Father James Keenan, SJ

Doing virtue in Rome

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

I arrived here in Rome two weeks ago. I will be living and writing my columns for Chicago Catholic for the next seven months here.

I came here to teach at my alma mater, the Pontifical Gregorian University. A Jesuit colleague of mine, Miguel Yanez, was finishing up as chair of the department of moral theology and needed a sabbatical. Miguel, from Argentina and a confidant of Pope Francis, has had several full-time jobs over the  past six years, so I am glad that I can fill his teaching shoes this semester.

Among other things, I will be teaching a graduate course on “virtue ethics.” It is becoming the dominant mode of doing ethics today in the church.

Until about 1980, most ethics was interested in actions that were judged as either permitted or prohibited: think of sexual acts, medical acts, business acts, etc. This way of doing ethics has dominated the way we judge ethically since the 16th century.

Since 1980, there has been an enormous sea change, with ethicists, especially younger ones, wanting to talk first about virtues that we should acquire and vices we should disengage. It’s a return to some of the great figures in ethics: Aristotle and Plato for instance, or Augustine and Aquinas.

They all wrote in the key of virtue. As Thomas said in the beginning of his part on morals: “All of moral theology comes down to the virtues.” 

More important, for Christians, the Bible is written in the key of virtue: Think of the prophets Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah crying out from Israel for justice, demanding that Israel be compassionate toward the widow and the orphan, welcoming toward the stranger or faithful to the Lord and the covenant. 

Think of Paul calling us to love, or being a people of hope, or calling us to believe. Not surprisingly, it is he who brought together the cluster of virtues, faith, hope and charity.

Most important, think of Jesus, teaching us about the greatness of the love commandment, to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. Think of him teaching us to be as forgiving as the father of the prodigal son, as compassionate as the Good Samaritan, as clever as foxes, as vigilant as the five virgins or as loving as he was. 

Virtues — that’s how ethics was taught until the 16th century. Then, for a variety of reasons (too long to go into here), ethics turned to actions that were permitted or not. Now we are in a bit of a renaissance, or what we ethicists call a revisionism — that is, we are busy revising ethics.

Don’t worry, we still are busy prudentially judging actions as right or wrong, but first we want to talk about those virtues, that is, those character traits that we need to develop within ourselves.

If you want to get a sense of the difference between the two, think of sexual ethics. This past century, whenever the church taught on marital or sexual ethics, it always taught in the key of actions: no birth control, no sexual actions not open to procreation, no masturbation, no homosexual acts, no sexual actions outside of marriage, end of story.

Virtue ethics suggests that before we determine what actions are right or wrong, we need to outgrow our vices and grow in virtue. Think of marriage. If marriage is primarily about the right actions, as opposed to the wrong ones, well, aren’t we leaving out a lot of important lessons to be learned?

If spouses are human, embodied flesh, they need to know more than a list of actions. They have to learn lessons of trust, tenderness, respect and admiration, to cultivate a forgiving and reconciling spirit, to be faithful, supportive, nurturing and unitive. They have to learn what caring is, how to remember, what prudence and fidelity feel like, what honesty costs and why it needs to be cultivated. Becoming virtuous is about becoming persons.

For a long list of reasons (again, too long to consider here), virtue ethics has greatly developed in English-speaking countries. So here at the Gregorian, I will be teaching my course in Italian to an international class of Europeans, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and North Americans. 

I will keep you posted on this and other events happening here, like the summit of bishops conferences meeting on the protection of children here at the end of the month.

Until then, may we all live the virtue of patience.