Creighton University Lecture with Catholic Climate Covenant: Fr. Kenneth Himes

The following post is the transcript of a lecture given by Fr. Kenneth Himes, OFM at Creighton University on June 27, 2019 for the Catholic Climate Covenant.

Kenneth R. Himes, O.F.M. is an Associate Professor of Theology and Past Chairman of the Department of Theology at Boston College (Chestnut Hill, MA). Prior to his move to Boston College, Fr. Himes taught courses in moral theology for many years at the Washington Theological Union (WTU).

A native of Brooklyn, NY Kenneth Himes took his solemn vows as a member of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) in 1975 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1976. He received his B.A. in history from Siena College (Loudonville, NY), his M.A. in theology at the WTU, and his Ph.D. in religious ethics at Duke University (Durham, NC).

Fr. Himes is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and has served as a visiting faculty member at the Divinity School of Howard University (Washington, DC) and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He also held the Paul McKeever Chair as a visiting faculty member at St. John?s University in New York City.

He is the co-author (with his brother Michael) of Fullness of Faith, which received the first place award for theology books from the Catholic Press Association in 1994. He also authored the popular Responses to 101 Questions on Catholic Social Teaching. He was co-editor of An Introduction to Christian Ethics and was chief editor of Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations. Fr. Himes has published over 75 essays in journals and books, and was an editor of New Theology Review for a decade.

A popular teacher and public speaker Professor Himes has taught courses on fundamental moral theology, the subject matter of this program, for three decades.

Laudato Si’ Conference:  Creighton University, June 2019


In Matthew’s gospel we read the story of the scholar of the law who approaches Jesus with the question.  Which commandment in the law is greatest?  The answer Jesus gives is “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (22:36-40).  Similar passages are found in the other synoptic gospels, Mark 12 and Luke10

From the very beginning of the Christian community, the expectation has been that the followers of Jesus were to be guided in their behavior by Jesus answer to the scribe’s question.  The dual commandment to love God and one’s neighbor is the foundation of Christian life.  We’ve all heard this before, and so the temptation is to move on quickly to other aspects of the Christian faith since this point is so obvious, Christians are called to love God and neighbor.  But just for a moment, let’s not rush to move on but dwell on the centrality of the love commandment in the life of the disciple.  By staying with this commandment, I want to begin by talking, first, about how surprising it would have been to the vast majority of those living in the Roman Empire in the early decades of the church’s life.  Second, I’d like to point out how vital was the Christian witness to that command in the growth of the Christian community within the Empire.  And, third, I want to also note how complicated the love commandment got as Christian disciples entered into the public life of the Empire.

So, first, the surprise that the love commandment would have been.  The sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark wrote a fascinating book back in the mid-nineties, The Rise of Christianity,[i] in which he sought to understand the factors that led to the tremendous growth of the Christian community from a very small sect within Judaism to the dominant religion of the entire Roman Empire in less than 300 years.  In a fascinating chapter entitled “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversions’” Stark discusses the impact of two major epidemics upon the Empire.[ii]  In the middle of the second century, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, from a fourth to a third of the entire population of the empire, including the emperor, died in what medical historians believe was the first appearance of smallpox in the West.  Then in the middle of the third century a second devastating epidemic, this time possibly measles, led to significant mortality in rural as well as urban areas.[iii]

Through his careful study of both the patristic authors and pagan[1] historians, Stark demonstrates that “pagan communities did not match Christian levels of benevolence during the epidemics, since they did not even do so in normal times when the risks entailed by benevolence were much lower.”[iv]  What accounts for this difference?  Stark’s reading of the literature at the time suggests that Christian values had from the outset encouraged moral norms of charitable service and communal solidarity.  And this was due to the surprising claim of Christians regarding their God.  “Something distinctive did come into the world” with the spread of biblical faith – both Jewish and Christian – and that was “the linking of a highly social ethical code with religion.”  And what was new was “the notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural.”  In short, “the Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alien to pagan beliefs.”  For a pagan worshipper, the concern was what service the god might supply if coaxed to do so by sacrifice.  There was no expectation that God would feel love in response to the offering.  “Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another.”[v]  These were surprising ideas to the pagan worldview.

To read Fr. Himes’ lecture in its entirety: Creighton Lecture

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