Father James F. Keenan, SJ

Sarajevo 2018

July 25, 2018

Sixteen years ago, my Boston College colleague Steve Pope was visiting Rome, where I was teaching at the Gregorian University. I offered to introduce him to some Roman moral theologians. 

I invited two each from the Gregorian and from another Roman university, the Alfonsianum, and the six of us had a really great dinner. These four internationally known theologians were working at universities only 1 kilometer away from each other. 

Each moralist had worked in Rome for at least a dozen years. At the end of the evening, each one thanked me for organizing the dinner. I asked, “How often do you get together?” “We have never met one another,” they answered. There and then I decided we needed to get moral theologians together more often. 

Toward that end, I founded a network of moral theologians in 2003 at a meeting at Leuven in Belgium. There we called our network, “Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church” and in our mission statement, we wrote: “Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church recognizes the need: to appreciate the challenge of pluralism; to dialogue from and beyond local culture; and to interconnect within a world church not dominated solely by a northern paradigm.” 

In 2006 we hosted for the first time in history an international meeting of Catholic theological ethicists. Four hundred came from 63 countries to Padua, Italy. The major theme of the conference was listening to voices beyond our own local cultures. 

We decided to meet again four years later in Trent, Italy, where the church’s council was held between 1545 and 1563 and where the field of moral theology (today, theological ethics) was first created. Trent in 2010 was even more successful than Padua with 600 participants from 72 countries. The conference was designed to consider the past, the present and the future.  

Four major developments emerged from Trent. First, we developed a website: www.catholicethics.com. Second, in December 2010 we launched a monthly newsletter, “The First,” which contains regional news, updates, book launches, job openings and a monthly op-ed piece that comes from each of the five continents. (You can subscribe for free on our website.)

Third, we started a book series and since then have published six books on the conference of Trent, feminism, the environment, immigration, biblical ethics and the theological ethicist in the local church. Our seventh volume will be on homelessness. 

There are over 165 international contributors in these seven volumes. This series has so affected theological and ethical research that when we write about ethics today, we think globally, we look beyond our localities and try not to be dominated by the northern paradigm. In other words, we consider all of God’s people.

Finally, before holding another major international conference, we decided to deepen our network and meet regionally on four of the continents: Nairobi in 2012, Krakow in 2014, Bangalore in 2015 and Bogota in 2016.  

This week we are hosting our third international conference in Sarajevo. With nearly 500 people coming from 80 countries (including Cardinal Cupich), this time we will have more people from the global south than the north. 

In the wake of its historic siege (1992-1995), Sarajevo today offers us three vital contexts: peace-building in the aftermath of ethnic conflict, inter-religious and cross-cultural dialogue in a predominantly Muslim city (85 percent) and economic struggle (40 percent unemployment).

 We are meeting to address three urgent issues: the climate crisis, its impact on already marginalized populations and the tragic banality of contemporary political leadership. We come here with a very vibrant network because today there can be no bystanders.

In a world where nationalistic populism tears apart any global cooperation, where the abandonment of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change mirrors the abandonment of migrants and refugees, where civility is sacrificed by self-interest and the common good is trampled underfoot, we need to be globally connected and active, abandoning the domination of the global north and looking beyond local interests.

We need to keep growing, deepening our network, making it more effective and more responsive to a world and church in dire need. We have the capacity, the resources and the commitment to do that.