‘Moral truth does not escape history’

Reviewed By David Gibson
Wednesday, March 1, 2023

A confession: Rarely do I treat a book as rudely as I did the latest from James Keenan, SJ, “A History of Catholic Theological Ethics.” My copy is dog-eared and marked-up and basically ruined for anyone’s use besides my own.

It was pure selfishness. But at least my sin comes with an explanation: I mistreated Keenan’s work because I regard it as such an informative and clearly written exposition of the past, present and (hopefully) future of Catholic thinking on ethics and morality that I could do no other.

I ruthlessly annotated nearly every page, not just for this review but for what I am sure will be repeated future references. Indeed, my conscience tells me that my motivation mitigates my failing. You may think otherwise. But if we have both read Keenan, we will at least be able to discuss our differences — and far graver matters — with the intellectual rigor and generosity of spirit that is needed today more than ever.

Admittedly, the rather prosaic title of Keenan’s book would not seem to portend such a payoff. Don’t be misled. Keenan, a Jesuit priest and moral theologian at Boston College who is renowned both as a teacher and as a prolific writer with a global profile, demurs at the start that he is not a historian.

But if you are looking for a one-volume overview of Catholic history, this is a good place to start — simply because Catholicism is, by definition, a community characterized by what its adherents believe and how they behave.

Most chronicles tend to focus on tales of popes and monarchs, schisms and saints. That is an entertaining but also a limited and rather secular point of view. Keenan’s approach is intellectual history with flesh and bones and a soul, which is what you expect when you are talking about figures like Augustine and Abelard and Alphonsus Liguori.

As Keenan writes, “Moral truth does not escape history.” And that observation points to the second lesson from Keenan’s title: Theological ethics, he explains, is not moral theology per se. It is the integration of classic moral theology (as codified and taught in seminaries after the Council of Trent) with the fields of sexual, social and medical ethics that arose in the 19th century (but which really began in the 17th) and that continue to expand and develop today. This “more comprehensive, inclusive view,” Keenan writes, “is what we now call theological ethics.”

The very emergence of theological ethics, in other words, underscores the crucial lesson that “progress is constitutive of the tradition.” That tradition remains grounded in the teaching of the Gospels but is elaborated in principles and methods developed over the centuries.

This progress is not change for the sake of change or change in pursuit of a particular outcome or agenda, as so many fear. Rather, it is about conversion in the pursuit of holiness, a process that necessarily responds to the people and circumstances of each era. “I am trying,” Keenan says, “to make sense out of why at different times particular ways of thinking about the moral life arose, crested and ebbed, and why other topics, stances and methods subsequently replaced them.”

It is a history “formed not by the grand achievers but more by the innovators.”

The delight of this history, at least for me, is Keenan’s telling of the stories of those innovators and achievers but also his explication of the origins of moral theology in the Scriptures and the lives of early Christians who did not even possess written Gospels.

It is important to remember that the faith was first expressed by an ethic of love, one that likely accounted for the church’s initial growth. But also valuable are the various schools and categories of moral thinking that later evolved, some of them today so obscured by ancient accretions or contemporary biases that we fail to understand why they took root and why they once had value.

Keenan’s treatment of the manualist tradition, for example, is necessarily critical but also charitable, and his explanation of casuistry gave me both a better understanding of that oft-criticized method and a greater appreciation of it.

The same with ideas such as intrinsic evil, which is used (and misused) in so many contemporary political debates among Catholics. Want to understand parvity of matter or natural law, consequentialism or proportionality? Keenan’s got you covered. The difference between probablism and probabiliorism? Frankly, I’m still working through those, and their correct pronunciation. But that’s on me, not Keenan.

The gradual fixation on anything related to sex as a category of sins unto themselves, Keenan argues, isolated by a rigid absolutism and unique in their dominance of the spiritual lives of believers, is notable and regrettable. “One only has to see that girls’ dresses and male sperm received more attention than atomic weapons to appreciate how distant the manualists were from the world as it tried to emerge from World War II,” Keenan writes.

And the development of teachings on human rights, human dignity and self-determination as a response to the horrors of imperial colonialism is enlightening but also depressing. That this development took so much effort, and such a long time, and had to face so much opposition in the church, is sobering. Yet it ought to inspire us for today’s struggles.

Making all of this interesting and accessible is key to another central lesson of Keenan’s: namely, that moral theology and social ethics have expanded from the exclusive province of clergy and confessors to include all of the faithful, both teachers and disciples. This shift has been as dramatic (and necessary) as any in the church’s history.

In just the last few decades, the field of theological ethics has come to be dominated by laypeople rather than the clergy, a growing number of them women, and the discipline has become as global and diverse as Catholicism itself. It can be easy to take this for granted, but this change is not only welcome; it also has a profound and ongoing influence on what the field covers and how it is practiced.

This shift is also relevant for nonspecialists — that is, the vast majority of us pew-sitters. Keenan describes “discipleship” as the foundational identity of the modern Christian, tracing it to the Second Vatican Council’s charge to Catholics of every state of life to actively respond to that call in forming society — and not just preparing one’s soul for Mass. In a sense we are all theological ethicists now.

And we always have been. “Every human act is a moral act,” as Aquinas said; or, as Keenan puts it: “Ordinary life is the matter for moral reflection, intention and action.”

As we seek to fulfill this mission, Keenan’s reframing of the notion of sin that has long been ingrained in Christians of every tradition is especially critical: “Sin,” he proposes, “is the failure to bother to love.” Sins of omission are as important as the sins of commission that we usually obsess over. Sin is not so much about our weaknesses but about the strengths that we did not employ in order to love our neighbor; it’s about the failure even to be aware of this sin.

Moral theology was founded on “the pursuit of holiness,” Keenan writes, “and not on the confession of sin”; and that journey of conversion is communal as well as individual, dialogical rather than the memorization of a series of precepts. For all the brilliance of the medieval period, he notes, the idea of sin that emerged in those centuries was “effectively about wrong actions that we can barely prevent happening.” In those centuries, Keenan writes, “love vanishes from the field of moral theology” and even the works of mercy focused on sinful behavior rather than on mercy as God sees it: “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”

Keenan’s book arrives at a propitious time. Pope Francis’ focus on accompaniment and mercy, discernment and synodality, is an epochal shift away from rote catechesis and toward a restoration and renewal of moral theology. As Francis told a gathering of moral theologians last May: “All of you are today asked to rethink the categories of moral theology, in their mutual bond: the relationship between grace and freedom, between conscience, the good, virtues, longstanding norms and Aristotelian ‘phrónesis,’ Thomist ‘prudential’ and spiritual discernment, the relationship between nature and culture, between the plurality of languages and the uniqueness of ‘agape.’”

This collective rethinking is welcome and necessary, but it requires a guide for the perplexed in this increasingly globalized church and interdependent world, and James Keenan has written the “vademecum” we need to undertake this journey responsibly and faithfully.

This review originally appeared in America Magazine, and is reprinted with permission.