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

Oopsies In These Essays So Far, Or OK 'Developments'?

John Kelleher

It is time, within the ongoing course of these essays, to take stock of some of the obvious ways their arguments and assumptions -- those just in the essays so far -- might differ from Covenantal Theology, whether in degree, or fatally, in contradiction. It can only get worse from here, if only because it was not the business of Covenantal Theology to do moral theology. But it seems best to notice occasionally how far away we have already wandered.

A meta-theoretic way in which these essays differ from their inspiration in Fr. Keefe's work is that they have with increasing obviousness emerged, and as a result, diverged. Though they try sincerely to respect logic and the rules of evidence, they are little meditations more than overarching arguments from gigantic Major to imperceptible minor. They are essays "towards," they are reflections. Perhaps at root they are songs: they owe more to Ephrem than Aquinas.

As these essays have emerged, it is becoming more clear that any effort to make moral theology follow ineluctably from systematic theology is 'naturally' (as it were) going to fail. For it is possible to write prudence into a life, but perhaps not so much, into a book. Moral theology is a different project than systematic theology; it must venture beyond what is always and everywhere true and good and beautiful.

Nor is this truism novel. In former moral theologies there was a well-known category for things that were sins on Fridays but not on Thursdays (eating meat, for instance): things that were not sinful in themselves, but were sinful under certain circumstances.

The conceptual, theological trouble comes from dehistoricized, cosmological reasons advanced for why certain things are sinful in themselves. As a matter of method, covenantal moral theologies must continually remind themselves that there is no necessitating god 'behind' God -- no reason or logic or recipe that requires Him to love us. His responsibility towards us, and towards His entire Good Creation, is free.

We may not -- because we cannot -- seek 'beyond' or 'before' God for His free responsibility. There is no 'logic' we can appeal to, no force we can apply, that can require Him to love us.

There simply is no dehistoricized, cosmological 'reason' for the Covenant, for the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice. There is no 'goodness' -- there is no 'Good' -- 'before', 'beyond' the Most Holy Trinity and the One Flesh of the One Sacrifice within which we live and breathe and have our being. Those things that are always and everywhere a sin, must be found by standing there, within the free faithfulness of the Lord and His bride, which waits upon no 'reason' whatever. We live within a Gift, or we die; that's that.

So there is no Eternal Rulebook In The Sky to which even the Lord of history is subject. We have noted, as Covenantal Theology did not, at least explicitly, how alarming that is: our lack of control over the Lord of history extends even to our lack of control over whether He loves us, or will continue to love us, or to how faithful He may be to His promises. All possible covenantal moral theologies must resolutely face the sheer terror of that -- the sheer gift of that.

When it is handed on to us that God is Love, that is part of what is meant. Salvation history is historical. That in no way implies that it is unintelligible, or that it is a chaos. Our God is the living God; His faithfulness is alive, in every age.

All theology is perforce tentative, subject always to the judgment of the Church; but in moral theology, which must reflect at least often on things that pass away, on the grasping of nettles, on trade-offs rather than solutions, there is nothing for it but to pile tentative on top of tentative. So it will be, so it must be, for all possible covenantal moral theologies.

This confession of an added inherent vulnerability to all possible covenantal moral theologies is of course also an implicit criticism of any former moral theologies that were more natively confident, even as they might slightly give the lie to such confidence by differing with one another regarding some particular act or thought, which is, or is not, a sin, and which may, or may not, have to be confessed.

And of course, even when and where the most comprehensive and meticulous ecclesiastically-approved manuals of moral theology imaginable were the most diligently followed, it was conceded that not everything could be written in a manual. On the one side of this coin, St. Jean Vianney scarcely attracted tens of thousands of penitents to his particular confessional booth, on the grounds that he was simply applying the manuals of his day the same as any other parish priest; and on the other side of the same coin, St. Teresa of Avila (putting this in the most neutral terms) "found" various spiritual advisers during her saintly life; or (putting it in less neutral terms) she "shopped around" for them.

As a bare elaboration of a central theme of Covenantal Theology, in these essays we have said that, by the nature of the Covenant, which is free ex nihilo sui et subjecti, there is no Eternal Rulebook In The Sky (to which even the Lord of history is 'naturally' obeisant). So to the extent that the project of moral theology was taken to be the reading of The Eternal Rulebook In The Sky, that was a misguided, a futile, effort.

But the confidence itself was not misguided, though we see the tentativeness of the project more now than formerly. Faithful moral theologians gladly submitted all their work to the judgment of the Church; and there was and is no small virtue in the promulgation of ecclesiastically-approved manuals to be read by those ordained to offer the One Sacrifice and to hear our Confessions.

We must also note a divergence from the former moral theologies that is directly from Fr. Keefe; to whit, that authority is to be distinguished from power; that all authority to pass moral judgment is sacramental; and that the principal sacramental authority to pass moral judgment on the workings of the public order is not clerical at all, but rather, it is specifically matrimonial. As we have summarized, and perhaps not unfairly to Fr. Keefe's way of thinking, Humanae Vitae is authoritative, in a way that Rerum Novarum can never be.

Within that observation is a way of accusing oneself in Confession that the manuals did not anticipate. Perhaps one day -- though not this day and not in any day so far -- we will be granted something more to say about that.

A principal way in which these essays "towards" covenantal moral theologies differ from their model is their greater emphasis on the death of the Lord. For instance, we have argued that sexual continence "for the kingdom" is more adequately accounted for with reference to the One Sacrifice, to the death of the Lord, and that the "One Flesh" defense of sexual continence "for the kingdom" is inadequate; but the "One Flesh" defense is the one Fr. Keefe deploys in his own (unpublished) course lectures and essays defending the sexual continence of the higher clergy.

We have also located our treatment of baptism in the metaphysically prior death of the Lord, and we have stated that the death of the Lord is metaphysically prior also to the One Flesh of the Eucharistic Event -- the One Sacrifice, while inseparable from the One Flesh, is nonetheless metaphysically prior to the One Flesh. Moreover, we have strenuously asserted that denying the metaphysical priority of the One Sacrifice to the One Flesh amounts to heresy.

Obviously, in many places, Covenantal Theology is at pains to stress the fundamental role of the One Sacrifice in the Eucharist, and often laments, even excoriates, the lack of current theological interest in, or even the antipathy towards, what used to be called quite truly the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. After all, at Mass, the Sacrifice simply is prior to Communion; and Fr. Keefe certainly would never dispute that, and would defend it to the hilt. For instance, in CT II (Ch. V), p. 415, we find this:

... so the reality of Eucharistic prosphora, as sacramentum tantum, is not to be conceived of as abstracted from, nor annulled nor annihilated by their transubstantiation into the res et sacramentum, Body and Blood, humanity and divinity of the One Sacrifice. Rather, as the prosphora of the Church, they then stand in an utterly unique and irrevocable historical or event-relation to the Event by which the Good Creation is given: the One Sacrifice by which the New Covenant is instituted.

But sometimes, one finds in Covenantal Theology an emphasis on the Covenant, yet with no reference to the Sacrificial Death of the Lord. This is not an argument from omission -- one cannot say everything all the time. Moreover, Fr. Keefe was not even trying to do moral theology, except in passing, for his concern was the more theologically fundamental dogmatic ("systematic") theology.

Yet we have found the death of the Lord (as of course inseparable from the Covenant) to be more than once decidedly salient to our investigations "towards" covenantal moral theologies; we might even venture that too much might have been missed, had we not kept close the death of the Lord.

And we have identified man's premiere moral role, his special munus, his unique way to worship among all creatures, as completing "what is lacking in His afflictions." [ Col 1:24 ] For example, we have said that "It is an ineradicable part of the munus of the moral theologian to be crucified into time."

Another way we have differed at least in emphasis with Covenantal Theology itself is in the development both of the primordial humanity of Mary and in proposing that the New Covenant is 'substantial human nature' in se.

This is (to us!) at least not obviously inconsistent with Covenantal Theology's arguments, nor, from the very limited reflection on them within Covenantal Theology, could one prove an antagonism; but the arguments deployed in these essays must either be said to break new ground, or to be inconsistent with what one can find in Covenantal Theology itself -- or a little of both.

Thus to blatantly say, as we did, that substantial humanity just is the covenant between the Head and His glory, between the Bridegroom and His bride, is not anything one can directly find in Covenantal Theology.

Fr. Keefe explicitly says at least once that Mary's existence is primordial. (And we take it as certainly warranted to conclude that even as primordial Mary is a human creature). He explicitly says over and again that 'human nature' cannot be found as ideal, as dehistoricized; and he says that 'human nature' cannot be found as monadic; and that it must be found with reference to the Covenant; and that the Covenant is nuptially ordered; and so on. What we propose in these essays regarding Mary might fit very well with what Fr. Keefe says about ... well, everything; but then again, it might not. The answer cannot be conclusive because the evidence makes the question under-determined.

Also, we have argued that the freedom within which we are baptized, and, in and through the death of the Lord, the freedom to which, at the moment of their death, even the unbaptized are lifted up, is clearly not consistent with our annihilation, but is indeed consistent with our being rid of the Lord and His bride, decisively and forever, if that is what we want. Though He cannot be unfaithful, at the moment of our death, if we wish it, He will give us one final gift: He will deny us, if we deny Him.

This, we argued, is the 'eternal punishment' named by the tradition. We further concluded that a juridical metaphor thus can at best apply to eternal punishment only very inadequately, though that metaphor has been greatly favored by theological tradition. And all along, liturgical practice has faithfully handed on a cataclysmic difference between eternal punishment and the temporal punishment due to sin.

We noted that a juridical metaphor can strain to touch that distinction, but can never really account for it. It cannot explain why a father would, even at the very last moment, run down the road towards an eminently prodigal son; for the juridical metaphor has never heard of -- can never hear of -- such a father.

Juridically-founded moral theologies may perform some sleight-of-hand here -- at the desperate moment, pulling a merciful father out their hat -- but that's all. A juridical metaphor cannot account either for the decisive freedom, the freedom ex nihilo, of the father or, for that matter, of the prodigal.

We have opined that a covenantal understanding of freedom leads us to ask whether a pagan concept of perfection can have salience in a Heaven in which a hole remains in our Lord's side, and that the fact of this very un-Greek God who is Jesus the Lord may lead us towards a covenantally-founded critique of pagan conceptions of beauty, truth, good, unity, and eternal happiness.

And we have observed that at the Last Judgment, the Lord will surely make all in all, but in a manner that is to us most peculiar, for even after the Last Judgment, there will certainly remain a place of total refusal of Him and of all that is good.

And these speculations on Heaven and Hell have indeed some glancing foundation in Fr. Keefe's work -- but only some.

Also, we have argued that worship is the fundamental, quintessential moral act -- which is not stated in Covenantal Theology. We have further contended that the entire Good Creation (that is, creation in which fallenness is not normative, but rather creation as enfolded in the One Flesh of the One Sacrifice, enfolded in Him through Whom all things are made) has the intrinsic moral capacity to bless the Lord, to worship. Again, this is at best not directly contradicted in Covenantal Theology.

We have shown that sun and moon are asked to bless the Lord in Dan 3:40, and that the Old Roman Rite does not disallow the idea that sacramentals, such as salt, can equally be asked to bless the Lord. We have appealed to Covenantal Theology's recognition that already by the end of the thirteenth century, it was known that any possible "natural" analogy of being would fail; and pointed out that the customary 'move' to 'spiritualize' man enough to make the analogy work not only fails as a matter of course, but also, that the same 'move' perforce rules out any possible intrinsic moral capability for the sun and the moon -- they may bless the Lord only 'poetically' (nominally), if at all.

We have reasoned instead that, within the Covenant within which sun and moon are created as good and very good, they are not intrinsically amoral but do have an intrinsic moral capacity, they may indeed worship, they may indeed bless the Lord. And we have noted that Covenantal Theology at least does not explicitly bar that contention.

But from this contention there follows many ideas certainly not directly found in Covenantal Theology: "the quintessential moral act: worship, is not absolutely dependent on either cognition or volition as we have understood those terms; nor is is the capacity to be moral, to worship, confined simply to men and angels; nor only to animate beings; nor only to those creatures -- men and angels -- whose life, once created, is eternal."

If one day there are more essays than those we have written at present, we will write another one like this one.

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