The National Catholic Review
Katarina M. Schuth

For several decades, church leaders and members who are dedicated to promoting greater unity and respect within the church have been seeking new ways and old to renew the spirit of cooperation and to restore damaged relationships. In Ethics of the Word, James Keenan, S.J., professor of theological ethics at Boston College, contributes immeasurably to this endeavor by exploring the power of the word of God and the word of human beings. He weaves together thoughts from a previously published collection of essays under four themes: the human components of discourse, such as conscience, memory and desires; the forms of discourse, including teaching, conversing and apologizing; the effects of words at decisive moments of life; and, finally, words that reflect the language of faith, hope and charity.

Written in narrative style, each short chapter contributes to the ultimate goal of increasing understanding and transparency in our interactions. Integrating both memoir and moral instruction, the book draws the reader into profound reflection on appropriate words related to everyday experiences like absorbing the meaning of family relationships, learning to live with loneliness and grieving for the deaths of parents. But exceptional experiences also pervade the book, allowing the author to record fitting responses he made and sometimes regrettable reactions he showed in varied circumstances. Keenan reports on organizing international gatherings of moral theologians to encourage an exchange of ideas across cultures. He often refers to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as a model of Christian dialogue, which he believed helped promote intellectual and affective solidarity during the meetings of moral theologians.

A common thread spanning the book is teaching and learning. The author conveys the necessity of attentive listening as well as careful speaking. To teach students a model for moral disagreement, he advises respect for those with whom we disagree, “the practice of a hermeneutics of suspicion about our own understanding” and greater attention to our passions and feelings about the matter being debated. In a spirit of self-revelation, Keenan reports on his own failings in this regard, sometimes judging students unfairly and even using hurtful words in argumentation. Always the power of words is central to the story. The word of God stands as a model and ideal for the word one should offer to another.

Threaded into the engaging personal narrative of each chapter are powerful moral challenges. Among words with the most lasting effect, the chapter “Apologizing” emphasizes the transformation that can take place in the one who apologizes and in the one who receives the apology. Keenan proposes that “though we admit to ourselves when we are wrong, when we admit it to the one we have wronged, the act of admission opens to us far greater understanding about the nature of our fault…. Our admission restores balance, removes harm, and offers hope.” Chapters on appreciating the limits of language and lying and the obligation to get the story right present the substance for what might be uncomfortable moments of self-examination of conscience. The author reminds us to be careful how we speak in our personal lives and in our relationships in the church. Sometimes frustration or pain or misunderstanding causes us to use hurtful words, to accuse or judge another because of our limitations and inability to find “good” words. The author suggests simply saying, “I’m at a loss for words,” or “I don’t know what to say.” Speaking the truth when it is hurtful poses an even more challenging ethical dilemma. Hearsay and unnecessary repetition about the questionable behavior of another often result in the diminishment of trust and the loss of community. Failing to get the story right by exaggerating or using harmful words is equally destructive.

In the final chapters, on the theological virtues, Keenan brings into focus how the practice of careful speech relates to faith, hope and charity. The language of faith leads us to overcome darkness with light. Faith is a gift that requires us to speak up, to ask God relentlessly for what we need and then to wait patiently. Hope builds on faith as we face the future. Finally, the language of love helps us to be reconciled with one another as we speak words that engender union with God and unity among people.

Ethics of the Word is a helpful and instructive book, given the many experiences of loss and and suffering, misunderstanding and scandal that characterize much of our everyday lives. Whether among family and friends or church and civic community, Keenan enables the reader to see the impact of his or her words—both comforting and cutting words, the positive and the negative. Our choice of words affects everyone we encounter. Choosing them conscientiously, consonant with the word of God, the author demonstrates, makes for a world that is whole, sacred and intact.

Regardless of one’s background, education or position in the church, this book will appeal to a wide audience, especially as a guide to meditative reflection on one’s own moral behavior. It is especially suitable for parish adult education classes and for youth groups. As the story of the word evolves, so does the story of the author, whose fascinating life and engaging style make reading Ethics a pleasure.

Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., holds the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the Saint Paul Seminary, University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.