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Book Review Archive

James F. Keenan, SJ., A HISTORY OF CATHOLIC THEOLOGICAL ETHICS, Paulist Press, 2022.

A preacher's review by R. B. Williams, OP.

     I was attracted to this book by reviews I saw in very diverse publications such as AMERICA and The Wall Street Journal!!! The book is not about preaching as such but about a subject that a preacher must sooner or later address: SIN and how the Catholic Church has viewed it as a matter of faith from its foundation until the present day.  Since Pope Francis' work gets attention in the section on modern day approaches, the reader may be assured the book is very up to date.  I may be unfair in saying SIN is the subject, because the author is trying to show how, especially in the period after the Second Vatican Council, moral theology has moved away from the "manualist" juridical approach to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and teaching about the bigger issues in social justice and health care to a position that emphasizes discipleship and mercy and its demands rather than a kind of "moral pathology" that emphasizes what to AVOID DOING.  The historical direction, much more pronounced in Europe and elsewhere than in the USA, has been toward virtue rather than focusing on vice.  The beatitudes and works of mercy are claiming more attention than the Ten Commandments.

     The historical journey in this book is fascinating.  Great thinkers in moral theology is all areas get particular attention: Augustine, Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Bartolomeo de las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, Alphonsus Ligouri, among others, receive individual attention as well as those who have led the way since the 19th century, paving the way, at least in academic circles, to the Second Vatican Council, and especially the document, Gaudium et Spes.  Many of these latter writers, I must confess, were new names to me.

     In preaching parish missions, at the usual penitential service, I have been using an examination of conscience that emphasizes forgiveness and mercy instead of the usual list of "did you do this or do that" that I see distributed in parishes.  I found in reading Keane's work that I have moved, perhaps unconsciously, in the direction of modern Catholic ethical thinking toward discipleship and virtue and away from sin and avoidance of punishment.  It is worth the preacher's effort to read and think about what Keane is describing historically and ask where he or she fits in.


Book Review Archive

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• A Joint Review •
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• The Rhythm of Being... •
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• Redeeming the Past •
• Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings •
• This Is Our Exile •
• Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in and Age of Globalization •
• True and False Reform In the Church •
• Adult Faith •
• The Mystical Way In Everyday Life •
• Racial Justice and the Catholic Church •
• Let the Great World Spin •
• The Priesthood Of the Faithful •
• Living With Wisdom •
• Where the Pure Water Flows •
• Best Advice For Preaching •
• We Speak the Word Of the Lord •
• Great World Religions: Islam •
• Of Books and Preparation •
• After Sunday: A Theology of Work •
• A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching •
• Written Text Becomes Living Word... •
• Voicing the Vision: Imagination & Prophetic Preaching •
• The Death of Innocents •

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