Pathways to Holiness

December 18, 2023 in Featured News, News

James Keenan SJ, (left in photo) the renowned moral theologian and ethicist from Boston College, delivered a lecture at the Loyola Institute, TCD, on 13 December, entitled ‘Pathways to Holiness: Ethics in Early Christianity’. A response to the lecture was given by Pr M. Cathleen Kaveny, also from Boston College, where she is a professor in Theology and in Law. Both scholars were in Dublin as members of a delegation to mark the signing of a new academic partnership between Trinity College and Boston. Read below Dr Michael Kirwain SJ’s synopsis of their talks.

Uncovering a Richer Tradition.

Professor Keenan gave an overview of the early Christian approaches to morality from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries. This period shows a marked contrast with the approaches taken from the seventeenth to the twentieth.

Briefly, the attitudes which became embedded in the modern period were centred on sin, and the need to avoid it. If the basic precept of morality is ‘do good; avoid evil’, then little attempt was made to connect up with the first part of the precept. And yet, for the early Church, morality flowed, not from an anxiety about sinfulness, but from a vision of the Christian life as growth in discipleship, union with God, and love of neighbour. This much richer tradition is being recovered in contemporary historical and sociological research, such as Professor Keenan’s book A History of Catholic Theological Ethics (2022).

On this account, Christian ethics is rooted in mercy and hospitality, with parables such as the Good Samaritan or the Last Judgement (Matthew 25) in mind. Uniquely in the ancient world, Christianity held to a vision of the integral unity of the human person, body, and soul (in contrast to philosophies which set these in opposition). Through this lens we are helped to a fresh appreciation of many aspects of early Christian life and practice, such as the respectful burial of the dead, or the significance of virgin martyrs. The latter were viciously tortured during persecutions; the resources of widows and virgins were directed toward the care of the poor, which was understood as a further challenge to a patriarchal social order.

The growth of Sunday observance is to be seen not as a continuation of the Jewish sabbath, but as a concern that all Christians should have access to Eucharistic worship, including servile workers. And so on.
As Professors Keenan and Kaveny make clear, this is not ancient history. The degeneration of ethics, from ‘pathways to holiness’ into anxious attempts to control or mitigate sin by codifying it into rules (such as we find in the ‘manuals’ intended for priests hearing confessions) is a pattern that repeats itself. Anxiety about personal salvation, in an epoch when human life was immensely precarious, will understandably lead to the formulation of rules. These give the illusion of control over the uncontrollable (until they generate further anxiety, about whether the rules are being properly observed, etc.).

The anxiety of many young people for the planet, and for present and future generations in the face of climate change, mirrors the concerns of their early modern ancestors. And indeed, without the person of Christ calling us to integral wholeness, such anxiety would indeed be unbearable.

Dr Michael Kirwain,

Director of the Loyola Institute,

Trinity College,


December 2023