Return to The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church main page
Return to "Essays Towards a Covenantal Moral Theology"

The Danger of Being Dangerous

John Kelleher

Mother Church is not the Mistress of, Expert in, or the Arbiter of "the rationalized notion of 'nature' heretofore in common use," [ CT Vol. II, Appendix, p. 656 ] but her worship of her Lord reveals to her many things that 'nature' can never know.

She knows that her Lord has honored, and will ever honor, to the death, the freedom of all those who deny Him, including those who were once His kin.

She knows of unimaginable holiness ("how can this be?") stronger than death, and she knows of the perdurance into eternity of unspeakable evil.

She knows that the New Covenant she makes with her Lord as His bride and His mother in His One Sacrifice radically in history, is both free and holy inseparably; and therefore that the Eucharist is not safe, for as nuptial it Images the Most Holy Trinity; and God, while supremely responsible, is a dangerous, a reckless lover.

This essay is an effort to better understand the implications for covenantal moral theology of several key aspects of Covenantal Theology and other relevant works by Fr. Keefe. Deploying a heuristic of our own devising, our preliminary conclusion is also that God is dangerous, first, in the Greek sense of prior to time-less kosmos (ordering Law), since His responsibility is inherently free, not subject to Law a priori, but rather, the free acts of the Lord Jesus with His bride radically in history are responsible as gifts ex nihilo, from no prior possibility.

For the Greeks, freedom is directly antagonistic to kosmos, ordering Law, it belongs instead to khaos, absurdity, unintelligibility, irresponsibility. A free responsibility is therefore inconceivable within the Greek metaphysics. Responsibility belongs to kosmos, freedom belongs to khaos.

As Covenantal Theology emphasizes over and again, the New Covenant, the Eucharistic Event, cannot be given a coherent account within the Greek metaphysics. The free and holy responsible facta, the deeds, the praxis, of the Bridegroom with His bride radically in history do not rest easy either within kosmos or khaos, or in the stasis that is the eternal antagonism between them.

The view of freedom inherited from the pagan past by way of Greek metaphysics identifies historical freedom with the irrational, with that which is not subsumed to necessary reasons, and which therefore is without intrinsic intelligibility. ... From this stance, the evident formal perfection of God imports necessity in God, who is locked within essential immanence, incapable of any relation ad extra which would not diminish or fragment and thereby annul his divinity.

This view of freedom as in opposition to formal perfection is notoriously productive of the insoluble problem of the one and the many. Explored interminably and unprofitably in the dispute de auxiliis, it continues to infect the juridical and moral speculation of the Catholic theological tradition, whose treatment of moral freedom and responsibility offers an ample illustration of this dilemma. Catholic moralists still find themselves choosing between a juridicalism distrustful of free responsibility, and a relativistic denial of moral absolutes.

[ CT Vol. II, Appendix, pp. 655-6 ]

The free responsibility of the Lord of history cannot be fit within an account that automatically makes freedom, including His own freedom, both unintelligible and irresponsible.

We will later briefly return to de auxiliis; here we note that, 700 years and more after Aquinas, the direct antagonism between freedom and responsibility in Greek metaphysics, when not simply denied within the moral theology of the schools, seems to have become of little moment within them. For example, the late Ralph McInerny, an acclaimed and long-time professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University and a prolific and ardent defender of Thomism, in a published article in a Catholic magazine known for its resolute orthodoxy and faithfulness and of which he was a co-founder, provided an informal definition of "the Natural Law" as "obligations antecedent to choice, rules that bind us whether we like it or not." [Catholic Dossier 4(5), p. 6, 1998].

It is trivial to find "responsibility" in kosmos, in "obligations antecedent to choice, rules that bind us whether we like it or not;" but Catholics know by faith that we are free in the freedom of the crucified and risen Lord with His bride; yet the theology of the schools teaches us, with evidently little cognitive discomfort, that we are bound, antecedent to choice -- but within this antecedent binding we somehow also choose freely.

When it is noticed at all, this systematic incoherence, insoluble within the set-up, has traditionally been 'resolved' within moral theology by a convenience -- oscillation between the horns of the dilemma, a 'morality of the gaps' -- an ever-smaller 'place' that is somehow simultaneously bound antecedently within necessary Law but also in which freedom can still safely 'hide' and shelter.

But these sorts of unsystematic oscillations, which are evidently entirely untroubling to the bulk of orthodox moral theologians past and present, are all that many former moral theologies can offer; such systems are incapable of more. There is no systematic 'resolution' of a contradiction that a system self-generates.

Moreover, necessary Law is by definition no place for novelty. For covenantal moral theologies, predestination is a strictly theological term; if read as pagan, as 'natural', it is, merely to begin with, incompatible with creation ex nihilo -- creation from no prior possibility.

Theologians from at least Augustine to Aquinas were convinced of the reality of predestination -- after all, the term or something like it is readily found in Scripture -- but, reading predestination as 'natural', as part of fallenness as normative, then had to find various ways to reconcile it with creation ex nihilo, with the freedom of God, with our freedom. We have already pointed out that defining the task in that way can only make the task insoluble a priori.

Predestination has theological meaning only as it refers not to a time-less necessary pagan kosmos into which we are locked, but to the total reliability of God's free responsibility. God knows that we are absolutely certain to be saved -- predestined, guaranteed, to be saved -- if we follow The Way to the end, precisely because "He remains faithful -- for He cannot deny Himself." [2 Tim 2:13]

Covenantal moral theologies must therefore provide some account of novelty, a task that is moot, literally un-necessary, within some former moral theologies. In our account here, we will find that the freedom of God ex nihilo, prior to Law, suggests that God is not as safe as we might imagine, or as we might prefer.

But it was not always the case in theology that a rationalized 'logic' grounded in Greek metaphysics was held to be autonomously and therefore obviously, 'naturally', prior to, hence evaluative of, the Lord Jesus, of His New Covenant with His bride, of the sacraments, of the Faith. The foundation for pre-scholastic piety and reflection had been admiratio, wonder, not a (post-Abelard) thirst for some putatively more substantial 'logical' coherence implicitly, then explicitly, held to be prior to the sanity of the Lord's wonderful deeds.

Covenantal moral theologies must therefore regard the method of admiratio of pre-scholastic reflection not only to be objectively superior, as theology, to the method that followed it, but also must actively reject the post-Abelard method of the quaestio as implicitly, then later explicitly, anti-scientific, hence anti-theological.

For the method of the quaestio in principle puts the truth of the reality under study at issue; the quintessence of the method, an sit verum? (but is it true?), when asked not of one's own ideas, but of the reality under study, is actively anti-scientific. At root, an sit verum? presumes a 'place' prior to the reality of the object, by which one can evaluate the reality of the object.

To the contrary, when and if a science is in good order, the object under study is the a priori of the study and controls the discipline: one's questions to the object of the inquiry are ever subject to challenge by the reality of the object under study; a pre-existing 'logical' system -- or a political system -- never controls the inquiry; far rather, the intelligibility, the coherence, logical or otherwise, of one's questions emerges and improves within the mystery -- a mystery that is quite often personally sacrificial -- of one's moral interaction both with the reality and with the reflections and criticisms of one's colleagues within the inquiry.

In sum, we may learn, more and more, what 'logical' means, within the method of admiratio; to the contrary, in principle, at root, making a 'logical' system prior to the object of the inquiry makes it impossible for the reality under study to put the system itself to the question, and thus can only confine us more and more within our own ideas.

This radical distinction in theological method becomes acute in the case of covenantal moral theologies. For Fr. Keefe says explicitly that morality just is a praxis; it is free; thus, (we ourselves conclude), there is no ordering Law 'behind' or 'above' morality that causes its character as morality, any more than there is an ordering Law prior to the radically historical gifts, the facta, of the New Covenant.

This is the very nature of morality: that its truth and integrity are available only as free, as incapable of comprehension in any theory whatever, for morality is historical, not abstract, it is always a praxis, and because free, cannot be reduced to an idea.

[Donald J Keefe, SJ. "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) p. 31. ]

For covenantal moral theologies, the free holiness of the praxis of the New Covenant is not 'limited' by concrete historical particularities; much to the contrary, the New Covenant does not 'have' free holiness as a time-less Idea, an essence which can only be 'limited' by particularity, but rather, as a radically historical praxis, the New Covenant's free holiness is inseparable from its expression in particular acts, deeds, in concrete practical history. (In a moment we will examine Eve's choice in the Garden as a negative example).

Morality is thus not a theory but just is the praxis that expresses radically in history the free holiness and thus the free responsibility of the Eucharistic Event, the New Covenant, the continuing work of the risen Lord with His bride.

The foundational praxis of the Bridegroom with His bride radically in history is the Eucharist and the six other sacraments that flow from it, which cause what they signify ex opere operato. The sacraments themselves are hence the free, holy, responsible morality, the infallible praxis radically in history, that founds all morality as a praxis.

The truth, integrity, and beauty of the praxis that is morality is foundationally therefore the truth, integrity, and beauty of the praxis, the morality, that is the sacraments. The truth, integrity, and beauty of the praxis that is morality can therefore in principle emerge within the method of admiratio, in which the 'logic' of believers may ever be corrected and improved by the reality of the praxis, which is, to say it again, foundationally the praxis of the sacraments themselves.

However, covenantal moral theologies can only view the inherent dynamic of the quaestio as unreliable. While efforts to disdain system per se as somehow fundamentally untheological are silly, and efforts to construct a system as a heuristic within the Church's theological quaerens are at least allowed, probably inevitable, and possibly laudatory, for covenantal moral theologies, any system that eliminates the possibility of the system itself being put to the question by the reality under study, is off the table.

As will be seen, even the initial application of the method of the quaestio to theological inquiry aroused the unease of prominent monastic theologians; later history demonstrated the impulse of the method to be toward self-referentiality and hence self-calcification.

Implicitly and then increasingly explicitly the practitioners and enthusiasts of scholastic theology took for granted that their system per se was the very language of rational theological inquiry: no question it could put to itself will lack an answer, and no question that it cannot put to itself is rational. It is "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."

Some of the history of the move away from admiratio may be found in notes Fr. Keefe wrote for a class he taught on Revelation:

In other hands than Anselm's, however, another drive for rationalization was at work. This entered theology by way of a borrowing from the method developed in the law faculties of the new universities in Bologna and Montpelier, where commentators upon the Roman law had developed the quaestio, an enquiry into the meaning of the words of a proposition, as a foundational principle for the systematization of the Roman law, and by extension, of the Church's law. Nichols quotes Abelard: "one can often solve a controversy by showing that the same words are used in different senses by different authors." By this method, directed to the systematic unification of the patristic canon law tradition, Gratian's Concordance of Discordant Canons in the twelfth century overcame the incoherence of canonical collections accumulated over the centuries. Comparable incoherence could be seen in the doctrinal tradition, and the device which had proven successful by the canonists began to be employed by theologians, one of the first of whom was Abelard, whose Sic et Non (Yes and No) in the beginning of the twelfth century exposed the literal contradiction between elements of the doctrinal tradition, and by a process of rationalist literary criticism sought their resolution. In principle, as the condition of its inquiry, the method of the quaestio put in question the truth of each doctrinal proposition examined: it was this which aroused the suspicion and more of monastic theologians such as Peter Damian in the eleventh century, and Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth. But the monastic piety of admiratio (wonder) was defeated by the new thirst for logical coherence. Its final product was the systematization of theology in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas in the latter half of the next century, but preliminary summae began to appear in the middle of the twelfth century: the best known were Peter Lombard's Quattuor libri sententiarum and the Summa sententiarum of Roland Bandinelli....

On the other hand, the corpus eventually produced over the centuries by the method of admiratio was indeed a jumble, and the impulse to 'harmonize' it understandable.

But apart from the relevant brute fact that the community of inquiry within which each particular pre-scholastic worked was hardly universal and often quite local, there is another brute fact. While the free holiness, the free responsibility, the morality of The Way is infallibly available ex opere operato, in sacramental signs that cause what they signify, the intelligibility, the truth, coherence, and beauty of The Way is not necessarily available at will or even at need; that's just not how it works.

Honest, thus potentially personally sacrificial, disputation among those who are sacramentally the adopted brothers of the Lord, His mother's adopted sons, can help; but there is no magic formula.

'Magic' formula, indeed; perhaps it would be nice to be able to look up in a time-less Answer Book the resolution of all disputes; but it is not to be. In the end, the Eucharist is its own protection; those whose own worthy, personal, baptismal name is now further given within the sacrament of Orders may adjudicate, ameliorate, ignore, or not, within the worship of the Church (but only there) as they see fit.

Regarding the dispute de auxiliis, even after four hundred years, scholastics have been unable to find in the common Answer Book that is their inquiry a resolution that satisfies them -- not individually, there are many proposed 'resolutions' -- but as a body, as an inquiry.

Is the dispute de auxiliis, which Pope Clement VIII, after prolonged argumentation in his presence refused to adjudicate, and still inconclusive among scholastics four-hundred-years-and-counting, a hint that the disputation itself is founded on a systematic, hence inherently irresolvable, incoherence?

Even the answer to that question cannot be found within an Answer Book In The Sky. Other moral theologies may differ; but covenantal moral theologies say Yes, the lack of resolution of a long-lasting dispute originating within the inquiry itself points to a systematic incoherence within that inquiry.

For the Greek system "identifies historical freedom with the irrational, with that which is not subsumed to necessary reasons," [ CT Vol. II, Appendix, pp. 655 ] thus makes incoherent, a contradiction in terms, any concrete (that is, historical) free responsibility, even the free responsibility of the Lord Jesus Himself, Who lays down His life of His own accord [Jn 10:18].

The crux of the difficulty former moral theologies (to be fair, that most of us) have here is with the notion that morality per se just is a praxis. Morality being per se a praxis, it is of course "incapable of comprehension in any theory whatever." But like the Greeks, we consider that an act, a praxis, cannot cause its own morality; that way lies sheer hubris, absurdity, chaos, destruction, utter irresponsibility. Kosmos, Order, Law, is the source of the morality of all acts, of all praxis.

We tell ourselves, "It is impossible for a praxis to be named immoral, unlawful, or, alternatively, to be named moral, lawful, if there does not already exist a moral Law given by God prior to that praxis." Some particular theory of the moral Law may be imperfect, but it makes no sense to say that the morality of a praxis is prior to, thus literally incomprehensible within, "any theory [of the moral Law] whatever."

So we ourselves reflexively posit that a literally free historical responsibility is impossible; and we ourselves perform the same unsystematic oscillations in our own moral thinking.

If in our oscillation within the scheme we gravitate more toward the Greek idea of 'freedom' rather than toward necessary ordered Law (kosmos), then particularity itself becomes an affront. Since within this conceptual universe concrete historical responsibilities, to be responsible, must of necessity be antecedently "subsumed to necessary reasons," we, now on the side of 'freedom', conclude that any concrete historical responsibilities whatever are necessarily, automatically, antithetical to our current darling, 'freedom', since by the system's own terms 'freedom' can only be found within that which is in opposition to necessary ordering Law.

Hence the particularity of The Way is the premiere scandal for unfaithful moralists:

These [unfaithful moralists] remain trapped in the Greek priors, and merely choose the opposite horn of the Greek dilemma. For them, God is not-Law; thus they make "a relativistic denial of moral absolutes." [ CT Vol. II, Appendix, p. 656 ]

Unfaithful moralists abandon history, abandon particularity itself, whether for the time-less, nonhistorical, thus ineffable Ideal, or for an equally ineffable Now, generating in themselves an unhealable wound, whose only salves are Power and extinction into nothingness.

To propose the disintegration of the concrete historical specificities of the sacraments and rites, beliefs, and obligations of The Way, in favor of some 'essence', or 'idea', or form, substance, etc. 'beyond', 'behind', 'evaluative of', 'prior to' The Way, is a 'move' as ancient as the most ancient heresy, but it seems perennial.

To abandon the concreteness of The Way in favor of a theory is to abandon The Way. A man's sole personal name and substantial existence, which just is his specific, particular kinship history with the Bridegroom with His bride and with all their adopted kin, occurs not as an 'example' of a theory but entirely as covenantal, as freely taken up, as a praxis solely in concrete specific history, or he refuses his very name, his substantial existence, in concrete specific history.

In sum, a foundationally Greek defense of the sheer historical particularity of The Way is at root unavailing, for the choice is not, nor can it be, between time-less kosmos and time-less khaos, in which a free responsibility is a literal contradiction in terms; the choice is whether to affirm that Jesus is Lord.

To take the premiere instance: Jesus's specific concrete acts in history are free; they cannot be reduced to an idea; they are not Perfect Examples of The Eternal Rulebook In The Sky. The Lord's concrete acts in history are personal, they are holy, they are moral, they are intelligible, and they are free, more lordly than any theory, they are prior to any theory whatever; their truth and integrity do not wait upon any pre-existent 'logic' or 'order' or category whatever, yet they are utterly responsible.

Thus for covenantal moral theologies, Jesus is ineradicably dangerous. For not only His praxis, but even more, He Himself, is "incomprehensible within any theory whatever" -- which means that He is not safely controllable within any theory or Law whatever.

To begin with the worst of all: there simply is no Law more lordly than He, by appeal to which we can force Him to love us -- but what would we do, if He stopped? And His deeds are holy, they are moral, yet not encompassed within any theory -- but how then can we guarantee that He will not do something wild, beyond our ken, not according to our Law?

Covenantal moral theologies are theologies of gift -- they are "prisoners of gift," if you will. Accordingly they are not, nor can they be, theologies either of kosmos or of khaos.

The Catholic faith is a free intellectual response to a free revelatory Event; neither the Event nor the response can be subsumed to any necessity whatever, whether in God or in man, nor can we furnish any antecedent account of the prior possibility of the Event or of the response: both are given ex nihilo sui et subjecti, and in their free unity they constitute the a priori of all theology. Further, there is in the freedom of this a priori nothing random or arbitrary: the Event is at once the revelation and the reality of the ultimate Verum, the objective relation of the Trinity to the Good Creation, and the response to it is the worship which is faith, the free appropriation of the free revelation. Only the category of gift, of grace, is adequate to this freedom, and that only when the notion of gift is freed of all connotation of do ut des.

The Catholic faith thus invokes a theology of the ex nihilo, of gift; this is the subject matter of all the theological discussion of grace and nature and of the natural and the supernatural. Such language has the single purpose of safeguarding the two correlative and inseparable aspects of the gift: its freedom, whether in donation or in reception, and its radical truth, its fundamental intelligibility, both as revelation and as faith-affirmation. Because the radical gift in its fullness is the New Covenant, the theology of the grace of faith is theology itself: theology has no other subject matter than this, the New Covenant in which terminates the mission of the Son from the Father to give the Spirit.

The historical and covenantal gift of revelation and of the correlative graced response to revelation is then equally the free a priori of all theology. This radical ground of all fides quaerens intellectum controls what the inquiry may be, and consequently requires of any heuristic device put to the service of such inquiry that it be itself subsumed to the free and historical prius which is the New Covenant, our one relation and access, in Christo, to the Triune God.

[ CT Ch. 1. p. 119 ]

By His Eucharist, offered in His Person, He brings His Cross, by which He is One Flesh with His bride, freely -- hence uncontrollably, for we cannot control His love -- to this moment; His works, His deeds, are holy, unconstrained (thanks be to God) by any prior possibility; His deeds create a Law greater than the Law. By Greek standards, therefore, the Lord Jesus is ineradicably dangerous; yet He creates in history facta that are utterly responsible.

The Greeks were well aware that any concrete historical deed, however great, recedes into the past and is eventually devoured by the past. But by means of the specific, particular offering of this Eucharist in His Person, in signs that cause what they signify ex opere operato, He brings His Cross to this moment, He gives this moment both freedom and consequentiality ex nihilo, a unity with all past time and with eschatological time that in 'flesh', fallenness as normative, has zero prior possibility.

This Mass lifts up this moment, this history with all His kin past and present into signed -- veiled, but utterly real -- communion. By, and only by, this offering of the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, in this Event, do Heaven and earth kiss, not time-lessly, but radically in history, on this day.

And there is no Law whatever, by which we can require Him to do this.

It is the radically historical praxis of the Eucharist, prior to any time-less substance, theory, idea, form, order, law -- this uncontrollable sheer gift -- which creates, sustains, informs, and supports what is otherwise absolutely, strictly, impossible.

We have previously argued that, contrary to the contentions of most former moral theologies, making historical praxis prior to all moral theory does not make that praxis irresponsible, it does not abandon it to sheer subjectivity, it does not make it degenerate into relativism -- if and only if the font and source of that praxis is the continuing works in history of the Lord Jesus with His bride.

To the contrary, we are invited to formulate new categories, questions, and logics which can more and more take the holiness, the morality, the intelligibility, of the Lord's acts into account.

We are also saying that, just as there exists no prior possibility for bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, but they do become objectively, really, exactly that as these are brought into the history of His Church's worship, there exists no prior possibility of thinking sanely about Jesus the Lord unless that thinking is brought into the history of the Church's worship.

For sanity itself is covenantal; Catholics do not seek sanity, but possess sanity as sheer gift in ecclesia. The Lord Jesus with His bride alone can open The Way to us, to our personal histories -- which includes our thinking; and within that sacramental kinship history and existence, questions can be formulated, and improved, that never could be thought before.

Yes, this is a rejection of autonomous rationality across the board. Autonomous rationality is autonomous. From before the outset, it is a refusal of the priority of "Jesus is Lord" to rationality itself.

Individual men can, and once in awhile have, reasoned that rationality itself is impossible unless one first, personally, attests that Jesus is Lord; but no Greek can do that and remain a Greek, and no Jew can do that and remain a Jew.

Yet it does happen. For example, as we have noted, the foundation for pre-scholastic piety and reflection was admiratio, wonder, not a (post-Abelard) an sit verum? implicitly, then explicitly, held to be prior to the sanity of the Lord's wonderful deeds.

But the even more dangerous, the even more impossible impossibility, is that historical events, in the sense of particular concrete free and morally responsible actions by sinful human beings, are capable of personally mediating the Gifts of the spotless Lamb with His spotless bride in fallen history; sinful human beings are able to begin a kinship history not merely at the eschaton but radically in this moment with the Bridegroom with His bride and with all their kin, in the foundationally Eucharistic, sacramental, gifts, works, and obligations that are the rites, the beliefs, the responsibilities, of The Way.

It is impossible, if barely imaginable, for the spotless Lord of history to make a true covenant with a mere, if equally spotless, created woman. But for a sinful baptized man and a sinful baptized woman to make a covenant with each other that is a sacrament, a praxis that infallibly mediates the work of the risen Lord with His bride historically, concretely, in this fallen world ex opere operato, is beyond impossible; and therefore, it is certain.

There is no theory, idea, substance, form, order, recipe, algorithm, nor will there ever be, that encompasses this, that is prior to it, that causes it -- and by which we can therefore evaluate it. The Way makes present to men of goodwill sheer sacramental facta, signs that cause what they signify ex opere operato, which do not wait upon any theory, but can become personally intelligible within one's own personal sacramental kinship history in ecclesia. The truth and integrity of holy acts, covenantal acts, moral acts are "incapable of comprehension in any theory whatever."

So, with His bride, to His adopted brothers He gifts an even wilder, an even more dangerous, impossibility: in particular concrete free and morally responsible actions, to stand on His crucified shoulders and create facta radically in history that are even wilder, even more dangerous, yet even more responsible.

For as His brothers and her sons in the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, we are given the gift, the work, the obligation to "complete what is lacking" [ Col 1:24 ] in His afflictions, within the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us in the sacraments, effectuated by our Lord's second 'lifting up' by His going to the Father:

Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.

[ Jn 14:12 ]

The Lord is doubly dangerous; not only is He freely responsible, freely holy, creative ex nihilo, prior to Law, but also, with His bride, One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, He makes sinful human beings His brothers, her sons, who may thus as His kin also gift radically into history even "greater" works, which also are inherently both free and responsible with no prior possibility, hence prior to any necessary Law, as His own works are.

Of course, if the Lord's own works are themselves caused by necessary Law, if necessary Law is in fact more lordly than He, then nothing of the preceding can be accurate, and the dangerous Lord of covenantal moral theologies disappears.

But we are far from finished, for the third great danger of the New Covenant is that it is not only freely responsible and gifts the impossibility of free responsibility willy-nilly upon His brothers and her sons, but also that the New Covenant, the Eucharistic Event, is radically incautious.

Our Lord is not a nice safe protective god who destroys evil, who waves his powerful hand and annihilates evil, makes evil disappear, no-more-to-be. Instead, with His bride, He affirms, to the death, our concrete freedom in history, and hence He honors, to the death, the malign consequences of every single one of our sins.

So not only our free holy moral works as kin to the Bridegroom with His bride, but also our sins, are historical, consequential; thus our sins are not extinguished, even by the death of the Lord, as if they never happened; instead gifts given by the Son ex nihilo, up to and including His sacrificial death, 'route around' the sins.

Thus the first step out the door of propter peccatum theologies is in the wrong direction. The Lord's death certainly is for the forgiveness of sin, but the pagan idea of 'forgiveness' is the wrong metaphor, for in no way is the death of the Lord a 'payment' that restores a status quo ante.

Much to the contrary, on the Cross the Lord affirms our freedom, the personal consequences of our sin, to the death, while His Sacrifice gifts into history the Spiritus Creator, Who is stronger than death, stronger than sin.

Covenantal forgiveness is the desire of the Father to continue a kinship history with us, with no further harm to that history; thus the Father's forgiveness is a forgiveness as gifted, as automatic, as the father's forgiveness to the Prodigal Son.

But even in the parable there is no restoration to a status quo ante. Instead, the father in the parable initiates gifts that begin to 'route around' the sins of his Prodigal; he does not pretend that those sins never happened -- as he explains to his other, temporarily aggrieved, faithful son.

Thus in the Eucharist, there is no pagan 'restoration' on offer, no return to a status quo ante. The sin of Adam, and our sins, happened; His Sacrifice does not ignore or discount, let alone erase, a single sin from history. Far rather, by His free choice to be lifted up on the Cross the Lord Jesus fully, without reservation, affirms, to the death, Adam and Eve's, and our, freedom, which just is the personal consequentiality of our acts, while giving the Spiritus Creator stronger than death, stronger than sin, Whom He was sent by the Father to give.

And by the work of the Spiritus Creator Who is ever obedient in history to the continuing Eucharistic, hence sacramental, work of the risen Christ with His bride, our stony hearts are replaced, not merely 'cleansed'; we become in Baptism new men, capable of covenantal relation radically in history.

In passing, we note that the Reform's rejection of 'works' is ridiculous to the Catholic; for by its denial of Catholic sacramental realism the Reform can only postulate that Baptism is not sufficiently efficacious even to restore us to the mere power of Adam and Eve, who by their personal 'works' decisively affected concrete history, let alone understand that Baptism does much more, and makes us kin radically in history to the Bridegroom and His bride, capable of infallibly consequential historical praxis in His Name (e.g., in the sacrament of Matrimony), and even (when ordained) in His very Person, in this moment.

A slave can never be greater than his Master, but a brother can dearly hope that His adopted brothers will do even greater works than He. And He Who Is Mighty can do even these greater things for us, for Holy is His Name, Holy is the Spirit Whom He gave His Son to give. So covenantal moral theologies can take with complete seriousness the words of the Lord Jesus to His adopted brothers: greater works than these will you do.

Within our kinship history with the Bridegroom and His bride and all their kin past and present, our deeds in history can then be freely responsible without any prior possibility -- even the thought of which will always be a scandal, wild and dangerous, to the Greeks.

But the flip side of fully covenantal reality is that if our deeds in history are done apart from the radically historical praxis that is the Eucharist, apart from The Way, our deeds can be free and wild and dangerous as malevolent, as catastrophic, and there appears to be no automatically reliable power, save mortal death, hindering anyone, even a Pope, from being as wayward and evil in history as he can manage, for as long as he wishes.

After all, covenantal moral theologies propose that Adam and Eve literally broke reality, and even then, God did not prevent it. Nor, covenantal moral theologies propose, does God ever dishonor the consequentiality of our deeds; He never, ever "makes good from evil," as if the evil that was done were no longer real in history, as if the good that He does is in any way an implication of, built on top of, the evil; He 'routes around' evil with holy gifts with no prior possibility. The sin was done, it was a sin, it had consequences that were malign; and that will ever matter.

And we have no record at all of the Lord Jesus actually extinguishing evil: to be blunt, not even our Lord's death on the Cross, not even His institution of the Eucharist, not even His resurrection, occurred for the purpose of killing Satan, or that would have been accomplished.

Our Lord opposes evil, He warns against evil, He identifies evil, He makes evil depart and go someplace else, He removes the consequences of an evil to (temporarily) restore health and life, He teaches His brothers to pray to be delivered from evil, He overcomes evil, He drives evil out, He puts the consequences of evil on His shoulders, He 'routes around' evil in holy gifts with no prior possibility; but there is no record even of a single time in which He annihilates evil.

St. Paul did write that at the end times the Lord will slay "the lawless one": "And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming." [ 2 Thes 2:8 ] But may we legitimately read this slaying somewhat rhetorically?

For the Church has firmly clarified that the damned are certainly not extinguished, but instead go to Hell eternally. A literal annihilation of "the lawless one" of the end times would thus require him to not be numbered among the damned.

Every jot and tittle of St. Paul's writings must be respected, but we may safely read 2 Thes 2:8 as somewhat rhetorical. Even after the Last Judgment, even after the Lord Jesus comes again and God is "all in all," [ 1 Cor 15:28 ] there Hell will be, there will the devil be, and with him, all who despised The Way, and really meant it; covenantal moral theologies do not "dare to hope" that God takes no one seriously: God takes them seriously, even to eternity.

We have seen that the Lord Jesus does great deeds, that He brings holy gifts, which 'route around' the terrible consequences of evil acts, but He still honors to the death the freedom of those who did those terrible acts, and the personal consequentiality of those acts into eternity.

We have previously noted that the monadic god of the pagans brooks no opposition. By certain lights, then, such a god is "safer;" he would simply make his enemies not to be, nice and neat. But then, to such a god, differentiation itself is an enemy:

...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....

[ CT Ch.1, p. 143 ]

But instead, God is freely, unremittingly generous, and also freely, resolutely responsible, but He is also freely, unspeakably incautious: He is dangerous; by our lights, He is reckless -- how else can we characterize the terrible freedom He gifted to Adam and Eve?

Recall that in the bounty of the Garden there was only one fruit that Adam and Eve should not eat. But the devil told Eve that there is no such thing as free responsibility: any self-respecting god regards even the tiniest specific responsibility to be an offense against his freedom.

To the contrary, what God offered Eve was the opportunity to express her freedom concretely, by giving God Himself a gift, a gift that to the devil makes no sense, can never make sense, a gift that would give herself in her free refusal to put herself above holiness.

What would happen to Eve if she ate of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden, if she made that a part of herself? The devil explained it perfectly to her: then she would 'know' Good and Evil, meaning she would know the 'names' of Good and Evil, thus have power over them both, she would be 'beyond' Good and Evil, she would possess both Good and Evil as her playthings.

The petty specificities of the covenant would no longer concern her; she would disdain as hateful, because not entirely within her control, her existence as a concrete, particular worship, her existence as the giver and receiver of concrete specific historical gifts, within a Gift freely given by Gift Himself.

Within covenantal moral theologies, a man's personal name, his substantial existence, just is the concrete specific gifts, works, and obligations that are his kinship history with the Bridegroom and His bride and all their kin; these are him, without remainder.

It must be remembered, moreover, that the gifts, works, and obligations that is our kinship history and thus just is our substantial existence are fully covenantal. There is no implication that our worship can only be intellectual or must of necessity always be under our conscious control; our Mother delights in our gifts of our breaths, our silences, our sleeping -- our eating; all of these and more are covenantal, moral acts that are the concrete historical specificities of our substantial existence as kin to the Bridegroom with His bride; they all count.

As slaves, all we could hope for was to satisfy, endlessly, the requirements of The Eternal Rulebook In The Sky; as sons, sometimes our Mother is quite happy just to watch us breathe.

It cannot be over-emphasized that eating the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden was thus not arbitrary, not 'translatable' into anything else at all, not a metaphor, a 'type', as if it were an 'example' of something 'beyond' or 'behind' it, an 'instance' of a violation of Law 8319 section 48 sub-paragraph B.

Eating that fruit was not an 'instance' of anything else, any more than Eve herself was an 'instance' of section of the "Establishment of The Human Substance Act," or that The Most Holy Trinity was an instance of the "God Law," specifically Section 3: "The Number of Persons in God." Presumably, 300 Persons in God, or 3 million, would be a violation of Section 3, and hence impossible under the controlling Law, which in this case would evidently be the First Commandment.

For Eve's substantial existence was not an 'instance' of her fulfillment of Law at all; it was her concrete historical praxis that just was her worship, "incapable of comprehension in any theory whatever."

It was the devil who led Eve away from any notion that she had, and expressed, her freedom by means of concrete historical particularity, within a Gift. By implication, the devil urged Eve to think that particularity itself -- 'this' but not 'that' -- intrinsically enslaves; and that God was aware of this, as any self-respecting god would be.

It was not about living within a Gift ex nihilo -- within a Surprise with no prior possibility. It was all just a matter of 'knowing' Good and Evil. Once Good and Evil were her playthings, she could get 'beyond', 'behind' it all -- 'beyond' God Himself. Eating of the fruit in the middle of the Garden of course would not hurt her! To the contrary, by doing that, she could make all those petty specificities of her relational, covenantal, substantial existence, her worship in history -- herself -- disappear.

There were nearly countless specific things, including her eating of the fruit of (almost) every tree in the Garden, that Eve could do to express in concrete history the freedom of her worship of God within His Gifting covenant. But eating that fruit was the concrete specific particular thing that could not express her free covenantal worship in concrete history. God told her that; the devil told her that refusing the particularities of her worship would make her like god.

And by her refusal of the concrete particularities that just were her worship -- that just were her substantial existence -- Eve by her own act and desire would separate herself from the Garden and thus could no longer be nourished by its bounty.

She would hereafter perpetually hunger for the Bread of Life (the fruit of the Tree of Life), be forced to toil even for ultimately unnourishing food even as the devil's own taste for arbitrary power would now be ever in her mouth, she would waste away from lack of real sustenance, and finally die; and since she was mother of all the living, all the living would henceforth die, too.

Adam and Eve's punishment was that God took them seriously. He gave them what they wanted. And God placed the cherubim and a flaming sword to ever honor the freedom, the personal consequentiality of their sin: of Eve's deed that refused her substantial existence as a worship, and of Adam's even worse sin, because by his personal acquiescence in her refusal, he failed to protect her, he refused his headship of she who was his glory, Eve, and then he also personally refused his own substantial existence as a worship, on top of that.

And we know all this about Eve, because Mary did exactly the opposite.

God gave His own free responsibility to Adam and Eve. They refused it. And God takes them seriously. He honors their freedom fully and permanently; the Lord Jesus fully honors the consequences of their free act, to the death.

Covenantal Theology reminds us [ CT, Introduction, n. 41, p. 68 ] that the basis of Catholic optimism is faith "not in human cleverness or even human decency, but in the Lord of history."

But this Lord of History, the real one, the one known by Mother Church in her worship as her Bridegroom and Son, refused the kind of Kingship which the devil offered; and this Lord of history was ignominiously and horribly crucified to death, death on a Cross.

The Greeks saw freedom as khaos, irresponsibility, dis-order, confusion, as the eternal antagonist of ordering Law and hence the eternal antagonist of responsibility; but some of them gave themselves up to the ecstatic rites of Dionysus, gave themselves, for a moment, to khaos, to that chimera of "freedom," an annihilation into the moment. By this dis-integration, they were rewarded with a mere pretense of "integration," to be sure -- but hence into a temporary forgetfulness; in the jungle that is the irresponsible Now, they found a momentary relief from the cage, from dead and deadening Law and Order and Responsibility without end.

But the dangerousness of the Lord Jesus is far more terrifying than anything the Greeks could conjure.

How can we not fear the free and stupefying generosity of God? At the culmination of our lives, if we spit on His Son and want to deny Him forever, He will take us seriously, He will not prevent it: we will get exactly what we want.

How can we not wish that God had been safer, not quite so incautious, not so dangerous, how can we not wish that God had not been so reckless that He did not prevent the sin of Eve and Adam, a sin with malign consequences beyond our powers even to imagine?

It is not given to us to know the end; but the danger may be far greater than former moral theologies could even in principle envision, for in those moral theologies, the One God may be a wrathful God or a just God or even a merciful God, but He is a foundationally safe and regular God, bound by necessary Laws of His own making.

As a matter of method, there is no place in some moral theologies for a God Who loves incautiously; Who refuses to extinguish evil; Whose deeds are genuinely free as well as genuinely responsible; Who personally, in His very body, affirms our potentially catastrophic freedom, thus the malign consequences of our sin, to the death; Who loves beyond absurdity itself, Who gifts beyond sense, prior to all Law, recklessly.

Within all faithful moral theologies there is an acknowledgment in faith of these, but within some moral theological systems qua systems there not only is no systematic account of them, there can be no systematic account of them; yet, to say it again a little differently, covenantal moral theologies have zero ability to quote an Answer Book In The Sky to refute the moral theological systems of countless faithful Catholic scholars, let alone of countless saints.

Within the system of some former moral theologies, God cannot be incautious, reckless, or freely responsible. But within covenantal moral theologies, our baptismal immersion in the death of the Lord does not prevent us from doing evil that would make us deadlier than our worst enemies; in the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, we have been gifted both power and freedom beyond even that given to Adam and Eve -- and look what they did with it.

Do we imagine that "human cleverness or even human decency" will be enough? Do we console ourselves that, at least among the Children of Light, there is some automatic limit to the extent to which human cleverness may be applied to human indecency?

Yet the sacraments are real; that changes everything. Baptism is holy and efficacious in concrete specific history because of the Eucharist; Orders is holy, sustaining and protective in concrete specific history because of the Eucharist; Matrimony is holy and fecund in concrete specific history because of the Eucharist.

The sacraments -- all of them: the Eucharist, Baptism, Matrimony, Orders, Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction -- can be prevented in history, by the corruption of their elements, by force, by coercion, by neglect -- we know this, we have seen it -- but the sacraments -- all of them: the Eucharist, Baptism, Matrimony, Orders, Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction -- are freely efficacious beyond the reach of any evil, for they are the work of the risen Lord with His bride; the dynamism of the sacraments of the New Covenant is irreversibly in the world, and cannot be undone.

Some -- a remnant? a multitude? -- will be faithful to the end, and will be a gift to us. Nor should we disremember the very great multitude of the saints there will be in Heaven by the end, praying for us and present to us as our kin at the offering of every Eucharist in history.

And the Church's holy and immaculate worship of her Lord in the Event of the New Covenant, One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, will remain, concretely, objectively, in history even beyond the Last Judgment, for the Last Judgment is the end of the sacraments, yet not the end of particularity, the end of history, not the end of the ecclesia, but rather her fulfillment, her full beginning.

But at times Catholics have allowed themselves to think that the crucified Lord will undoubtedly, as a matter of course, prevent the Gates of Hell from prevailing against His bridal Church in some way that spares the Mother of Sorrows from anything approaching the worst that He Himself experienced.

Yet Our Lord Himself taught us to pray that we not be subjected to the test, and to be delivered from evil; thus, not being subjected to the test and being delivered from evil is a legitimate possibility; but we must also conclude that being subjected to the test and not being delivered from evil are legitimate possibilities, as well.

In our Eucharistic kinship history with the Bridegroom and His bride we have been gifted with a literally unimaginable wondrous potential to do deeds "greater than these."

But covenantal moral theologies know that God is frankly dangerous; He has shown that He is reckless in the freedom He gifts to us, nor does He make even one iota of the evil consequences of our acts vanish.

God does not give take-backs. He did not erase the consequences of the Fall. Instead, the Lord Jesus honored those consequences, to the death. God promised Noah [ Gen 9:1-19] that the world would never again be destroyed by flood; but He did not undo what had already been done.

Our Lord's death on the Cross, an Event inseparable both from the Last Supper and from this Eucharist offered in His Person on this day, affirms to the death our freedom, honors to the death the consequences of our sins, beginning with but scarcely limited to the sin of Adam and Eve, and, in the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, gives the Spiritus Creator stronger than death, stronger than sin, into the concrete specific history of this day.

But even the Eucharist does not ignore or discount, let alone erase, a single sin from history. Our forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance is in no way a return to a status quo ante. In the sacrament of Penance our kinship history with the Lord and His bride now continues without any further harm to that history; but our sins did harm that history, which just is our substantial existence. That happened. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit our sins are absolved, not made to disappear, as if they never happened, as if it suddenly doesn't matter that they really happened.

The victory of Mother Church over all the enemies of her Son is certain in His Cross -- but only in His Cross. At the Last Judgment, will the Mother of Sorrows prevail against evil -- and, perhaps more to the point, against our cooperation with it -- in a manner automatically far lighter, far easier, than her Lord Himself suffered?

The freedom of the radically historical praxis of the Bridegroom with His bride cannot be separated from its holiness, hence from its morality, hence from its truth, integrity, and astonishing beauty; but the New Covenant, as free and holy inseparably, is not safe, for as nuptial it Images the Most Holy Trinity; and as we have seen, God is supremely responsible, to the death; but He is also a dangerous, a reckless lover.

The Lord Jesus with His bride has placed far too much trust in us. That is reckless, dangerous. We can honor their trust -- or we can break the world. And not even His Mother has been told in advance the extent of the ability of her adopted sons, in His Eucharist, to give marvelous, literally unimaginable, unbelievably consequential gifts into history, nor the extent to which her adopted sons will be called to "complete what is lacking" in His afflictions.

Return to The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church main page
Return to "Essays Towards a Covenantal Moral Theology"