Father James F. Keenan, SJ

Teaching theology in India

September 6, 2017

I am getting ready to leave India. I arrived here on July 31. First I went to teach moral theology in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. It was my sixth time teaching there since 2007. 

After two weeks in Bangalore, I came here to Pune, the Oxford of India. For 20 years now, I have spent my summers helping out other programs in moral theology around the world.

In Bangalore I teach at Dharmaram, the Pontifical faculty run by the Carmelites. Dharmaram, which means “garden of virtues,” is an extraordinarily beautiful campus. The Carmelites run the very successful Christ University, with 14,000 students enrolled, which adjoins Dharmaram. While the Indian government supports the university, there is a solid financial wall that separates its budget completely from the Pontifical faculty, which has about 600 students.

At Pune, I teach at the Jesuit Pontifical faculty of Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, which has about 850 students. I stay at the Jesuit community, with 177 living under one roof — easily the largest in the world.

I love going to India because the students are so hungry for studies and so dedicated and talented. For instance, during my two weeks in Dharmaram, I taught 32 hours of class to 18 licentiate students and four doctoral students. Since I was teaching a course on biblical ethics, I had 12 students in moral theology, seven in Bible and three in other areas. All were either religious men or women or diocesan clergy.

Three striking attributes of my students stand out. First, above all, they work to serve their people. Everyone does their studies so as to have impact on the people of their apostolates. They are constantly asking, “Will this material serve the people of my village or my state?” They are very much building up the church of India with a sense of mission that’s remarkable.  

Second, when you meet an Indian religious or priest, they are invariably connected to a larger project. In India it is important to realize that together with Protestants, Christians make up just around 2.3 percent of India’s population, but that 2.3 percent is responsible for nearly 25 percent of the health care facilities and 25 percent of the educational institutions in India. 

Christians in India have long developed the institutional human resources of their country. The staffing of these centers is much like what they were in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s: women religious. Rarely are there positions for laypeople, and so at the school few laypeople are yet present.

Some of these women religious in India are true pioneers. In 2006, Carmelite Sister Vimala Chenginimattam became the first Indian moralist when she defended her dissertation in Rome at the Alfonsianum University. She worked on the influence of Carol Gilligan, the moral educator, on the moral formation of girls and young women and its significance for educating young women in India today. Today there are seven Indian religious women with doctorates in moral theology, but quite a few more coming up the ranks.

There are other religious like Vimala. I visited with Sister Rekha Chennattu, RA, a leading international biblical scholar of John’s Gospel, who teaches at Pune and is a member of Ecclesia Women of Asia, an active forum for Asian Catholic women theologians. 

I also saw Holy Spirit Missionary Sister Julie George, an attorney who is the head of the National Lawyers Forum, an association of sisters, brothers and priests who are attorneys advocating for the poor. Julie, who lectures at both Pune and Dharmaram, is the director of Streevani, a center in Pune for the empowerment of women, especially women in domestic service.

Third, the students work in collectives and easily form gatherings for publishing newspapers and journals, working with children, hosting sporting events, visiting parishes, etc. You rarely see an individual student alone; even when they study, they grab common space together. 

When I gave the oral exam, they were all gathered in the adjoining classroom, sending the next student into me while waiting for another to return. There is a sense of solidarity among them that’s enormously natural and evident.

I head home to begin classes at Boston College in five days, refreshed by my students, Indian Catholics looking to better their own land and our church. I feel very fortunate to have these experiences.