Return to The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church main page
Return to the Easter Eggs page

Towards a Covenantal Moral Theology

John Kelleher


(About 9300 words)

WARNING: The following is an effort "towards" a covenantal moral theology; that is, moral theology as revivified with reference to the correction of the object, assumptions, and methods of systematic theology as it presently exists and existed, and the same's subsequent restoration, as covenantal theology, in the sense meant by Rev. Donald J. Keefe, SJ, whose masterwork in four volumes is called Covenantal Theology. If Fr. Keefe is on to something, then not only systematic theology, but also moral theology as a partially separable project, requires its own reconversion, so that it can proceed as more Catholic than it now is.

I'm only doing this because, so far as I know, nobody else is. Moreover, in this present work, I'll not just quote or summarize Fr. Keefe, but also willy-nilly add my own words and concepts, make my own development, and I won't be particularly scholarly and precise about the distinctions, either.

Thus what follows is not the work of Rev. Donald J. Keefe, SJ. You ought to read his work, instead of this. Ever call to mind the footnote inserted by one of Goethe's biographers: "Here the great Goethe errs; in this letter, he states that the love of his life was [Fraulein A], but the love of his life was [Fraulein B]." I wish such buffoonery even from fans, students, and admirers were exceptional, but 'twas ever thus. Read Fr. Keefe's work directly, instead of this.


Discovered defects in moral theology provides no warrant to regress

We begin not with an analogy but with some simple facts. The GPS (Global Positioning System) that tells us our vehicle's physical location, and from which, computer software can then give us driving directions to our destination, in part depends on real physical effects whose existence cannot be known, described, or inquired about within classical mechanics. It is strictly true (for that matter, it is also loosely true) that questions about these real physical effects cannot even be formulated, let alone answered, within classical mechanics; entire categories of questions about real things cannot even come up within classical mechanics.

Classical mechanics is insufficient to reality. It is opaque in se, by its founding principles, to certain realities of matter and motion. It can give no coherent account of them; it can't really even be aware of them, let alone explore them further. Beyond a certain point, classical mechanics simply fails; it gets beyond its depth; it cannot provide for the realities of matter and motion at any deeper level.

On the other hand, classical mechanics is still pretty darned good for most situations. We can build bridges and buildings and cars, move about, drive our cars, relying on classical mechanic's ideas of matter and motion, taking no notice of quantum and relativistic effects, and pretty much be fine. Except when we can't; for instance, when we need GPS.

Those are facts; here's the analogy. When some physicists discovered that classical mechanics is insufficient to reality, that provided no warrant whatever to return to ideas about matter and motion that were even worse, that were in fact, much, much worse. It would have been absolutely crazy to discover that classical mechanics was not the Be-All and End-All, and on account of that, return to the doctrine of the Four Humours or to the Ptolemaic epicycles.

We will shortly find that classical Thomistic moral theology is incoherent, or better, opaque in se to certain realities of moral life. Beyond a certain point, its foundational principles are unable to provide for moral life. Beyond a certain point, classical Thomistic moral theology simply fails; it gets beyond its depth; it cannot provide for the realities of moral existence at any deeper level. However, up to that point, it's still pretty darned good.

So the failure of classical Thomistic moral theology to be the Be-All and End-All of inquiry into moral matters is absolutely no warrant for ideologues, politicians, rhetoricians, bureaucrats, academics, technicians, sycophants, and other pretenders to the title of 'moral theologian' to once again ring the changes on all those tired paganisms that are "ever tedious, ever old."

For instance, already by the sixth century B.C. Anaximander had understood differentiation of any kind to be inherently unjust -- irrational, an attack on justice itself, for justice is the utter unity of being. Thus it is unjust per se if everyone is not the same.

By the fifth century B.C., in Plato's ideal Republic, some sort of marriage was proposed solely for the little people; but for the Guardians, the elite, the best of the best, the Nomenklatura, the managerial class, both male and female, they shall not enter into permanent monogamous relations, sexual congress shall be various, children shall not know their parents, nor parents their children.

And so on. Apparently, we never get tired of this.

And of course, there remains the grandfather of all complaints against Catholic profession, liturgy, and practice. Fr. Keefe presents it as the fallen propensity to seek unity in the time-less monad. Compare this contention to the following:

In the end, the problem of modalism, early or late, Trinitarian or Christological, is rooted in a fixed, nearly ineradicable supposition that substantial being, simply as such, must be monadic: i.e., that each actual entity must be a substance, for no other notion of substantial unity is conceivable. Because the normative unity of being is divine, one might suppose the revelation of the Trinity to induce theological conversion from a monadic to a Trinitarian metaphysics: specifically to a trinitarian understanding of substance insofar as created in the image of God: i.e., insofar as human. However, this has yet to be recognized, although it is demanded by the Council of Chalcedon, which understands human substance, like the divine Trinitarian substance, to be multi-personal: Jesus, the One Son of the Father and of Mary, is "homoousios" with the Father, and with us.

[CT Vol IV endnote 442]

Our seeming ineradicable propensity to seek substantial unity not in the Trinity, but rather in the monad, immediately generates the problem of the One and the Many, an antagonism that is seen and signified, not first in philosophy, but centuries before that, in liturgy, as an irreconcilable stasis or an irreconcilable war between Man and Woman, or as the subsumption of Woman into Man.

This quandary leads always to a flight from time to the time-less, a flight that is signified in liturgy and rationalized in philosophy. For to the pagans of any age, there is, within time, no inherently privileged 'time', by which other time can derive meaning, for whatever time we select as 'privileged', it too will corrode, become the past.

Once the pagan One is our goal, the problem of the One and the Many is self-generated, and all the rest follows inexorably.

But most Catholics know the grandfather of all complaints against Catholic profession, liturgy, and practice by another name: The Scandal of Particularity. How dare Jesus state that He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life? How dare Catholics say that the actual sacraments of the actual Catholic Church are real? How dare Jesus ask, "Who do you say that I am?" How dare He say, "Before Abraham was, I AM."?

Nor are Catholics immune from becoming enmeshed in, seduced by, devoted to, this pagan hypnosis, as the current state of most 'moral theology' attests. And much more than once, we have only been saved from a nightmare of apostasy that some theology has deemed reasonable for us, not by 'the Holy Spirit' working in some ineffable way, but solely because the sacraments, including Holy Orders, are real, and by the Holy Spirit whom He sent, the work of the Lord Jesus continues in time through these specific sacraments of His specific Bride the Catholic Church.

That is, far more than once, we have been saved from real, sinful, permanent error solely by professions from the Magisterium, from bishops who (God help us) as fallen men, could not possibly hand on the Faith incorruptible, but who have done so, through judgments, acts, and professions which at times went directly into the teeth of what theologians of their day found 'reasonable'.

Indeed, even the best of us are not immune to such mistakes; as Covenantal Theology shows, particularly in Vol. IV, over the centuries it has if anything become less possible for theology to state, without fudging, that "Jesus is Lord," though of course the Church herself joyfully proclaims this with her every breath. Indeed, to obfuscate, to rationalize our fudging on this most essential point, that "Jesus is Lord," theology has invented peculiar definitions of "Jesus" and "Lord" that are now so time-worn that they even seem venerable, and their deficiencies are invisible even to most theologians.

And yes, these theologians do include classical Thomists. But to repeat, it would be absolutely crazy to return to truly pagan ideas that are much, much worse, just because classical Thomist moral theology has been discovered not to be the Be-All and End-All of moral theology. It still works pretty darned well, in many practical situations -- until it doesn't, of course. That's still no excuse to go back to the "ever tedious, ever old," pagan 'verities' that are not only much, much worse, they're hideous; taken seriously, they lead to eternal death.


Classical Thomist moral theology shown to be at its limit

Next I write in terms that are familiar to researchers in experimental science. If Catholic moral theology is to be anything more and better than Public Relations, it must find its essential humility as an experimental science. Indeed, of all 'theologies', only Catholic theology can ever be an experimental science, because only the Reality under study within Catholic theology is sacramental, thus real. If the sacraments are real -- since the sacraments are real -- Catholic theology is an experimental science, for it grounds its inquiry in the reality of the New Covenant, Jesus Himself continuing his work in time, in union with His one-and-only Bride, the Catholic Church. The Event of the New Covenant, then, is Catholic theology's true object, its real foundation, and its only reliable guarantee.

But in order to ask theological questions in a truly scientific way, we must do more than have something real to address our questions to. (I think) we must also, in part, deploy scaffolding, 'wisdom', that is purely provisional. This kind of 'scaffolding' can have heuristic value -- it can be better by comparison to what we deployed before -- but that's all. We need the 'scaffolding' to get our questions rolling, to enable us to address questions at all to the reality under study. We hope that in time, we can dismantle some of our scaffolding, or at least, replace some of it with lighter, stronger, less obtrusive provisional wisdom. That's hard to do, but not in principle impossible.

Interesting sidelight: why is replacing some of our scaffolding with lighter, stronger, less obtrusive provisional wisdom not in principle impossible? That's actually a deep question: how is it possible for us to 'move' from what we don't understand, to a better understanding? Fr. Keefe considers that only the free, covenantal character of reality allows us to do this. In other words, only a covenantal reality allows us to be genuinely surprised by reality -- to learn something about it truly new to us, something that we don't already know at least in principle.

Anyway, the idea that we must deploy at least some 'scaffolding' to ask theological questions, is itself scaffolding. It's merely something provisional, deployed in the hope that it will help us ask better questions of the Faith; in this case, to better examine our previous scaffolding for soundness, lightness, obtrusiveness. Our goal is a slightly better, lighter, less obtrusive 'scaffolding' -- provisional wisdom -- that will help us ask better questions, questions more Catholic than the ones we are able to ask now.

Speaking of scaffolding, it must be noted that some (most, all?) Thomists today say that Thomism has no scaffolding. ('Thomism' in some sense, disregarding the internal disputes between 'thick' and 'thin', between 'transcendental' and otherwise, let alone the four-hundred-year-and-counting dispute between Dominicans and Jesuits "de auxiliis," and of course, entirely disregarding the radical critique, not of the Thomistic project, but of much of the Thomistic superstructure, given within Covenantal Theology). 'Thomism', it is said, is the very language within which intellectual apprehension of the Faith proceeds.

And Thomists mean this in the same sense that astrophysicists might put forth a special, privileged 'astrophysics' which is, for practical purposes, an inquiry that is coterminous with the star it studies, it is the Theory of Everything of that star. Which means not merely that every current question about that star has an answer within the current system and methodology satisfactory to proponents of the inquiry, but much more radically, that every future rational question that could ever be asked by anyone whatever about the star can be formulated, and answered, within the current inquiry's language, structure, and methodology.

Within a Theory of Everything, it is impossible, not only that the privileged inquiry could ever encounter a question it cannot answer, but also, it is even more impossible (if that is the correct term) that the privileged inquiry might simply never discover some relevant question, impossible that the inquiry would self-generate an opacity just at the point some relevant question might be asked, impossible that some real question might not even be formulable within the inquiry. For by definition, there is -- there can be -- no possible rival to a Theory of Everything.

Thus (so it is implied, even sometimes said out loud), Thomism's basic assumptions and methodology are unchallengeable, intrinsically prior to any possible experiment, not mere provisional wisdom that can always be questioned and ultimately found only partially correct, or even wanting, and this as a matter, well, of Faith. Every document, testimony, profession, activity, of the Church must be read, not merely in the light of the One True Theology, Thomism, but as inherently Thomistic documents, testimonies, professions, activities. Why? because Thomism just is the intellectual language of the Faith.

One example of this mania will suffice. The enthusiast is here speaking, not about the Lord Jesus Christ, but about Thomas Aquinas, as if he were the Lord Jesus Christ:

He then, joins us more completely in the one true Faith, no matter what our learning. He incorporates us, in other words, and there is no separation, in our way toward God, of the learned from the unlearned, the cultured from the peasant, or the preacher from the congregation.

[Ronald P. McArthur, founding President of Thomas Aquinas College, upon receiving the 1991 Wethersfield Award for Excellence, "Thomism in a Catholic College." In: The Mind and Heart of the Church. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. p. 75.]

That is one point of view. On the other hand, classical Thomism may simply be one pretty good way of doing theology as a science. In that case, it has 'scaffolding': provisional wisdom, assumptions, and methods, that can be less good, or less bad, than other rival theologies, and may the better theology win.

In a moment, we will provide an example of a professional evisceration of (some) of the scaffolding of classical Thomism. For now, consider the "24 Theses."

At the prompting and request of numerous learned Catholic academics of the day, the "24 Theses" were spelled out in Pope Pius X's 1914 decree Postquam sanctissimus and declared to "clearly contain the principles and more important thoughts of the holy Doctor" (that is, St. Thomas). Yet not even once in the "24 Theses" do the words "sacrament," "New Covenant," or even the word "Jesus" (or anything related to him, such as Lord, Savior, etc.) appear. Nor, to state the obvious, was this found to be troubling, either by those scholars, or by the curial office that examined the 24 Theses, or by the Holy Father himself.

A number of serious, scholarly, traditional Thomists, the curial office that examined the 24 Theses, and Saint Pope Pius X, "just forgot" that the true subject matter of traditional Thomism is the Lord Jesus, the New Covenant, and the sacraments? No science -- not anything -- would ever get that far off its real mark. That would be like a "24 Theses" of Cooking that "just forgot" to ever once mention the word "food;" a "24 Theses" of baseball completely lacking the words balls and strikes, runs and outs; a "24 Theses" -- you get the idea.

Completely aside from Covenantal Theology's serious, detailed, professional, and radical critique of the 'scaffolding' of traditional Thomism, the "24 Theses" will stand forever as a prima facie case that traditional Thomism simply does not have the Lord Jesus, the New Covenant, and the sacraments as its real subject matter. No matter how you slice it, a "24 Theses" of Cooking that doesn't even have the word "food" in it, is not about food. And again, Thomists of that day, and certainly at least some other Thomists since, were not in the least embarrassed by this; which tells you practically all you need to know, right there.

Now to one example of the professional, serious, radical, devastating critique of classical Thomism within Covenantal Theology itself. In his work, Fr. Keefe found (not 'held', showed) that "material substantiality" is incoherent within classic Thomism.

This is a finding rather significant to moral theology, for without material substantiality, there is no coherent Thomistic account of the inherent meaningfulness of any concrete, individual human being, such that he is inherently and uniquely meaningful, and uniquely loved by God; or if we posit that inherent uniqueness to the individual, it is impossible for classical Thomism to give a coherent account of our human commonality, our human nature.

There's even a prior difficulty. Within the assumptions, system, and method of classical Thomism, free will, free acts, are a methodological problem, since the entire focus of the Thomistic system is on discovering the necessary meaning of specific, concrete instances as part of the substance/accident, act/potency paradigm invented by Aristotle. In other words, within the Thomist system, all meaning (in this case, the meaning of free will) is found within necessary connections or implications, and not otherwise. Finding free will as an implication of necessity thus becomes... tricky.

OK, let's say that Thomists have resolved that issue, at least to their own satisfaction. There's that even thornier problem, which simply has no resolution whatever within classical Thomism: "material substantiality."

In practical terms, within classical Thomism, either I have "substantial being" -- I am a unique, unrepeatable person uniquely known and loved by God, so special that "even the hairs of [my] head are all numbered," (Mt 10:30), or I can love my neighbor "as myself" (cf. Mk 12:31) -- but not both.

The incoherence within classical Thomism just at that point is in reality even worse, for

there is in fact no provision in the classic analysis for a concrete specific form in which the individual member of the species might participate and thus find a base even for its immanent (necessary) intelligibility and its (necessary) intraspecific or immanent activity.

[CT Vol II (Chap V), p.446]

This means that within classical Thomism I can't really know myself as a person uniquely loved by God, such that even the hairs of my head are numbered. Within classical Thomism, when it comes down to it, I am inherently, in my very being, just another guy, or to put it even more strongly but not incorrectly, I'm just one more example of "a guy." Unless I'm ultimately, inherently, just one more example of "a guy," I become a "material individual," and I can have no inherent meaning, no "substantial reality."

Within the Aristotelianism that classical Thomism relies on, God can still mechanistically count each hair on my head. In that way, or in ways like that, I can be 'unique'. I can be shorter or taller or thinner or fatter or smarter or dumber than other guys. In the Thomistic world, it's mathematically possible that nobody else has exactly the same number of hairs on his head as I, I could be 'unique' in that sense -- but c'mon, that's not what the phrase means. The phrase means that I, in my inmost being, in my 'heart', am unique, and uniquely loved by God; I am inherently more than just one more example of "a guy." And Aristotelianism, and therefore, classical Thomism, cannot account for that.

But let's say we resolve that problem, so that in my very being, I am known to God and loved by Him, not as one more example of "a guy," but uniquely, personally. But as soon as I account for a personal, inherently unique meaning and value for myself before God within classical Thomism, at that very point, I can give no coherent account of an "intraspecific communication" among men.

If within the Aristotelianism of classical Thomism, I can be understood to have "substantial reality," know myself as a unique person, uniquely loved by God, that automatically makes it impossible for me to truly love my neighbor "as myself." Now that I have "substantial reality," now that I'm not just superficially 'unique' but inherently unique, then there is no inherent commonality between my unique self and another person -- no inherent basis for communication among men. It is not too much to say that within classical Thomism, the moment that we become uniquely human, at that very moment, a shared 'human nature' among men automatically disappears.

Formerly, we were all 'united' by being examples of "a guy." But now that 'unity' is gone: we're all unique (we posit). So, by the strictures of Aristotelianism, what commonality that men have left is not inherent in them. We all have unique natures, which automatically means that we don't share a 'human nature'. A cow is not a vase, a house is not a highway. And now, a 'Timothy' is not a 'Tom'. Thus, loving your neighbor "as yourself" becomes just a nice phrase that we mustn't take too seriously -- we don't have enough in common for that:

to attribute substantial being to the material individual is to leave the reality of intraspecific communication unaccountable.

[CT Vol II (Chap V), p.446]

It follows ineluctably that traditional Thomistic moral theology is incoherent in se, by its first principles; or better, that beyond a certain point, it is systematically, inherently, opaque to our true being as moral persons, who are uniquely meaningful and important as created and loved by God, yet sharing a human nature by which we can love our neighbor "as ourselves." To this argument, compare this:

Reference has already been made to the problem of assigning substantiality, whether to the individual, as is usual, or to the species, as seems to be more in accord with the act-potency analysis and even with the definition of substantiality, a reality whose unity in being is in se et non in alio. Whichever course be taken, the classic notion of material substantiality must remain incoherent, as has been shown: there is in fact no provision in the classic analysis for a concrete specific form in which the individual member of the species might participate and thus find a base even for its immanent (necessary) intelligibility and its (necessary) intraspecific or immanent activity, while to attribute substantial being to the material individual is to leave the reality of intraspecific communication unaccountable. This systematic impasse eliminates the rational possibility within the classic Thomist metaphysics of any material substantiality, whether of the species as a concrete universal, or of the isolated material individual, and does so without remainder.

The conclusion is then forced: the notion of a material substance, insofar as concerns the classic Thomist format, is unintelligible, incapable of a coherent act-potency account. If we are to speak of a created material essence, whose act of existence or esse is contingent, we must drop the notion of species, derived from Aristotle, and replace it with that of the Covenant, the only material order or unity which permits at once freedom and intelligibility, which has in fact an immanent free formal cause of that intelligibility, the Logos, and which supports the moral freedom of its members. This it does, of course, only insofar as it is informed by that formal cause which is the Esse Christi, and thus insofar as it is the object of creation in Christ. We are methodologically forbidden to disintegrate the free intelligibility of the historical prime analogate, the substantial New Covenant, into dissociated elements--correlations which by such dissociation become absolute "pure natures"--whether of Esse without reference to essence, or of essence as intelligible in se, apart from the reference to Esse whereby it is actual in the actuality of a created substance. The supposition that such abstract or pure actualities or pure possibilities have an intrinsic intelligibility is methodologically contradicted by the basis of the Thomist metaphysical project, the Esse-essence relation which is given in the Christ. There is then neither an Esse nor a created essence which might be studied in isolation from the correlation by which Esse-essence is actual in the world, in order that a nonhistorical core of "pure" intelligibility might be isolated in essence or in Esse alone. The only analysis which can serve a theological metaphysics is that which remembers that the formal cause of the freedom of the Covenant is he whom Irenaeus and the tradition after him insisted upon naming, in his humanity as in his divinity, One and the Same, the second Adam.

[CT Vol II (Chap V), p.446]

This is an example of what is meant by saying that current moral theology is "not Catholic enough." Perhaps as a system, classical Thomism is just fine with a "material individual" possessing no "substantial reality." But we didn't measure the coherence of classical Thomism just by what it is 'fine' with internally. As good experimental scientists, we did an experiment. We evaluated our hypothesis not merely for internal consistency, but against what Reality is telling it: we measured it against the Catholic faith. That's where we discovered that our 'scaffolding' is wanting. Classical Thomism can not account coherently, either for the fact that we are unique and uniquely loved by God, or that we can and should love our neighbor "as ourselves," and it certainly cannot do both of these simultaneously.

These facts are, of course, devastating to any claim by classical Thomistic moral theology to be the Be-All and End-All of moral theology, to be the Theory of Everything of the moral person and of his moral acts. But again, the incoherence, or better, the opacity, of classical Thomist moral theology just at the point at which it must provide for the meaningfulness, and thus the morality, of free, responsible, concrete human acts by uniquely and personally created and loved specific human beings, does not give any warrant to regress to theories of 'morality' that are merely changes rung on paganism's various idolatries. Not only would that be completely crazy, but also, the crucified and Risen body of the Lord Jesus, hole in His side and all, permanently stands athwart such insanities.

Moral theology is a moral project of men; it is not coterminous with the Reality it studies; its telos as well as its proximate goal in its every step is fides quarens intellectum, faith searching for understanding; it is worship, not the (ridiculous) development of a Theory of Everything prior even to the Lord of history himself. As we have just seen, in some areas, some vital areas, St. Thomas, as a moral theologian, missed the mark. But that's not the point. St. Thomas forever remains a Catholic theologian, one of our greatest, not a pagan philosopher or a secular ideologue; not because he never made, or never could make, a serious mistake, but because he was always ready to submit his questions and method to the judgment of the Church; he never sought to 'correct' Catholicism, but rather to allow Catholicism to correct him.

This of course is exactly the opposite stance of idolatrous 'theologies'; they either hate Catholicism and wish to destroy it, or to the extent possible, they ignore Catholicism, give it no credence, whether in their personal lives or in their questions, or they seek to 'correct' Catholicism from some Higher Truth prior to Jesus the Lord himself.

Thus, by comparison to these pagan horrors, classical Thomist moral theology is still pretty darned good for most situations. For centuries it has served as a defender of the Moral Law and as an aid both to Catholics and to those who hear their confessions. But deploying it is now more of a judgment call. Beyond a certain point, classical Thomistic moral theology simply fails; it gets beyond its depth; it cannot provide for the realities of moral life at any deeper level.

While a covenantal moral theology is in principle better, because, while remaining faithful, it avoids conundrums and paradoxes self-generated by classical Thomism's insufficient 'baptism' of Aristotelianism, for most people and most situations, classical Thomist moral theology will probably continue to work well enough. Except, of course, when it won't, when something analogous to GPS comes up in everyday life, and classical Thomist moral theology will fall short.

Nonetheless, to regress to the modern-day idolatries, projects meant to buy us off with an apple, meant to persuade us to abandon the sacraments and desecrate them instead; in short, to make us 'behave', in just the way an unanswerable elite would like (an elite of theologians or politicians or even churchmen, it doesn't matter), is not merely a 'step back,' it is a moral disaster. If our choice is that or a flawed and inherently incomplete classical Thomist moral theology, Thomism wins every time.

St. Thomas was not an ideologue, he was a Catholic, and a Catholic theologian of great significance. While there may not be a Time-less Rulebook In The Sky, Christ remains, yesterday, today, and forever; concrete, particular human acts in time are meaningful and moral in themselves, because their meaningfulness and morality are founded not on human cleverness or even human decency, but on the Lord of history, who is not only consubstantial with his Father and the Holy Spirit but also consubstantial with us (as Chalcedon attests), and who is in nuptial, covenantal union with his one and only Bride, the actual, historical, existent Catholic Church. He is the Lord of history who continues to act in history, in time, ex opere operato, by and through her seven sacraments; and thus, what you do, in your time, at this specific moment and in this specific act, does indeed matter, always and everywhere.


Hints towards a covenantal moral theology from Fr. Keefe's writings

To repeat, I'm only writing this monograph "towards" a covenantal moral theology because nobody else seems to be working at it. One monograph and one author is obviously absurdly inadequate to the task at hand. Indeed, Covenantal Theology itself, even if, per impossibile, it is successful and correct in every detail, did no more than clear out a little brush, so that Catholic theology can asks its questions in ways a little more Catholic than previously available.

This monograph, then, can do no more than point out some of the fundamental ideas that any covenantal moral theology must take up, in order to ask questions that are more Catholic than the ones we can ask now. So this paper is not going to answer questions like, "Is it a sin to change what I am giving up for Lent, in the middle of Lent?" That's a legitimate question, but it won't be answered here.

Another problem is that Covenantal Theology is a work of systematic theology; thus, it treats specifically of moral theology only in passing. A more than cursory, less than comprehensive, review of Covenantal Theology and 91 of Fr. Keefe's articles, published and unpublished, provides some hints, but we should not -- we must not -- hold Fr. Keefe to those hints. For they amount to passing remarks; serious words by an expert, to be sure, but words not directly regarding Fr. Keefe's area of expertise, rather regarding their application in other situations, at which he never pretended to be expert.

He is certain that abortion is an evil; and he wonders out loud, and frequently, whether dereliction of duty among the episcopate, particularly about this matter (though Fr. Keefe's list is longer than this one item merely), rises to the level of personal sin. The lifelong responsibility of the sacramentally married is fidelity, and the concomitant fidelity of the unmarried is to sexual continence.

Moreover, the sexual continence of the higher clergy; that is, of those ordained to offer the One Sacrifice, is not only a long -- a very long -- tradition within the Western church. Because the One Sacrifice is the cause of the New Covenant, which is nuptial of its essence, the Mass signs, and by signing causes, the union of the Bridegroom with His Bride. To act in persona Christi at the One Sacrifice is inherently to sign a nuptial union of the Bridegroom with His one and only one Bride.

Fr. Keefe notes that in both the West and (even) in the East, the sexual continence of bishops is an unbroken tradition. While the sexual continence of the higher clergy is spoken of as a 'discipline' even in the West, it seems evident that anything other than sexual continence in the higher clergy tends to obscure the inherent nuptiality of the sign of the One Sacrifice, by which the Bridegroom unites with His one and only Bride.

We note that Fr. Keefe's defense of the sexual continence of the higher clergy is fundamentally liturgical. He does not argue from some principle 'outside' the liturgy; for instance, that sexual intercourse is icky, and therefore that it can't be allowed, nor does he deny the essential nuptiality of the Mass; in fact, he affirms it con brio. Arguing from 'within' the liturgy, rather than relying on principles, ideas, concepts 'outside' the worship of the Church, is a big hint, I think. We can also see this same manner of argument when Fr. Keefe addresses a specific moral issue.

As an aspect of the laity's inviolate covenantal dignity, he considers the moral responsibility of the laity to be primary for all matters outside the specific public worship of the Church. (As we will see in a moment, the basis for the inviolate dignity and authority of the laity in the social order is ultimately liturgical: it is -- I think -- sacramental marriage).

For authority, Fr. Keefe states, much distinct from power, is liturgical, not time-less or legal. For this reason, bishops qua bishops have no authority to pronounce on the specifics of the social order; what they say about these matters, they say as private citizens.

On these matters, bishops certainly may speak, but they speak with no authority, with no special wisdom, or even, with a pronounced unwisdom on display. This extends (and in one unpublished communique Fr. Keefe writes this directly) even to the concrete moral application of the death penalty; this is outside of any bishop's liturgical authority, including, by obvious implication, the liturgical authority of the bishop of Rome.

The Ten Commandments are the Word of God, read in Catholic worship; and Fr. Keefe urges the episcopate to remind the laity of every one of them. (And I add: for to read the Law before the people, as they weep both for joy and in shame, is part of episcopal liturgical responsibility). Nonetheless, the liturgical authority to decide the morality or not even of an application of the death penalty is primarily given to the laity, not the episcopate. Only in an act like abortion, where there is literally nothing to 'judge', but rather, man is plainly put at the point of decision, is profession (rather than the prescription of this or that) what must be done, and this is a most solemn episcopal liturgical responsibility, in and out of season.

I conclude (this is my conclusion, I am not holding Fr. Keefe to this), it would not be too much to say that no matter how often the Popes claim a penumbra of authority (whether he liked this my conclusion, Fr. Keefe would like the use of that word "penumbra," familiar as he was with the malfeasance the U.S. Supreme Court has underwritten under cover of that word); however often bishops claim a penumbra of authority that extends to the social order, they do not possess that authority; for authority in the Church is liturgical, not either legal or 'traditional'; and the laity possesses the primary liturgical, and therefore, the primary moral, authority within the social order.

Put differently (again in my own words, but by an analogy that I think is nonetheless consistent with the direction and orientation of Fr. Keefe's own thinking), Humanae Vitae is a document radically different in kind from Rerum Novarum. Humanae Vitae is authoritative, in a way that Rerum Novarum can never be; for Humanae Vitae is an episcopal protection and defense of the sacrament of Matrimony. Rerum Novarum might be seen as an episcopal endorsement of the opinions of the learned Catholics that were consulted, but it is written with no liturgical authority behind it; for the social order is simply not primarily within the purview of bishops qua bishops. To say otherwise is the true 'clericalism', the usurpation by the clergy of the plain liturgically-founded dignity, authority, and munus of the laity.

We notice also that Fr. Keefe's manner of argumentation regarding moral matters tries to refer as directly as possible to the sacraments, to the liturgy itself, and always steers well clear of any reliance on time-less truths, recipes, principles, or ideas. He will never be observed basing a moral argument on those.

As far as I can tell, that is about as many hints a covenantal moral theology can glean directly from Fr. Keefe's work. Nonetheless, there are fundamental things that can be said, even now, about any moral theology that aims to be covenantal. The following is based on Covenantal Theology, but is my own development; however, that development may be as little 'based on' Fr. Keefe's work as the movies we see that are "based on a true story." Straying that far, or at all, from what is either directly explicit or is reasonably, even logically, implicit within Covenantal Theology was not my intention; nonetheless, the reader is cautioned.


The sacramental cause of the morality of the social order

Unlike the "24 Theses," any covenantal moral theology must be focused, laser-like, on the reality that Jesus is Lord. Covenantal Theology will at times even underline, in the type on the (web)page, the word "Jesus," to emphasize that that guy, the guy St. John the Baptist looked in the eye and called the Lamb of God, is Lord. That guy is Lord, not an "eternal Son" sensu negante who merely "assumed a human state." He is the Father's only-begotten Son sent to give the Spirit. That guy not only is present "in the beginning," He is "the beginning," the Alpha and the Omega; that guy is Christ, yesterday, today, and forever, "one and the same" Son of God and Son of Mary; that guy is the Second Adam, in eternal nuptial, covenantal union with the New Eve, He is the Lord of history, through whom all things were made.

This is the fundamental mystery of the Catholic faith; it cannot even be addressed, let alone comprehended, by any pagan system. Both Arianism and Nestorianism found that mystery irrational, absurd, even repugnant; it needed correcting: for the reality just had to be something other than it is. The Antiochene vs. Alexandrine controversy falls mute before it; for as Covenantal Theology outlines, at Chalcedon the Magisterium has not 'resolved' that dispute, nor did it ignore it, but rather, it refused it. To put this in blunt layman's terms, the entire dispute between the Antiochene and Alexandrine schools is based on a stupid question; and as such, the question cannot be answered, but only refused.

The fundamental mystery of the Catholic Church, that Jesus is Lord, simply cannot be understood at all, unless one first stands, personally, at the altar of the One Sacrifice: "I believe, in order to understand." [St. Augustine, Sermo 43, 7, 9].

And even then, even a believer's own attempts to rationalize that mystery; meaning to comprehend it in terms prior to and higher than the mystery itself, always generates stupid questions that can only be refused, not answered. Tertullian's words, addressed to the rational pagans of his day and perennially misquoted, are worthy of note here:

Crucified is the Son of God; not shameful, because it is shameful. And dead is the Son of God; it is trustworthy because it is absurd. And He is raised from the tomb; it is certain, because it is impossible.

[de carne Christi 5, 25-29.]

Further, substantial reality cannot find its ground in the monad. To be a covenantal moral theology, the revelation of the Trinity must "induce theological conversion from a monadic to a Trinitarian metaphysics: specifically to a trinitarian understanding of substance insofar as created in the image of God: i.e., insofar as human." [CT Vol IV endnote 442]

The monad inevitably invokes a flight to the unreality of the time-less; but there can be no safe ground, no firm foundation, no integral unity for the morality of human acts there; this is where the pagans search for it; and they always fail. Appeal to time-less principles or ideas is ruled out within a covenantal moral theology as a matter of method; at very best, such as those may have temporary heuristic value only.

This discovery astonishes, confuses, even outrages, the pagan in all of us; our reaction may even be ineradicable in history, an effect of the Fall. What then could possibly be left for us? Only the continuing work of Jesus the Lord in time, especially as poured out in His One Sacrifice; that is, solely within the sacraments of His one-and-only Bride, the Catholic Church, especially the Holy Eucharist, only in and through them, is discovered the proper object, the solid foundation, and the infallible guarantee, not merely of theology considered as a whole, but perforce also of moral theology.

For Jesus is simultaneously Son of God and Son of Mary, both eternal and 'time-full'; i.e., He is not time-less, but rather, He is in covenantal, nuptial union with His Bride, not only in heaven or at the eschaton, but on earth, today. And in this way, by the power of the Spirit whom He sent and poured out upon the Cross, His work continues as substantial, meaningful, integral, unified, in fallen time, with all of time's ravages and discontinuities and dissolutions, and this ex opere operato.

For there exists no proper object, no solid foundation, and no infallible guarantee for moral theology in the time-less, nor any time-less Principle or Idea, nor the monad, nor the Deus Unus, nor 'pure' (that is, somehow inherently ungraced) nature, nor 'value-free' 'objectivity'. For as Fr. Keefe showed beyond dispute, the time-less is from the Greeks, not the Jews; it is pure paganism; it forms no part of either Pauline or Johannine testimony; it dooms us a priori to necessity and thus finds freedom unimaginable, irrational, repulsive; it can only be monadic, never trinitarian; and it always urges, or better self-generates, a flight from time, and thus from history and history's one Lord. And Jesus is Lord; the grace of Christ exists prior to creation, and certainly, prior to fallen 'nature' ("through Him all things were made"); and "Who do you say that I am?" is incapable of a 'value-free' answer.

Thus there is no 'revolution' in moral theology in prospect within this better, covenantal, moral theology; only some brush is cleared, only some 'scaffolding', some provisional wisdom now found wanting, is removed, so that a "theological conversion from a monadic to a Trinitarian metaphysics: specifically to a trinitarian understanding of substance insofar as created in the image of God: i.e., insofar as human," [CT Vol IV endnote 442] can begin.

In short, refusing to ground moral theology in any time-less principle, idea, recipe, algorithm, concept, or structure, is the first step towards a covenantal moral theology. Covenantal moral theology finds its proper object, its solid foundation, and its infallible guarantee in and through the actual sacraments of the actual Catholic Church, working ex opere operato; for there is no other true ground, foundation, and guarantee of substantial reality in this fallen world.

(Is Catholic sacramental realism thus too restrictive of what the Church lives and keeps in her heart about her Lord? Far from it; Scripture is what is read in the sacramental liturgies and other prayers of the Church; and so on.)

We are methodologically forbidden to seek 'behind' the New Covenant, or 'beyond' the sacraments, for some reality 'more real' than they. Catholic theology is an experimental science that addresses its questions to the reality of the New Covenant. The New Covenant, far more real than any star in the heavens, does not wait upon, or for even one moment require, explanation, approval, or justification from a supposedly 'higher' source. The moment we attempt that insanity, moral theology disintegrates into dust, for it is no longer free, and it is seeking another lord and another truth than Truth Himself, speaking truly.

The second step towards a covenantal moral theology is to notice the inherent nuptiality of the New Covenant, continually re-presented in the Holy Eucharist, which re-creates all things in that nuptiality. The mystery of the sacrament of Matrimony, by which a man and a woman image the nuptiality of Christ and His Church, is thus far more central to moral theology's inquiry than typically imagined.

The New Covenant (obviously) is the focus of a covenantal moral theology. But the New Covenant is not a structure, nor a time-less principle or idea, but an "Event," as Fr. Keefe calls it. In my terms, the New Covenant is 'time-full'. To say it again: the object and the guarantee of moral theology is not a supposedly 'perfect' time-lessness, nor any time-less Principle or Idea; it is the New Covenant, Jesus Christ, crucified and Risen, the Lord of time, the Lord of history, ever immanent in history with his Bride.

No time-less Thing can protect us, or protect the project of moral theology. Instead, He works in time, He continues His work in time in and through the Immaculate body of His Bride, in the seven sacraments, pre-eminently the Eucharist, secondly Matrimony, as Imaging the Eucharist: thus time, far from being something to be feared or fled, becomes 'time-full', nuptial, covenantal, becomes part and parcel of our redemption, becomes His time, in and through his Bride:

The pagans mourned that time devours its children; we rejoice that the Lord of history redeems them.

[Keefe, "Faith, Science, and Sacramental Realism," ITEST: A Seminar With Fr. Stanley Jaki (St. Louis: ITEST Faith/Science Press, 1991) 1-17; p. 10.]

The reality of the sacraments, infallibly effective continuing works of the Lord Jesus within history, within time with all its ravages and dissolutions, refutes tout court all contempt for "works," all fascination with the time-less, all postponement of 'meaning' to the eschaton. Reality and its meaning is to be found infallibly (though 'veiled') within the 'time-full', covenantal, nuptial, active, and continuing union of the Bridegroom and His Bride, poured out and ratified by His One Sacrifice; that is, by the continuing work in time of Jesus the Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in and through the Immaculate body of our Lord's Bride.

And that requires that any covenantal moral theology definitively abandon time-less 'Perfections', principles, ideas, recipes, algorithms, structures, as inherently monadic, not trinitarian, not covenantal. Henceforth, we must know and name these as heuristic devices at best, to be sloughed off the moment we find something more suitable. As it becomes possible, this 'scaffolding' is replaced, by our deeper apprehension of the "Event" of the New Covenant, which is also the continuing work in time of the New Covenant, signified ex opere operato solely in the sacraments.

It can not be over-emphasized that this reserves the ultimate object, foundation, and guarantee of covenantal moral theology solely to the works in time that are the sacraments of our Lord Jesus, and this as a matter of method. The sacraments, it will be remembered, do not merely 'signify' a reality; for the seven sacraments -- and the seven sacraments alone -- infallibly cause what they signify, ex opere operato. This is elementary Catholic doctrine.

Indeed, the sacraments, by their very existence, refuse utterly the self-generated opacities of classical Thomist moral theology regarding material substantiality and the material singular. No time-less thing, principle, recipe, algorithm, or concept, but rather the sacraments, in themselves, are the infallible guarantee that individual, concrete, specific, personal movements of bodies in time can be inherently meaningful, integral, moral, truthful, and beautiful.

Now we make the penultimate 'move', by distinguishing the infallible public worship of the Church, effective ex opere operato, from men's distinctly fallible private worship, in the social order, which proceeds ex opere operantis. The Eucharist is of course the pre-eminent public worship of the Church, in fact is her cause. But matrimony is the one sacrament that is both a public worship of the Church, and a private worship of God in the social order of men. Moreover, among the sacraments, only matrimony directly Images the nuptiality of the Holy Eucharist, the nuptiality of the New Covenant, the mystery of Christ and His Church.

And here we can identify the ground of the morality of the social order within a covenantal moral theology. Thus: the ultimate basis, foundation, and guarantee of the free integrity, goodness, truth, beauty, and morality of the entire social order is concrete, specific, personal Catholic marriages.

Thus, not "Catholic sacramental marriage" in the abstract, but those uniquely personal Catholic marriages of one unique personal man and one unique personal woman, concretely, specifically, in history, in every age; these sign, and by signing, cause ex opere operato, the free integrity, goodness, truth, beauty, and morality of the entire social order.

Absent the systematic, methodological affirmation of those marriages -- again, those concrete, specific, particular, personal sacramental marriages, not as abstract or ideal -- as the a priori of the morality of the social order; absent that, there is no covenantal moral theology.

For substantial reality is trinitarian, not monadic, and creation is covenantal as human, as created in the image of that Most Holy Trinity; and only in Catholic marriages -- Catholic marriages as concrete, as distinctive, as specific, as personal -- may men make a true covenant with each other. This act and event of a Catholic marriage, since it alone infallibly Images the New Covenant in the social order, alone infallibly signs, and by signing, causes ex opere operato the integral goodness, the truth, the beauty, the morality, of the social order.

Thus, those sacramental marriages are the only substantial, infallible basis and cause of the integrity, the goodness, the truth, the beauty, the morality, of the entire social order, of the entire private worship of men. Again: these marriages cause this, not as principle, idea, or abstraction, but as those marriages, as sacrament: they cause what they sign, infallibly, ex opere operato. To this argument, compare the following:

I maintain that the Catholic praxis of sacramental marriage is at once the necessary pre-condition and the continuing cause of the "rule of law" underlying the constitutional democracy which we commonly term the free society, meaning by that term a society in which the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are not the creation of the state, but are rather its historical presupposition, its constituting cause and the sole sustenance of its free order.

In the classic language of Catholic theology, the free society is the ex opere operato effect of marriage. More concretely, it is by the sacrament of marriage that civil society is made free, by the exercise in it of an authority which not only does not suppress equal authority in others, but actively invokes and requires it. The human community has been and continually is being converted to a new covenantal understanding of authority by this sacrament, and the change is an irreversible liberation; that dynamism is in the world by the deed of the risen Christ, and cannot be undone.

[Keefe, "Liturgy and Law: The Marital Order of Community," Church and State in America: Catholic Issues; ser. Proceedings: The Fourteenth Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Denver, 1991, ed. Msgr. George A. Kelly (New York: St. John's University, 1992) 1-68, p. 1.]

At once, of course, we hasten to distinguish the public and infallible effects of any sacrament, which proceed ex opere operato, from the private worship that may freely yet fallibly arise from it ex opere operantis. Marriage is not Ideal, nor is it any kind of -ism, much less romanticism.

Nonetheless, those concrete, specific, personal sacramental marriages are each unique and beloved re-presentations of this specific public worship. They sign, in themselves, ex opere operato, and therefore, infallibly they found, ground, and guarantee, the freedom, meaning, and morality of the entire social order. Moreover, those concrete, specific sacramental marriages do often induce a true if fallible private worship in the ministers of that sacrament, which is the leaven of the social order.

This mystery exists not ineffably, where we can never see nor even name it; not superficially, merely as a nice idea, merely in name; and its meaning is substantial in history, not merely at the eschaton; and it is no time-less Thing whatever. It is the sacrament of a true covenant between a man and a woman, who within that covenant, Image the New Covenant itself. The true, permanent, infallible, substantial, covenantal connection between the social order, and the One Sacrifice that is both of Calvary and the Last Supper, is the wedding feast at Cana. The substantial, infallible cause of the integral beauty, truth, morality, and goodness of the fallen social order, is each concrete, specific, sacramental Catholic marriage in history, in all history.

Such would be taken to be elementary, in any covenantal moral theology. We may go there some day, but not quite as we will, for a covenantal moral theology will not simply 'appear', whether at will or at need.


Moral theologians qua moral theologians act morally as they treat moral theology as an experimental science

For moral theology's method, as covenantal, is free, as is its object. As properly free, properly historical, properly scientific, its method is to ask better questions of substantial, sacramental, reality, a reality that is inexhaustible, surprising, intelligible but not ever fully comprehensible, a reality that power can not master, nor ever defeat.

A moral theologian's root methodological 'move', as fides quarens intellectum, has two aspects. The first is to be Catholic; that is, to assume a priori, or more precisely, to personally believe, affirm with his life, the substantial reality of his object; for to ask an sit verum? is already to grasp at the nihil, is already to seek another faith prior to, and more real than, faith in the Lord of history and in His one and only Bride, is already to wish to 'become like God', is already to take up another project entirely. At every moment of his life, a person is free to do that; but the instant the moral theologian fails to personally inhabit the essential humility of moral theology, he perforce, by definition, ceases to be a moral theologian.

But the second aspect of the fundamental method of the moral theologian is to be brave, forever skeptical of the formulation and even the basis of his questions to that substantial, sacramental, historical, covenantal Reality. The moral theologian understands (a) that mistakes in his questions cannot harm the Reality under study, and (b) that his questions, however apt, will always fail to fully comprehend it.

Thus the moral theologian's questions, and therefore his answers, will be provisional only, and strictly historical. One implication of this fact is that better questions in moral theology will not 'emerge' at will or even at need. The number and quality of the moral questions we are able to ask at any given moment far more mark our essential indigence than our cleverness, our power, or even our longing. For moral theology is not some dehistoricized machine that, upon cranking, can provide a ready supply of dehistoricized answers; there is no Moral Rulebook In the Sky to which we can ever make appeal.

Thus: the Event of the New Covenant is substantial Reality, but there can be no definitively fixed or finished 'manual' of moral theology. Better questions can only be asked of that substantial Reality, in history, freely, by and with the moral agency of men; and this is not 'self-salvation' if and only if the sacraments are real, exactly as the Catholic Church professes; particularly in this case, the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Nor is this impertinence or impoverishment, but the freedom and gift of Reality. For only the reality of the sacrament of Holy Orders makes Catholic theology an experimental science. Absent the protection of the Magisterium, theology as closed system, as academic aridity, as folk religion, as the lap dog of the salon, as the mechanism by which ideological blindness is manufactured in quantities sufficient to the needs of the devotees of whatever political or eschatological idolatry -- no vice is then strange to it.

Moral theology relies absolutely both on the Reality of its object and on the personal moral responsibility of the moral theologian, but its outcome is a project, not an isolated act. Part of the morality of doing moral theology comes about not only by questioning the questions of other moral theologians, but also by standing on the shoulders of the questions of others, and being responsive to others' praise and blame.

It is an ineradicable part of the munus of the moral theologian to be crucified into time. For example, it is possible for a moral theologian to base his entire life's work, morally, responsibly, on a mistake, whether by him, or more likely, by many others with him, and still to have been a moral theologian. To repeat: there is no Rulebook In The Sky, by reference to which the moral theologian is a moral theologian. There is only history, and history's one Lord, and that is enough and more than enough. Private worship is not self-salvific, but in Christ, it is responsible, moral; it is still wonderful, simply as historical, simply as covenantal.

Private worship, particularly by saints, can, we hope, influence even bishops, but it can never substitute for a bishop's sacramental Order as a bishop, by which he acts in persona Christi, and from which a moral theologian finds whatever partial answers to his inevitably poorly-formulated questions as may come. We start from there, and never the reverse.

As properly historical, properly scientific, properly moral, properly experimental, moral theology can only exist and continue to exist if, and as, men are willing to be crucified into time, to say, "let Reality matter more than I," not as subservience, not as a sacrificium intellectus, but as the taking up of a free, explicit moral responsibility, a munus granted ex nihilo as a gift of covenantal existence within the grace of Christ, the Lord of history, in and through His one and only Bride.


The above may serve "towards" a covenantal moral theology.

Return to The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church main page
Return to the Easter Eggs page