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.

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University Ethics

Yesterday morning I was in the gym and something from the Law and Order franchise caught my eye about a NYC high school, where the principal thinks she knows everything and as a matter of fact she doesn’t. The episode had a criminal in it (who got caught) but the story was about how the principal needed to get acquainted with ethics in order to become a better principal. She needed to learn more about accountability, transparency, prudence, justice and respect.

I like stories like this one, stories about ethics changing institutions, making them better, making them flourish. I have done some work on the church’s need to learn ethics and now I am working on the university’s need. Like Yale’s Wayne Meeks, I believe that making morals means making community and making community better.

I began to see this as a priest living in Boston during the sexual abuse scandals. The church, the other institution that teaches ethics was not practicing ethics. There I began to see that though as a seminarian I was trained to study with my other classmates on medical, marital, sexual, and other areas of ethics, so that I could speak to and teach others about ethics, I was not taught, nor were the priests or bishops ahead of me what were the virtues, values, and norms of conduct that I should follow as ordained. Somehow given our status, there was the presumption that ethics came with the vocation. 

In a similar way, university faculty, administrators, staff, boards of trustees and students are really not taught the professional ethics that belong to their sphere of responsibilities. People presume that since the faculty teach ethics, the university should know it. That’s not necessarily the case.

Coming Home by Teaching the Beatitudes according to Lúcás Chan

After two weeks of teaching a bioethics course in Pune in the second half of June, I began July in Bangalore where I taught a very intensive two week course for 26 licentiate and doctoral students meeting 4 hours a day.

The course was “Biblical Ethics” and it was to be team taught by Lúcás Chan and me. Though I team taught courses frequently with Dan Harrington and with Roger Haight, this would be my first time team teaching with a former doctoral student. We agreed to meet in Bangalore on July 1 a little more than two weeks before Chan would be chairing the first ever Pan Asian conference of Catholic Theological Ethicists. We had each written two books in this fairly new field that Chan pioneered. Unfortunately, as many of you know, Chan died of a heart attack on May 19th.

In this light, I decided I should only teach his work. I thought, if I taught both his and mine, more students would naturally ask me about mine. Besides they probably would have been more deferential to my work, though Chan’s you will see is the more significant.

The decision was a good one.

Unlike anyone before him, Chan established normative criteria for doing biblical ethics. In Doing Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions, he insisted that writing biblical ethics required exegetical competency as well as a competency in ethics, particularly in proposing a method for applying the exegetical insights to ordinary moral life. Additionally Chan argued that virtue ethics was a most worthy method for making that application.

Moral Voices from The East

On Monday afternoon we finished, here in Bangalore, our first ever Pan-Asian Conference of Theological Ethicists: “Doing Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Asian Context.”  There were 95 ethicists, among whom were 14 plenary speakers and another 36 presenting paper during concurrent sessions.

One of the finest plenary sessions, “Doing Interfaith Ethics in Asia” involved three speakers from countries where Catholics are very much a minority. Delivering a flawless paper, “A God by any other name,” Sharon Bong covered the trajectory of lawsuits filed by the Catholic church in Malaysia against its government’s decision to permit only Muslims to use the word “Allah” in referencing God. For twenty centuries, Malay-speaking Christian Malaysians have used “Allah” as their word for God, easily predating the Muslim use of the word. In 2008, the Catholic press was banned from using the word, or else it would forfeit licensing. With a final court decision ultimately upholding the government ban, Bong entertained whether forgiveness or resistance marks the proper ethical response.

Haruko Okano from Japan proposed an argument on how feminist Catholic writings on “moral responsibility” could help contemporary Japanese ethics. Explaining how much a shaming culture inhibits any autonomous accountability, Okano considered how often a Japanese apology is a face-saving action that has little to do with assuming personal or social moral culpability. When asked what was the meaning of the Japanese apology for World War II, she answered that it was a way of simply saying, let bygones be bygones, a reply that left the audience speechless.

July 17, Bangalore: The Opening of the First Ever Pan Asian Conference of Catholic Theological Ethicists

Later today we open, here at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, a conference with a lot of intentionality, Doing Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Asian Context.

Last night, as a group of us were returning from dinner, we walked into a young Filipina ethicist, Anthonette Mendoza, who flew 12 hours from her university, Louvain, to get here.  Another, Kristin Heyer, one of the leaders of our Planning Committee, had just flown from California to Dallas to Boston to Frankfurt to Bangalore to get here.  As we were returning to the university Guest house where 45 of the 90 guests are staying, we ran into Vimal Tirimanna who had just flown in from Sri Lanka and Bernhard Kieser from Indonesia.

This conference is the brain child of Lúcás Chan, the Jesuit ethicist from Hong Kong who met Shaji George Kochuthara the Indian Carmelite ethicist at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, three years ago.  The two began planning immediately.  They recruited Agnes Brazal from the Philippines, Sharon Bong from Malaysia, and Robert Gascoigne from Australia.  With them they developed a network of consultation and collaboration.

Farewell Pune, Hello Bangalore

Before leaving Pune, I attended a meeting that Sr. Julie George hosted for some diocesan leaders to discuss ways to engage parishes in Pune on Laudato Si’.  Specifically, they designed plans to help parishes be prepared for Pope Francis’ UN General Assembly Address on the environment on September 25th.

Sr. Julie, a lawyer and activist, heads Streevani (meaning, “the voice of women”), a legal aid center that advocates for domestic workers.   Julie gets things done.  7 years ago she helped start the “Women’s Religious Lawyers Forum.”  She helped to recruit over 90 Indian sisters working in law.  The forum “Pursuit of Justice: Prophetic Response to our times” was so successful that it just finished its seventh annual gathering.  Her partner in crime is Raynah Braganza Passanha, the leader of the Indian Christian Women’s Movement, dedicated to gender equity.   We will continue to work with one another virtually.

Yesterday, I arrived in Bangalore, the IT capital of India, where everyone is young.  In 2001, the city had a population of just over 5 million.  Today, 14 years later, it has more than doubled, with nearly 11 million of India’s 1.3 billion residents.  The city is a work in progress, a microcosm of the development across India.  When I first came here in 2007, I arrived in a tiny airport with one waiting hall.  When I last left here in 2012, the hour long trek to the airport included dirt and unpaved roads.  Yesterday I arrived in a major airport and the ride into the city was on a seamless highway.

Carbon Fasting

In my last post, I remarked that the archdiocese of Bombay had started the practice of carbon fasting for its Lenten practice of 2014 and repeated it in 2015.  I received in a variety of ways many positive responses to the blog.  While I know we are a long way from Lent, still in the wake of Laudato Si,’ we are being asked to change our ways immediately and carbon fasting seems like an exercise that can get us started.

In 2014, the Bombay archdiocese posted on their website a booklet, entitled “40 earth-saving ways to fast this lent.”  It is a simple set of reminders to reduce one’s carbon foot-print each year.   The archdiocese also made an app available that would text daily very specific practices to follow. 

Carbon fasting brings us into the world of an asceticism that’s mindful of our place in our environment.  This mindfulness helps to develop, I think, a new humility.  Prompted by the Magnificat, I have long defined humility as knowing one’s place in God’s world.  Carbon fasting helps us then to develop a 21st century humility, making us more mindful of our place in God’s creation.

“Indian Ambassadors of the Environment” or “Reading Laudato Si’ in downtown Pune”

In this morning’s Sakaal Times, Pune’s Bishop Thomas Dabre, while promoting Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, added that his diocese would promote greater austerity and sustainability measures across Pune.

His response caught the general reaction of Catholics here in India. In fact all the major newspapers, The Times of India, The Indian Express, and The Sakaal Times covered the encyclical’s launch favorably. Interestingly the only dissenting voice reported in the newspapers was Jeb Bush’s!

Indian Catholics already recognize the need to respond to climate change. For instance, Sr. Julia George, SSPS, a lawyer who advocates for women domestic workers told me that women bear the brunt of environmental challenges in India. In rural and urban areas, women are the ones who need to find and carry the water, for instance, that is needed for their families or for those for whom they work. As the environment worsens, so does the plight of women throughout India.

Sr. Nameeta, OCV, a physician from Mumbai, asks, "Can we sing a Canticle of Praise to the Lord, when we wound Mother Earth everyday? This is an enigma. The encyclical exposes our hypocrisy."  Like other Catholics, she believes deeply that the time for the encyclical is now.

11th day in Asia: Greetings from Pune, India

I arrived in Asia on June 3rd for Lucas Chan’s memorial and burial.   I left Hong Kong on the 10th, saying farewell to that city, but not to my friend who was born and raised there. 

I arrived in Pune (the Indian spelling of what the English called Poona until Indian Independence in 1947) by the invitation of one other of my doctoral students, John Karuvelil, S.J.

Pune is the nation’s center of higher education, commonly referred to as, the “Oxford of the East.”  

In 1942 the Jesuits opened its residence, De Nobili College (DNC), for the formation of Jesuit scholastics.  By 1955, the Pontifical Athenaeum for diocesan seminarians came to the campus where the DNC was, and became the school for all students living on the campus.  By 1972 the Athenaeum was renamed Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth.

Today over 850 students are doing graduate degree programs in theology and philosophy at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth. Among its students, over 70 are women, and that group is growing.  Moreover,160 Jesuit students, living with 30 other Jesuit faculty and administrators under one roof, make De Nobili College the largest Jesuit community in the world.

I live here with my host John Karuvelil, who is, I think, a perfect representative of what moral theologians in India are doing today.

He finished his dissertation in 2010, on how the Catholic social justice tradition could positively influence the enormous Indian health care industry.  Karuvelil emphasized how the tradition and its teachings on the common good, option for the poor, subsidiarity, equity, participation, and solidarity, could guide the enormously developing genetics industry in India a segment of its ever-growing pharmaceutical industry.

The First of 50 days in Asia

I am on a journey. I arrived here at Wah Yan College last night after a 16 hour fairly smooth flight from Chicago, flying over the Artic. I got here with George Greiner from JST and we are accompanying Lucas's brother and sister as they return home here with their brother's ashes for a burial on June 8th, the day after Lucas' 47th birthday.

Lúcás (Yiu Sing Luke) Chan, S.J.: Bridge-Builder

Last Sunday, I wrote “Grieving at Pentecost.” Now I would like to share with you a part of the homily I gave at Lúcás’ funeral.  It’s the first section where I consider his foundational contributions to Biblical ethics.  Later I spoke about ways he was a bridge-builder among friends.

In the beginning of each of his two books, Lúcás (Yiu Sing Luke) Chan, S.J. refers to building bridges.  He begins his first book, The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life, with “A schema for bridging biblical studies and Christian ethics” and he introduces his second book, Biblical Ethics in the Twenty-first Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions, with the overarching notion of “building bridges.”

Lúcás wrote about building bridges because he was a bridge builder.   The man whose spiritual and intellectual formation, began in Hong Kong and ended in Milwaukee, had built bridges as he moved to England, Singapore, Cambodia, Macau, the Philippines, the U.S., Ireland, as well as Italy and Germany.

As a moral theologian Lúcás built the bridge between biblical theology and Christian Ethics.  Lúcás’ argument was clear and critical: if someone wants to do biblical ethics they need to have the competency of a biblical theologian who can tell us what the scriptural text means and the competency of a moral theologian who knows how to think through the contemporary ethical application of the meaning of the text.  As Dan Harrington noted in Lúcás’ first book on the ten commandments and the beatitudes, Lúcás makes the argument, but what is more remarkable, he “performs it.”  He takes each of the ten commandments and the eight beatitudes, tells us what each means and how each can be applied by a virtue.  For instance, on the second beatitude, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” Lúcás shows us that the grief Jesus is addressing is not over what one person has lost, but rather whether one empathizes for another’s loss.  The second beatitude follows from and is deeply connected to the first beatitude: the blessed are those mourning for those who are poor in spirit, that is, for those in the community who are struggling.  Lúcás writes, “Such is the lot of the disciples of Christ- when our brothers and sisters suffer, we cannot help but mourn.” (171) Then, after describing the meaning of the text, Lúcás proffers solidarity as the contemporary virtuous application of the second beatitude.  For this reason, Harrington called Lúcás’ book, “a manifesto for the double competencies of a biblically based ethics.”  In America magazine, Harrington called Lúcás’s work, “a milestone.”