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Moral Norms for a Covenantal Moral Theology Must Be Historical

John Kelleher

One key to the development of covenantal moral theologies is the recognition that moral norms, to be real, must be historical. This is also to say that moral theologies for at least the last 800 years are founded on unreal; that is, time-less, moral norms and principles.

A. Positing time-less moral norms is theologically fruitless

A common methodological mistake is the assumption that the time-less is to be preferred to the historical because time-less Being is invulnerable to time; whereas in fact the time-less is antithetical to time, as the pagans proved over and again:

The Thomist attempt to ground the analogy [of being] in the monadic Deus Unus does not and cannot succeed, for the Deus Unus cannot be the Creator ex nihilo, as the pagan wisdom knew; the unity of divinity so understood is absolutely unqualified and is therefore absolutely unrelated to whatever is multiple until that multiplicity is recognized as nonbeing, as illusion. Whenever the One God is so conceived he is conceived as the annihilator, not the creator, and to ground the analogy of being in such a divinity is pure nominalism, a verbal arrangement satisfactory only until challenged, and that inevitably, by its own logic in the course of its own intellectual history.

CT I p. 143


God in this nonhistorical guise is either free, and in consequence of his freedom is absent from history, or is immanent in history, and is therefore unfree, because locked into the immanent necessities of physis.

CT II n. 56 p. 286

Put differently, in a covenantal moral theology, within a communication of idioms, we not only may say that Jesus the Lord is both Son of the Father and Son of Mary, we must say both simultaneously; upon pain of heresy, we cannot dissociate the Event of the New Covenant into separable 'elements,' for He is "one and the same" both Son of the Father and Son of Mary.

For only He, and never any time-less 'nature', principle, recipe, algorithm, or norm, actually transcends time, instead of denying it, and He does so by means of His most eminently historical One and Eucharistic Sacrifice by which He is Bridegroom and the new Eve His Bride.

Thus the fear that any failure to found moral theology on time-less norms will lead to relativism -- which (error multiplying error) began to be presented as a philosophical, and therefore a theological certainty -- that fear is profoundly misplaced, for our faith is not in some time-less norm but in the Lord of History: "He remains faithful -- for He cannot deny Himself." [2 Tim 2:13]

Positing an Eternal Rulebook in the Sky, to which even the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is subject, is asking far too much of any Catholic moral theology, for (to begin with) that puts us in the uncomfortable position of requiring obeisance rather than obedience of our Savior, obeisance to some time-less norm prior even to Him; thus "his freedom is absent from history, or is immanent in history, and is therefore unfree, because locked into the immanent necessities of physis" [CT II n. 56 p. 286]. We ought to be professing His transcendence of time in the sheer gift of His totally free historical obedience to His Father, from which the sacraments flow as blood and water from His side, and through which His work never recedes into the past but is always present in and through time.

B. The 'scandal' of the Lord's own neglect of the Law given by God

Moral theology, once imprisoned in its own obeisance to the time-less, can never systematically confront the sheer "creative destruction" of moral norms that was wrought by Jesus Himself. After all, how many precepts of the Law did our Lord actually break, in the process of 'fulfilling' it? The Jews noted with increasing outrage His allowing of ritual impurities; breaking the Sabbath rest; speaking with strange women in public; dining with sinners; not objecting when a woman let down her hair not only before Him but in view of a group of pious, respectable men (to this day, among traditional peoples in the Middle East, a woman deliberately uncovering her tresses to anyone but her husband, especially outside the privacy of their home, is an outrageously provocative sexual act and scandal); going so far as to violently disrupt activity in the Temple precinct; and so on; not to mention the supreme outrage, an increasingly obvious breaking of the First Commandment -- placing Himself as God with God.

The Jews of His day, no less than the Talmudic Jews of ours, noticed His numerous grave outrages against the Law by which they lived; nor, after Our Lord's death and Resurrection, were they blind to the rapid Christian abjuring of massive portions of the entire Law, and the implicit Christian claim that these Christians possessed the authority to pick and choose from the Holy Law of God by which the Jews had their very life, while from the Jewish point of view this band of rebellious, Hellenized Jews (and gentiles!) curiously or ironically still retained from the Law of God a mere remnant, the Ten Commandments, calling these universally relevant and binding, which, compounding the outrage, they then proceeded to interpret by their own rules and devices, increasingly independent of the rabbinical tradition they had rejected -- the tradition and the people to whom the Ten Commandments, and the whole of the Law, had been given by the Most High.

C. The New Covenant grounds historical moral norms

Put differently, to point out all of the above is to do no more than to say that, while the Old Testament is inseparable from the New Testament, their relationship is a free relationship; that is, it is impossible to deduce the New Testament from the Old -- there exists, as a matter of theological method, no abstraction, idealization, recipe, structure, form, algorithm, or logic by which the New Testament can be made to flow ineluctably from the Old. The Old Testament has the same relationship to the New Testament as bread and wine have to the Body and Blood of the Lord.

This is the nature of grace: it is free ex nihilo; and this dogma seems rarely to be given its full weight by theologians weighed down with 'philosophy'. For "out of nothing" also means out of no prior possibility; the grace of Christ is not deducible from, is not a logical implication of, anything previous. The King of the Jews was not experienced as a living, breathing outrage by every single Jew, but that He turned out to be a surprise to the Jews is an understatement of the first water.

Just as His Body and Blood in the Eucharist can never be made to be a logical implication of bread and wine, so also, and even in retrospect -- even knowing all that we know now -- there is no way that the New Testament can be made to be logically deduced from the Old, nor can the Old Testament be made to logically imply the New; the New Testament is simply not a necessary implication of the Old Testament.

All efforts to the contrary, by the Fathers or by anyone, are either naive and not taken systematically seriously even by proponents (e.g., "O necessary sin of Adam"); or, as Covenantal Theology establishes beyond cavil, if taken seriously, they self-generate insoluble paradoxes, perhaps the foremost and most fundamental being the establishment of an errant problematic wherein, having first taken time-less Necessity as prior to all, one sets oneself the blatantly impossible (and radically heretical) task of systematically making freedom an implication of necessity.

This errant problematic must as a matter of method shunt to one side the sheer giftedness of the Good Creation in Christ, and must endeavor to make grace an implication of -- demanded by -- fallen, 'pure' 'nature', even to the extent of making the Mission of the Son 'required'.

But such propter peccatum theologies not only leave unanswered, but make unanswerable, the existence of the entire Good Creation and Our Lord's role in it, for "through Him all things were made:"

The common supposition that the "goodness" of creation is a "natural" qualification of the real is so deeply ingrained in the Catholic theological consciousness that it is often taken to be a matter of faith--a proposition whose incongruity can have been camouflaged only by a resolutely uncritical metaphysical analysis. We have already shown that the absolute and unqualified unity of being, the Deus Unus of the natural theology tractates, can have only an antagonistic because irrational relation to what is qualified, multiple, and therefore relative. We have insisted that to assert the reality of such a relation or analogy is to affirm a contradiction, one possessing pride of place since Plotinus: i.e., a rationally necessary, or "natural" continuum between the Absolute and the relative.

The various fautores of the "natural" analogy of being have struggled unavailingly with this false problem, one inherited from the Christian Neoplatonism of the twelfth century. Seven centuries and more after the death of St. Thomas, there is still no received Thomist doctrine of analogy. [37]


[37]This is not for lack of candidates; rather, their profusion and their variety manifest at once their disagreement and their failure. The Thomist project of fashioning an analogous notion of natural being, i.e., one whose analogous character is necessary in the sense of intrinsic to rationality as such, concludes finally only to a pantheism, in which the relation from the creator to the creation is intelligible because it is understood to be at once immanent and necessary. [...] While the influence of Plato's Timaeus was still effective in the Thomist metaphysics, by way of the tradition stemming from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, coloring the notion of the natural with a religious significance and value, this nostalgia was irreconcilable with the dogmatic rationalism of the Aristotelian act-potency analysis. This has the consequence that the usual "Thomist" analogy of being set up a radically contradictory postulate of a transcendent creator who is "naturally" known to be the metaphysical absolute, for it is immediately evident that of the transcendent absolute precisely nothing is or can be known, as a matter of definition: of the ineffable, nothing is said. This had been worked out in the Latin West by the close of the thirteenth century and, since the nominalist triumph of logic over cosmology in the next century, only a school loyalty coupled to a religious obedience, now unavailing, has kept the Thomist "natural" or philosophical analogy in use....

[CT II, pp. 216-7; n. 37, p. 278 ]

But the relationship between the two Testaments is free; their sole source of unity is grace and the freedom of grace; or to say it more clearly: what unites the two Covenants is the freedom of Christ with His Bride, within history, within the One Eucharistic Sacrifice; there is no time-less algorithm, recipe, logic -- no other possible source and foundation of unity between them but the historical Event of the New Covenant.

D. The sole source of freedom is the New Covenant

These facts of course undercut the foundations of traditional moral theology beyond recourse. For the last many centuries, moral theologies have located freedom merely in the will, not the intellect. This assumes that truth is -- can only be -- merely necessary, never free; but as we have just argued, the entirety of the New Covenant is free: true, available to our intellect, and not deducible from anything prior. Yet the last many centuries of moral theology have begun with the assumption that truth is true because it is a necessary implication, which is contradicted -- nay, refuted -- by the facts.

It is in point to note briefly a common theme in many of the Resurrection accounts: they did not recognize Him -- and then, they did. As Risen He appeared to them, not as a time-less static form, end, norm, 'truth' that 'in principle' could have been accounted for in advance, but as a Good Surprise: as historical, free, having truly died, and yet alive, now still clearly Man, and clearly God, both completely true and completely unexpected, and yet graspable in history. He is Risen, and they did not recognize Him -- and then, they did. There was a transformation in His disciple's ability to 'see'. In a moment we will briefly observe by Whose power this transformation came about.

Nor can freedom be discovered in the (fallen, 'natural') will. Once we posit that truth is necessary and time-less, even the merely philosophical difficulties abound, as we try to derive freedom from necessity. We may concoct an anthropology within which we define 'the will' as "that capacity by which we make free choices," which has the virtue of being wondrously circular. In short, once truth is necessary and time-less, it is no easy philosophical task to find freedom in actual history -- whether in the will, or anywhere else.

However, we have shown that Our Lord's descent into Hell is peremptory proof that whatever existence 'freedom' has in this fallen world apart from the death of the Lord, that 'freedom' is unavailing on the order of substance. Any investigation of 'freedom' apart from the death of the Lord at once degenerates to the merely philosophical; it can have no Catholic interest.

E. The truth of Christ, the grace of Christ, is free

Within a covenantal moral theology, the syllogism runs something likes this: The foundation and ground of moral norms is not some time-less Place In The Sky. Instead, moral norms build their house on far less precarious ground, on substantial reality -- on Him -- or more precisely, using St. Augustine's term, they are founded on the totus Christus, the New Covenant, Christ crucified and Risen, ever within history as One Flesh with His Bride, in the One Sacrifice.

When we gaze upon Him as One Flesh with His Bride in the tabernacle, when we are present with His Mother and the beloved disciple at the foot of His Cross at the Most Holy Eucharist, when we receive in the bosom of His Bride His words of absolution through His priest in the Sacrament of Penance, He is not present to the mind as a time-less necessary truth, but as the genuinely transcendent Lord of History, who continues to take our history upon His shoulders. And since He Himself is not present to the mind as a necessary truth, neither are moral norms.

The grace of Christ is real, the grace of Christ is true, and importantly, the grace of Christ is understandable. He does not present Himself to us as a blank surd, but as Truth Himself, speaking truly. He is Truth beyond our dreams -- therefore not comprehensible, in the sense that we cannot encircle Him within some logic prior even to Him, but understandable, as the fulfillment of our longings.

"...He opened their minds to understand the scriptures" [Lk 24:45]; they could indeed understand -- but apart from Him, they could not.

By definition, the grace of Christ -- the only grace there is -- is free, ex nihilo, it is not logically 'demanded', it is not in any way anything we could ever have expected, it is not an implication of anything in our fallen world. By the 'natural', 'pure', autonomous human mind, He is and will ever be 'irrational', because He will never be measurable or expressible by a 'ratio', He is not bound within the time-less, within any Number or Norm or Necessity.

Nonetheless, we can indeed understand, but He alone can open our minds; apart from Him, we cannot understand. There is no Archimedean point apart from Him by which we may 'see'. Nor is our intellect merely additionally 'informed' by Him -- such that 'in principle' we could 'see' apart from the Light of the World. No; the disciples knew every event that had happened, they knew every word of scripture.

He is not some Additional Data Point, 'in principle' unnecessary to the workings of our 'intellect'. Far rather, He transforms the capacities of our intellect: apart from the Light of the World, our minds cannot be opened; on this point, the testimony of the disciples themselves ought to be clear enough.

F. To take as one's premise time-less, necessary truth and norms is to fail to do moral theology

Before the moral theologies of the past several centuries even begin, they walk out the door in the wrong direction, they are wrong from before the outset. Grace is Truth, the Truth who is an historical Person. The truth made present to us in history is the truth that is a good surprise, literally unaccountable in advance yet available in the present to our intellect, to our will, to ourselves as Named persons.

Truth in His very Person demolishes the idea of 'reason' and 'rational' as merely a quest for necessary reasons. He did not come to 'reveal' a Thing called 'truth', but rather, He is Truth Himself; and this fact is for the moral theologies of the past several centuries an overwhelming philosophical and theological problem; for nothing dreamt of within their philosophies makes them able to respond more than nominally.

It is this problem -- the Truth who is the living Lord Himself with His one-and-only Bride, united always and everywhere within history as One Flesh by the One Sacrifice -- which is to be explained by some time-less mechanism, being, norm, essence, substance, prior even to Him. But the effort to account for the unaccountable inevitably amounts to nominalism, to obfuscation and elision, for given the premises, there can be no systematically coherent theological answer.

Nonetheless the moral theologies of the past several centuries persist in positing that the only substantial truth there is -- the only substantial reality -- is not historical but time-less, monadic not covenantal, discovered within necessary implications. All truth is necessary truth, the intellect exists merely to assent to these inevitable, ineluctable, insurmountable truths, truths that are true precisely because they cannot not be true.

All this is eminently forgivable, for these theologies ask something like this: if the Deus Unus is inevitably antithetical to history instead of its safe ground, "Lord, who can be saved?"

And yet, as we have just seen, sacramental reality refutes this pagan supposition at every moment: Truth Himself is free, fully historical, and "irrational" in the sense that no time-less mechanism whatever is prior to Him, can ever bind Him, or ever "account" for Him.

It is well to note that the New Covenant will inevitably be labeled "irrational" by any method or system that begins by assuming some 'truth', some algorithm, idea, concept, 'nature', 'essence', 'being', 'end', that is prior even to Him, and by which He must be 'comprehended'. For to 'comprehend' Our Lord is to explain Him away in terms of whatever god one acknowledges instead of Him. And this very much includes many, many moral theologies.

We may safely assume that this profound theological error is indeliberate in the traditional moral theologies that have served the Church in the past; but of the current moral theologies, it would be foolhardy to immediately ascribe profound defects in their structure to mere indeliberate mistake.

And yet Truth Himself is ever available to our intellects, such that in our searching ("how can this be?") we may always discover partial answers and slightly better questions to ask that are "ever ancient, ever new."

It is more than ironic that former moral theologies, proud to found themselves on logic and reason, have instead founded themselves on an erroneous prior. The Faith is indeed present to our intellects, but not as an inevitable time-less reality; instead the Faith is ever available to our intellects as a free present reality, free both on God's part and on ours.

Which is to say, any (past, present, or future) idea of our 'intellects' as a mechanism by which we merely grasp and then assent to non-historical, ideal, inevitable, necessary, time-less truths, cannot be a Catholic concept of 'intellect'. For in all of these, the Lord Himself, Surprise Himself, Truth Himself, becomes unavailable to such an 'intellect', becomes "irrational." Such ideas of 'intellect'' and 'intellection' rule Him out from before the outset. Such 'intellection' by definition can at best only grasp something 'about' Him -- never Him.

To those trapped within such versions of 'intellect', it becomes increasingly plain that the very definition of 'intellect' demands, even from the Lord Jesus Himself, obeisance, mere compliance, rather than obedience; which in turn requires that our intellects, and even His, be 'sacrificed' on the altar of necessary truths.

In the face of the facts, the psychologies of the schools are fruitless, unavailing. Their divisions of the person into particular, and rather peculiar, definitions of 'intellect' and 'will' not only render the truth and grace of the Lord systematically unavailable, but also have no firm dogmatic basis. The magisterium certainly deploys the words 'intellect' and 'will', but to make the truths of magisterial professions in turn dependent on the supposedly even more infallible psychologies of the schools is rather more than can be warranted.

As Covenantal Theology points out on many occasions, once one posits that kind of 'intellect' and 'intellection' -- a 'reason' and therefore a 'reasoning' and a 'rationality' that is 'natural' as autonomous, in no intrinsic need of the sacraments -- the nominalism that infected the late Middle Ages and that has come to dominate our own age, is not only waiting in the wings, it is inevitable. An 'intellect' and 'intellection' that 'in principle' has no need of the sacraments to reach its ineluctable conclusions, is an 'intellect' and 'intellection' with no need of the sacraments, period.

Again: a supposedly 'autonomous' intellect that 'in principle' can understand apart from Him, is in no need of Him, and will inevitably -- logically, necessarily -- exclude Him as 'irrational'. A covenantal moral theology does not abjure human reason. In issue, instead, is its nature. If human reason is taken to be this impoverished, pagan Thing that must inevitably exclude Him as 'irrational', then there can be no moral theology whatever, and a frivolous charge of 'fideism' becomes the least of our worries.

A school psychology, however timeworn, that rules out from before the outset the freedom of Truth, His ineradicable surprise upon us in history, is wrong from before the outset. (Which is the same thing) such school psychologies also rule out, or at best disregard, the utter indigence of our 'intellection' apart from the sacraments; for the seven sacraments exist in no time-less realm whatever, but only as they signify and therefore cause the grace of Christ in history.

The sacraments of course "give" and "impart" grace, but Covenantal Theology reminds us of the reason that they do: because the sacraments cause what they signify; which is to say no more and no less than dogma: ex opere operato. We may thus quite accurately speak of a 'repository' or 'treasury' of grace for the same reason.

However, grace is not an accident of a time-less substance (a scheme that must make grace arise from necessity), nor a time-less Thing somehow Hoarded Up In The Sky. The work and hence the grace of Christ with His Bride is free, ex nihilo, very much in history -- our history: within the One Flesh of the New Covenant, a sacramental sign, in our history, causes what it signifies. Theology not beguiled by Necessity would long ago have seen that this is demanded by ex opere operato.

"Conditional on A, X follows from Y." But when A is false? Then, as every logician knows, strictly speaking, nothing at all can be said. The false prior does not rule out the conclusion, nor can it rule it in. X may follow from Y, or it may not, but given that the premise is false, this cannot be determined; nothing can be said about either X or Y, until a better premise informs our decision.

For example, consider this proposition: "Conditional on A -- 'freedom and grace exist and are available to Man apart from the death of the Lord' -- X follows from Y." However, A is false. One wishes that the logicians of former moral theologies would be so logical as not to shirk the logical conclusion: X may well follow from Y, or it may not, but with a false premise, it is impossible to tell. The entire scheme is beyond dead in the water: it falls apart before it begins.

G. The inherent vulnerability of covenantal moral theology

Of course, these facts make all possible covenantal moral theologies explicitly vulnerable in a way that former moral theologies strenuously tried to avoid -- tried to logically foreclose. 'The Faith' was a series of precepts, norms, and doctrines to which the 'intellect' using 'right reason' could do no other than assent. All division, all sin, arose from 'the will' freely choosing not to act in accordance with the utterly necessary, inevitable, indisputable, even obvious, truths that the 'intellect' had grasped.

And to this, the only possible response of covenantal moral theologies is twofold. First, that former moral theologies indeed sought to make the Faith invulnerable to any dispute from 'right reason': they sought to make Him necessary, inevitable, 'rational' in just the way they claimed, but that all their attempts to make Him inevitable, are inevitably in vain. Positing a "rationally necessary, or 'natural' continuum between the Absolute and the relative" [CT II, pp. 217] generates a false problematic, which is insoluble, and from within which no adequately Catholic question is able to be asked.

Yet, secondly, many former moral theologies, when not simply enslaved within 'philosophy', had the right instinct: if the Faith was not 'rational' in the sense of being an implication of an even more fundamental time-less ratio or Number or Necessity, if the Faith was not founded on time-less, necessary truths and by that founding is invulnerable to time, how then can personal responsibility in history not inevitably recede into the past, devolve into whim?

In response, the only answer a covenantal moral theology may give is this: Truth is as vulnerable as His Cross; as responsible as His Cross. Thus, if He is not Risen, our own vulnerability, and our own responsibility, is in vain.

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