Last night, James F. Keenan, SJ, was awarded the John Courtney Murray Award by the Catholic Theological Society of America. Named for one of its early Board members who was a major theologian in the American Catholic Church, the award honors a CTSA member for a lifetime of distinguished theological achievement.
Jim is very deserving of this award. Through his writing, teaching, speaking engagements, organizing of conferences and networks of scholars, mentoring, and editing work, he has shaped the field of Catholic moral theology in huge and significant ways. His academic CV is 54 pages long, and would be impossible to summarize quickly given that it demonstrates the breadth of his work in shaping scholarship in virtue ethics, natural law, casuistry, the history of moral theology, biblical hermeneutics and ethical method, and ethics in the university context. I’m exhausted just looking at his CV. I have no idea how he did as much as he did. And he’s not done.
In his acceptance speech, Jim talked about how his brother helped him to find his own voice at the age of four years old, and how he has tried to help others find their voices through his work as a teacher and a mentor. I’m one of Jim’s students and want to express my gratitude.
“Call me Jim.”
I was twenty-two years old. In my application to Weston Jesuit School of Theology, I had explained to the committee that in my undergraduate years I had the opportunity to study John Henry Newman, John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, the writings of Karl Rahner, and the documents of Vatican II. I had come to the conclusion that the church needed a Vatican III, and I was hoping to be a part of it. I was so naïve. They admitted me anyway. When I got to Weston I faced imposter syndrome and was full of doubt. But I wanted to take every class they offered, which my advisor said was probably a good sign that I was in the right place. One of the things that really struck me in my first semester was the humility of the faculty. “Hi Father Keenan, I’m Emily Reimer.” “Call me Jim.” It didn’t matter that Jim had already written six books and dozens of articles. He insisted that I call him by his first name. Jim wasn’t the only one—Ed Vacek, John O’Malley, Francine Cardman, Dan Harrington–all of my teachers asked me to call them by their first names. This was really hard for me, but with time it became more natural, and it communicated to me that they saw the Weston community as a community of scholars and students learning together and shaping the church together. It wasn’t just at Weston, either. Major shapers of theology in the Catholic Church were Jim’s friends, and when he talked about their work in the classroom, he used their first names. He talked about his friend Charlie (Charles Curran), Lisa (Lisa Sowle Cahill), Beth (Elizabeth Johnson), and so many others. As a lay student, keenly aware of how much I had to learn, Jim’s humility helped me to see “church” as a verb we live out when we work together in egalitarian relationships to bring about the reign of God.
“The tradition is complex and has developed over time. And you need to be able to explain it.”
In the first class I took with Jim, his lectures unfolded a portrait of a moral tradition that is dynamic and exciting. The introduction to moral theology course was structured chronologically and he was intentional about broadening the scope beyond authoritative documents of the magisterium to demonstrate for students the essential role of theologians, confessors, and activist-saints in shaping the tradition. I especially appreciated Jim’s pastoral sensitivity. He was a busy person and could have structured his exams to make them easier for him to grade. But instead our exams were oral exams, in which he asked us questions about the material covered in the class. He explained that it wasn’t enough that we could write papers for an academic audience about the material we learned. We needed to be able to explain to people in the parish various methods for interpreting the Bible in moral theology, why Thomas Aquinas was significant, how the moral manuals shaped Catholic approaches to sin, and church teaching on conscience and discernment. I remember studying for that exam with classmates and as we quizzed each other on the material, I realized how valuable this pedagogy was. Jim was teaching us that our theological education was not just for us. It was for the people of God. And we needed to be able to explain it to family, friends, and even the stranger on the airplane that asks why we were studying theology. He managed to hold together the complexity of the tradition as well as the need for attention to everyday, pastoral questions.
“So what languages can you read?”
When I went to his office for the first time, I told Jim I was interested in the role of women in the church and asked him for ideas of books I should read. He asked me what languages I could read. “Uh, English.” I said, feeling silly. “And I’ve studied Latin, Italian, and French, but I can’t really read or speak them.” I realized how stupid that sounded- who says they’ve studied a language that they can’t read or speak? I looked at his bookshelves and saw the texts in French, German, and Italian. “Well,” he said, “there’s a lot in English, of course, but if you work on your languages, then that will open up other possibilities. There’s so much out there. You could start by practicing with newspapers and journals in the languages you’ve studied already, and go from there. But in the mean time, I’ve got loads of suggestions for books in English….” Jim didn’t shame me, but he offered encouragement and helped me realize what I was missing out on. Jim’s work advancing the scholarship of other theologians is well known. His contributions to the Notes on Moral Theology for TS introduced readers to scholars from all over the world. As editor of the Moral Traditions Series at GUP and as dissertation advisor for 35 students he shaped the scholarship of many others. He would explain that teaching and living in community with Jesuit seminarians from all over the world fostered a sense of the church as global. Last night he was honored in a special way for founding the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church network. I was a PhD student at Loyola University Chicago when I attended the Padua conference in 2006 and this past summer had the privilege of attending the Sarajevo conference. Jim said in his acceptance speech last night that we are more empowered to speak truth to power because of the relationships fostered at conferences such as these, and I agree. I felt more empowered to write about HIV and AIDS after meeting Bishop Kevin Dowling from South Africa. I can find my voice to talk about reproductive justice when I have in mind the witness of Nontando Hadebe, Suzanne Mulligan, Agnes Brazal, Teresia Hinga, and Tina Beattie. While I am ashamed that I am only confident reading in English, my admiration and appreciation of scholars from around the world grows each year and my reading lists keep growing. This shapes the way I teach as well.
For over three decades, Jim has shared his passion for the discipline of moral theology with his students and his colleagues. I always look forward to seeing Jim at conferences. I am personally grateful for how he encouraged me to find my voice.
Congratulations, Jim. I’m proud to know you.