It is not only the Church that needs to be thinking of ethics, but the university as well. While physicians, lawyers, nurses, business people, journalists, and others study the ethics specific to their professions, clergy and university professors receive no such training—and, in fact, often teach ethics for the other professions. Issues regarding accountability, transparency and equity are simply not part of the background of professorial preparation, so it is not surprising that some of the most enterprising unethical scams come from the university.
So what to do? Fr. Keenan will argue that we start by dismissing the common view of the university as an anonymous but liberal space for the exchange of ideas, and replace it with an appreciation of the university as a place for people to develop ideas through discourse. If we want to talk about the university as it could be—that is, through the lens of ethics—then we must focus on particular persons rather than abstract ideas. This is, he says, a very modest proposal, but an urgent one nonetheless.
This year’s Prophetic Voices Lecture marked the tenth in our annual series designed to honor extraordinary people who have drawn upon the prophetic traditions of their faith communities to challenge the consciences of all who hear them. Our honoree, James F. Keenan, SJ, is an internationally renowned moral theologian and one of the most widely admired professors at Boston College, where he is Founders Professor of Theology. He presented his lecture, “The University in the 21st Century: Thinking about Ethics, Persons, and Discourse,” before an enthusiastic crowd in Higgins Hall on the evening of November 18.
Taking his cue from a series of recent scandals involving embezzlement and abuse of power at several American universities, Keenan noted with chagrin that ethics training is virtually nonexistent for university faculty, staff and administrators. In fact, he noted, the Catholic Church was in the same situation until the sex abuse crisis brought such issues to the fore. How could it be, he asked, that other professions such as law and medicine have well-established codes of ethical conduct and mandate ethics training, while the church and the university do not? Keenan responded to this challenge by sketching some of the practices needed to develop a hospitable climate for academic ethics, and describing the sort of discourse that would take place in this environment.
Chief among the practices required in a university culture of ethics, Keenan argued, is transparency regarding the activities of faculty, administrators, staff and students alike. This transparency is realized through open course evaluations and syllabi, administrative reviews, and student journalism, among other activities. Community building is another key practice, which BC is doing quite well through faculty-student dinners, Intersections lunches, student retreats and more. Horizontal accountability would improve the tenure review process and curricular decisions, Keenan said, while vertical accountability would ensure that deans and senior administrators were doing their part as well.
These practices, he argued, should help us to see the university as a place where people learn ideas from other people, not an anonymous place for the transmission of information. This interpersonal ethos fosters a discourse guided by several important virtues, including justice (with regard to those close to us and others around the world), fidelity (to colleagues and benefactors), self-care and prudence, which helps to understand and adjudicate among the preceding virtues. In this manner, the academy will be better equipped to answer the call to solidarity and justice and reverse its current trend towards individualism and isolationism.
The event concluded with a lively discussion with the audience about ethics, interdisciplinarity, and the need to bridge the gap between our academic and personal lives. It was, by all accounts, an exceptionally thought-provoking evening with one of BC’s most compelling thinkers.
"Impasse and Solidarity in Theological Ethics," CTSA Proceedings 64, 2009: 1-14.
In a speech given to the Catholic Theological Society of America, Fr. Keenan discusses his personal story of impasse with cancer and his revaluation of the meaning of solidarity. He argues that, in order for the academy and the church to answer the call to solidarity and justice, these institutions must reverse the current trend towards individualism and isolationism.
"Ethics and the 21st Century University," by Judith I. Bailey, February 3, 2004.
In this speech, former Western Michigan University President Judith Bailey presents her belief that higher education is a public good. She also discusses three sets of ethical challenges facing the university: integrity and academic honesty, diversity, and maintaining access.
"(The Lack of) Professional Ethics in the Academy," Louvian Studies 34, 2011: 98-116.
Other Books by James Keenan, SJ
Goodness and Rightness in Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1992).
The Context of Casuistry, edited with Thomas Shannon (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995).
Virtues for Ordinary Christians (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1996).
Commandments of Compassion (Sheed and Ward, 1999).
Practice What You Preach: Virtues, Ethics and Power in the Lives of Pastoral Ministers and Their Congregations, edited with Joseph J. Kotva, Jr. (Franklin, WI: Sheed and Ward, 1999).
Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention, edited and assisted by Lisa Sowle Cahill, Jon Fuller, and Kevin Kelly (Continuum, 2000).
Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology, with Daniel Harrington (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 2002).
Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 2004); second edition, 2009.
The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 2005); second edition, 2007.
Church Ethics and its Organizational Context: Learning from the Sex Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church, edited by James Keenan, Jean Bartunek and Mary Ann Hinsdale (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 2005).
edited, Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church: The Plenary Papers from the First Cross-cultural Conference on Catholic Theological Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2007).
Toward a Global Vision of Catholic Moral Theology: Reflections on the Twentieth Century (Bangalore: Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram Press, 2008).
A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences (New York: Continuum, 2010).
The Ethics of the Word: Voices in the Catholic Church Today (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).
Transformative Theological Ethics: East Asian Contexts, edited with Agnes Brazal, Aloysius Cartagenas, Eric Genilo, and James Keenan (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010).
Paul and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology, with Daniel J. Harrington, SJ (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).
In the News
by Fr. James F. Keenan, 2009
Speech given to the Catholic Theological Society of America
Fr. Keenan argues that, in order for the academy and the church to answer the call to solidarity and justice, these institutions must reverse the current trend towards individualism and isolationism.