James Keenan, SJ: The Moral Life

The Moral Life offers scholars and students of Christian ethics a novel perspective on what we need to know not only to be and live morally but also to teach and share with others what they need to know. Read on for a Q&A with the author about the inspirations for the book, the structure of the lectures, and what audiences can take away from it.

You mentioned that The Making of Moral Theology by John Mahoney was an inspiration to you. How has Mahoney’s work made an impact on yours?

Before Mahoney’s Making, there was no history of Moral Theology, or what we call today, Catholic Theological Ethics. His book was an immediate success in the field. The book was published in 1987, the year I finished my dissertation; I used it for my first semester of teaching that fall. He presented his argument in the format of the Martin D’Arcy, S.J., Memorial lectures that he delivered earlier at the Jesuit College at Oxford University, Campion Hall. These lectures (anywhere between five to eight of them) are given in memory of the first Master of Campion Hall every year or two by a Jesuit with an internationally recognized reputation.

Mahoney’s book was not a comprehensive history; rather he explored thematically eight historical impulses that gave shape to today’s moral theology. Since the day I bought that book, I dreamed of one day being invited to give the D’Arcy lectures. I should add, that over the last thirty-five years, I have developed my own history, considerably different than Mahoney’s, that was just published, A History of Catholic Theological History, Paulist Press, 2022.

You have broken down The Moral Life into eight stages. What are these stages?

The eight stages are in two parts. The first is Grief, Vulnerability, Recognition, and Conscience; I believe they constitute the foundations of contemporary ethics. I think the questions and insights in the first four chapters could resonate with many people regardless of their ethical or religious tradition. The second is the Call of Discipleship, Grace and Sin, the Virtues and the Beatitudes, Mercy and the World Church. The second part is, then, a distinctive pathway for realizing a contemporary vulnerability ethics in the context of Christianity and, more specifically, Catholicism.

How do you think these lectures might resonate in a secular context?

I think they can resonate with any interested reader. They were prompted by a question that I have had after thirty-five years of teaching ethics. Like others in my field, I teach what are arguably right ways of conduct, and though my students learn what they should do in a variety of fields of conduct (broadly speaking), it is never clear that they will actually do what needs to be done. Forming people to know what right conduct is does not train them to be responsive in the first place.

The first four lectures explore then why we should be responsive. First, through grief I explore how each of us learn that we are viscerally, powerfully, naturally connected to one another. Through vulnerability, I argue, that we have within us a disposition that is responsive to another and that it becomes activated when we recognize the other in need as being one like us in our humanity. Finally, it is to our consciences that we turn in such situations, to find the answer to, Now what do I do?

How you do you think these lectures relate specifically to a Catholic context?

I decided after engaging the foundational issue of why we are morally responsive, to look at the resources of that Christians and in particular Catholics have at their disposal. Therein I explore the dynamics of discipleship, including how we should think of grace and sin, and then the virtues, and finally the exemplars of the Communion of Saints, the practices of the Works of Mercy, and the invitation to grow through the Eight Beatitudes.

I write the second part very much aware that someone not familiar with the Catholic tradition could understand it.

Inasmuch as I think of ethics as not singularly a personal issue but as a collective one, the turn to a tradition serves, I hope, as an illustration as how through society we learn to live the moral life.

What prompted you to publish The Moral Life as a series of lectures?

I found the lecture format far more engaging than the academic chapter. When I delivered the lectures, they were live streamed and the engagement was quite exciting. Like Mahoney’s, I wanted these pages to provoke, to be not the last instructive word, but rather a way of prompting others to enter into discourse on the moral life. The lectures were made for collectives, reading groups, classes, or simply virtual friends. I hope they engender discussion and, of course, responsive social action.