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April 16, 2017

Father James F. Keenan, SJ

A conversation with Pope Francis

On St. Patrick’s Day, several colleagues and I, all moral theologians, had a 50-minute private audience with Papa Francesco.

In 2003, we founded a network of Catholic moral theologians called Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church ( Our mission is to connect moralists from around the world. In particular, we try to find those most isolated on the peripheries, making sure that moralists anywhere read moralists everywhere. Today our network has 1,100 participants.

In 2006, we held the first international conference in Padua, Italy. Four hundred moral theologians came from 55 countries. Four years later, we held another conference in Trent, Italy. Six hundred came from 72 countries.

Since then we have started a monthly newsletter; published a book series; and held regional conferences in Nairobi, Kenya; Bangalore, India; Krakow, Poland; and Bogotá, Columbia. Now we are gearing up for a third international conference, this time in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on July 26-30, 2018.

We are known for bridge-building, and in preparation for next year, we began thinking, maybe we should establish more formal bridges with the Catholic hierarchy.

“We should go to Rome and introduce ourselves to the Roman congregations,” said one of our planning committee members, Antonio Autiero of Berlin, Germany.

Congregations are like papal cabinet offices, though each one is chaired by a significantly influential cardinal. So we wrote to three congregations and, surprisingly, they expressed interest in meeting with us. We wrote to another three, and they responded in kind.

Then we wrote to Father Arturo Sosa, superior general of the Jesuits, and he expressed interest as well. After all that success, why not try the pope himself?

Long story short, through a variety of connections, we were fortunate enough to have a private audience with Pope Francis.

When we met with the cardinals who showed interest in our network, we introduced ourselves, a non-polarizing group that tries to pay attention to local churches as we address global issues. As moral theologians, we have our own perspectives making the non-polarization a particular charism: we have unity in our diversity.

Knowing how extensive our network is, several cardinals asked us to recommend moralists for different projects they are working on. Each meeting lasted longer than we ever expected.

We had no idea how long our meeting with Papa Francesco would go. We were hoping for maybe 15 minutes. When he welcomed us, we realized the room had been set up just for him and us. After we each introduced ourselves, I commented that four members of our committee could not attend. Then I added that another member, from Hong Kong, had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 46. I presented him a memorial card of the late Jesuit Father Lúcás Chan, and though we all agreed that I should do this, we all spontaneously broke into tears when I did.

Papa Francesco was very touched and repeatedly said that our gift was very gracious. He could see that we are more than a just network. We are a society of friends.

We told him about our work of accompanying newcomers to the field of moral theology, especially eight women in Africa for whom we secured scholarships. Kristin Heyer from the United States presented him our work on sustainability, and Ireland’s Linda Hogan gave him the book she edited on feminism, with essays by 25 moralists around the world.

He focused on a number of points, most especially finding unity in diversity. This is the type of unity we need, he said, one that’s not in uniformity but in diversity. He argued that we need a dialogue based on difference and even invoked speculation of how the Trinity communicates!

When the Slovenian Roman Globokar talked about how we had a meeting in Krakow between Western and Eastern Europeans, he laughed and commented that people must be afraid of us, since we are so inclusive.

When we talked about his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” and referred to what some were doing in the United States in response to that text, especially Cardinal Cupich, he pounded on the desk, good, good.

As we left, he thanked us for our work and for our courage. He clearly enjoyed learning about our network. And we could not have been more please to share our work with him.

We were with him for nearly an hour: the conversation was rich and incredibly supportive, and we knew and felt how blessed we were. We left stunned and speechless.

Keenan is the Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College.