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Commandments of Compassion (Church Book (shw)) Paperback – August 1, 1999
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Commandments of Compassion is a thoughtful, insightful, and enriching work. Written in a very engaging and personal style, it would serve well... for one's moral and spiritual enrichment. (New Theology Review)
About the Author
James F. Keenan, S.J., has an S.T.D. from the Gregorian University and currently teaches at Weston Jesuit, where he is professor of moral theology and director of the doctoral program.
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Keenan stresses that morality arises from prayer and spirituality; gives much attention to the difference between being good and doing the right thing; and comments on a contemporary understanding of "the ministry of moral theology." His chapters on giving moral advice and listening to the voice of suffering are the best in the book.
It is unfortunate that the author repeatedly supports his opinions by contrasting them with a romanticized negative view of Catholic moral theology prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). His emphasis on sins of omission is well taken, but when he states: "Sin is simply not bothering to love." (p. 91), he vastly oversimplifies the complex reality of sin and leaves the impression that for him all sins are sins of omission.
Keenan quotes Vatican II's admonition that "[Moral theology's] scientific exposition should be more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching." (p. 129) However, his use of the Scriptures is superficial even to the point of misquoting the First Epistle of John 3:2 as "we shall be like God for we shall see ourselves as we are." (p. 101) He is oblivious to the mistake two pages later when he builds an argument on the misquotation.
What interests me more is Keenan's treatment of the Ten Commandments. (He lists in the Catholic order combining the Protestant and Jewish first commandment and splitting their tenth commandment into two.) Each commandment serves as a jumping off point for the author's particular interests, often with little or no connection to the text. Thus, the first commandment "commands us to recognize that God alone is merciful." (p. 1) Strangely, there is no mention of idolatry, ancient or modern. He discusses the third commandment without any reference to the societal implications of the Sabbath rest or the connection to Jubilee justice with its freeing of slaves and redistribution of wealth. Keenan manages to treat the eighth commandment without any reference to its condemnation of perjury, a practice that undermines the very social institutions that enable us to get at the truth and to resolve conflicts.
Keenan betrays no interest in the original socio-historical setting of the Ten Commandments and no concern for a careful reading of the varying texts in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, and Exodus 34, not to mention interpretive passages in other parts of the Bible. His reading of the Christian tradition is very selective. For example, there is not a word about war in his treatment of the fifth commandment or any mention of the early Christian tradition of not serving as soldiers who would have to kill or civil administrators who would have to impose the death penalty.
The negatives in Keenan's book so outweigh the positives that I cannot recommend it.