having too much of these virtues, though others may, pace Popper.

In fact, if we remember from Aristotle that virtue is the mean, as in the mean between extremes, then too little virtue or too much virtue is in itself often a tendency toward its contrary vice. Moreover, the virtue of prudence helps us to set the mean for a proper tolerance, a proper civility, etc.  

I am saving prudence for the end, because, after all, it helps us to set the mean for all the other virtues (except charity, of course). So while people are debating or practicing the limits of tolerance or civility, I am just interested in some civility, some tolerance, which I think is largely missing in our political climate.

I do want to add, however, that I don’t use toleration negatively, as many of the commentators do when talking about their limits of tolerance, as in tolerating climate change deniers. I am arguing that the virtue of tolerance is present not only in the face of positions that we might find absurd, but rather in every instance in civil discourse when we are open minded, magnanimous, or interested in other’s points of view. Still, toleration does not mean per se to accept another’s position,  but rather just an openness to another’s point of view.

Finally, I do not think that toleration and civility are adequate in themselves for civil discourse, whence I am offering a whole set of virtues.  So now to our third virtue, humility.

Virtues for Civil Society: Tolerance

I have initiated a blog series on the virtues for civil society. In my first entry, I proposed the virtue of “civility” which I noted is what keeps us from barbarousness. Emphasizing that it’s a virtue, I added that it is marked more by a sense of proportionality or mutuality of respect than by fixed rules of politeness that often can exclude others. I added that this sense of proportionality was publicly, not privately estimated, at least inasmuch as we are talking about civil, public discourse.

As I turn to the second virtue, I acknowledge that I don’t think that virtues automatically conform with one another. In fact, I think that virtues can conflict, just as virtuous persons can conflict. So I try to take one virtue at a time as I offer the different ones that I think we need for contemporary civil discourse. But I will come back to that “conflict” later when I turn to prudence.  More on that later…

Now I turn to tolerance noting that I might need to overcome some bias that some people today might have who think of tolerance as somehow connoting arrogance, condescension, or something else, not worthy of it being a virtue.

Tolerance, historically, has had a very positive meaning. To be tolerant is to be open to understanding, to be willing to listen and learn, to allow other opinions, and more than that, to try to understand them. A tolerant person welcomes diversity, appreciates pluralism, believes that differences help us to promote a better society. Tolerant persons are more inclined to heterogeneity than homogeneity: they believe that different approaches bring us in sum better solutions.

Virtues for Civil Society: Civility

Civil society depends on virtues. Society is not civil without them. Today, they seem everywhere to be in short supply and at the risk of seeming platitudinous, or worse, sanctimonious, I will proffer several virtues that might put a variety of events, including Brexit and the forthcoming US election, in a more socially responsible context. Every other day, I will post a new one. Today is the most foundational, civility.     

On Thursday, June 23, on WGBH Tom Ashcroft hosted a program on Mob Internet Shaming. Throughout the forty-six minute program, there was a refrain from callers who roughly argued that there are no rules for tweeting or other postings on social media. The host and those interviewed were clearly not disposed to the refrain, but for the duration of the program, no one on either side of the debate mentioned the necessity of civility in their replies.       

Years ago I thought that civility was a minimalist virtue, in that it expects so little. Then I was editing with the Mennonite theologian, Joseph Kotva, an ecumenical collection of essays on virtues that could be used for the churches. We called it, Practice what You Preach. Among the contributors, Vigen Guroian submitted an essay to us on civility, that made me first think, couldn’t you give us something more?  Instead, he presented a Christological “debate” in the Armenian church that desperately needed civility. The overall tone of the debate lacked a great deal of proportionality. There was no warrant for the outbursts, the personal assaults, etc.   

Toward an Ethics of Participation and Hope in Latin America: Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church Convenes in Bogotá

We just wrapped up a four-day conference here in Bogotá, Colombia brilliantly organized and realized by the indomitable Maria Teresa (MT) Davila from Andover Newton Theological School and Director of the Latin American Region of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC). 

Biblical Ethics in the Twenty-First Century

This past weekend Paul Cizek and Paul Pasquesi, both doctoral students in the Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity area of the Theology Department at Marquette University, hosted a superb conference, “Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: In Memory of Rev. Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.”  The conference was a reflection on the work of Lúcás who died of heart failure last May while on the Marquette faculty. The conference title comes from Lúcás’ second book Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions (Paulist, 2013).

The Conference began with papers by two of his Marquette Colleagues, Joseph Ogbonnaya and John Thiede, S.J., commenting on Lúcás’ cross-cultural approach to biblical ethics and how that enhances their work in African and Latin American theology respectively.  Following them, D. Glenn Butner, with his newly minted doctorate and Chris Gooding, another doctoral student looked at how Lúcás’ methodology in virtue ethics helped them in their work.  They emphasized Lúcás’s proposal of the four key components that virtue ethics provides for the right understanding and application of scripture: character formation, the shaping of both personal and communal identities, the practices and habits that can accomplish this, and the worthy exemplars that live the virtues.  Gooding’s essay was particularly interesting in suggesting that, by using Lúcás’ method, the parable of the shrewd manager (Lk 16: 1-15) should be read as an act of “slave resistance.” 

Garbage Cities

I’m here in Managua with the sophomore class of Boston College Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program (GPSP).  I come here with the sophomore class each year as an opportunity for these students with extraordinary capacity to understand better the need for human development, social justice and the common good.

Grief and Gratitude at Thanksgiving

I was at the women’s medium security prison in Framingham Sunday where I celebrated the Thanksgiving liturgy for them.  Presiding at Framingham for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Mothers Day is, as you might imagine, rather sad.

I began by telling them that that day was the 16th anniversary of the death of my niece Megan who died at 19 after a 3-year battle against leukemia.  Three days earlier it was the six-month anniversary of Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.’s sudden death at 46 years of age.  Lúcás is my best friend.

I told them I had talked with my sister, Deb, Megan’s mom, about how much I was grieving over Lúcás’s death this thanksgiving.  I told her that I realized I would mourn him the rest of my life and she simply said, yes.

The women at Framingham felt comforted that I knew what grief was like at Thanksgiving.