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

Oopsies III

John Kelleher

We report some really big oopsies.

Our discussion of Catholic epistemology is ... novel. Along with Covenantal Theology itself, we say that Mother Church's authority is foundationally liturgical; viz., sacramental. But we also say that Mother Church's knowledge, not just her authority, is foundationally sacramental. She knows all of substantial reality solely in and from her worship, from her One Flesh union in the One Sacrifice with her Son and Bridegroom and Lord -- Who in His very Person is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

She has no special or particular knowledge of "the rationalized notion of 'nature' heretofore in common use," [ CT Vol. II, Appendix, p. 656 ] nor can she acquire this. She "knows" as she knows her Son, her Lord, her Bridegroom -- in her worship, relationally -- and not otherwise.

Her knowledge of the brothers of her Lord as her adopted sons is thus also solely from her worship, as they are baptized and become her Lord's brothers, and especially, as they eat the One Bread, the consummation of their consubstantiality with the Bridegroom and His bride.

For we have our personal, baptismal names, which just is our existence, by means of a kinship history of gifts, works, and obligations by which we are in signo (really, though not empirically) consubstantial with the Bridegroom and His bride, who as One Flesh in the One Sacrifice constitute the human substance which Images the Most Holy Trinity.

We are consubstantial with them solely through their One Flesh union in the One Sacrifice, by which we are gifted to become His adopted brothers and her adopted sons. Sarx, our fallen nature, is not "human nature." The kenosis of both the New Adam and the Second Eve into sarx, by which our fallen nature was imposed on them, did not cause them to assume a "human nature;" nor is the human substance which just is their One Flesh union imposed on any man (as fallen nature is imposed).

Perforce, Mother Church's knowledge of what is good and what is bad, and more to the point, of what is holy and what is unholy, is grounded in her worship. She knows these also relationally, as Mother of her Son, bride of her Bridegroom in the One Sacrifice, and Mother of her adopted sons, brothers of the Lord, not by means of some nonhistorical, non-sacramental apperception of a rationalized 'nature'. Hence

... the acts of any who are not full kin to Mother Church -- any to whom she cannot offer the sacrament of Confession -- their acts are, strictly speaking, uncharacterizable to her; for there is no "rationalized notion of 'nature'" on offer.

Put differently, her knowledge of what to "bind" is entirely relational; it extends only to those whose acts she is also given the authority to "loose;" that is, solely to those she knows as her sons.

She can tell Jack to do, or not to do, such-and-such to John, solely "because he's your brother." For there is no rationalized notion of 'nature' on offer, not to her, not to anyone.

The resources of fallen 'nature', 'rationalized' or no, are entirely inadequate for holiness, which is the substantial reality by which 'good' and 'bad' are perceived.

The Fall is not to be trivialized. It did not merely "weaken" 'nature': our Lord's death was much more dear, much more sorely needful.

In passing we note that this is yet another reason that propter peccatum theologies are inaccurate. The Fall occurred at the order of substance; it was not an act that required merely punishment, but re-creation, which only Jesus the Lord can do, for "through Him, all things are made."

By the same token, the Eucharist is also much more dear, much more sorely needful; its continual celebration is utterly crucial to salvation.

In a word, to covenantal moral theologies, neither the risen Lord with His bride, nor the sacraments which are His continuing work with her, are icing on a fundamentally sound cake. The grace which just is substantial reality does not 'perfect' fallen 'nature' except in the sense that the Eucharist 'perfects' bread and wine.

In Baptism our stony hearts are replaced, not merely 'cleansed'; we become literally new men, adopted brothers of the Lord, hence consubstantial with Him and her, with their substantial human nature, with the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, they who in their New Covenant, with each other but not as each other 'breathe' out the Holy Spirit and Image the Most Holy Trinity.

Covenantal moral theologies can do no other than submit their speculations not merely to the judgment of the Church, but also to the neglect of the Church, if so she wishes. The holiness of the Church's worship, very much including what she binds and looses in her sacraments, certainly does not wait upon anything that covenantal moral theologies could ever come up with.

Still, for covenantal moral theologies, "a rationalized notion of 'nature'" -- or of any fallen 'nature' taken as normative, foundational -- is off the table, closed off, as a matter of method.

Instead, for covenantal moral theologies, immersion in the death of the Lord is absolutely essential to the free kinship and responsibility of men within substantial human nature, thus absolutely essential to human solidarity, to human dignity, to human flourishing. There is no nonhistorical, non-sacramental, non-ecclesial reality to any of these things.

As a matter of method, then, for covenantal moral theologies, an examination of "human nature," human dignity, human flourishing, free responsibility, etc. apart from utter dependence on the Eucharist, on the sacraments, is a non sequitur.

And the same goes for what is intrinsically evil, malum in se. Since covenantal moral theologies search for, and find, substantial reality not in any nonhistorical or Ideal realm but solely in the radically historical worship of the Church, solely in the sacraments, we proposed that simulating a sacrament, or simulating either the consummation or the reception of a sacrament, constitutes intrinsic evil.

By inference, then, covenantal moral theologies are so inherently indigent, that any discussion of "the moral order," "nature," "the human person," or of "human dignity," etc., even by popes, is at best confusing, unless it can be grounded and understood not with reference to some 'universals' categorically and forever unknown to covenantal moral theologies, but only as they are grounded and understood with reference to the true human substance, which is the New Covenant, which is ecclesial, which is sacramental, and which is therefore only 'universal' as invited Gift, never 'universal' as imposed, whether on 'human nature' or 'nature'.

We repeat: the actions of men, the practices of societies, cultures, nations, cannot so readily be sorted by any appeal to a supposed 'universal' fallen 'nature.'

Not only "rational" 'natural' morality, but also any 'natural' morality whatever, must found itself, and therefore, break itself, upon the radical contradiction at the heart of any 'natural' analogy of being.

Put differently, for covenantal moral theologies, the 'good' and 'bad' of most former moral theologies can at best seem curious categories. For as we have said, bread and wine are 'good' because nutritious; but rather, bread and wine become holy, not merely 'good', only as He, with His bride, makes them part of His sacrifice to the Father within the historical worship of His bride the Church.

Thus, for covenantal moral theologies, not good and bad, but instead holy and unholy, are the foundational categories; and since holiness is not and cannot be any implication of fallen 'nature', there is no moral implication to such 'nature' except in Promise, as offered Gift of a free responsibility, in ecclesia.

Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus, indeed; apart from the One Sacrifice, by which the Bridegroom with His bride are One Flesh, there is... nothing we should wish to be a part of.

Of course, to literally found holiness on the actual daily liturgical worship of the Church, and not on some nonhistorical holiness of a nonhistorical God who is the nonhistorical Father of a nonhistorical "immanent Son," "of whom in consequence the Church's historical tradition and worship knows and can know nothing," [ CT, Vol. III ] is a departure from the former moral theologies, yet one that Covenantal Theology itself makes.

But what is without precedent in these essays is further proceeding down that rabbit hole, and defining what is intrinsically evil to be departures from, repudiations of, the radically historical holiness, the holy order, of the sacraments themselves as actually given and practiced in history. Thus we proposed that simulating a sacrament, or simulating either the consummation or the reception of a sacrament, constitutes intrinsic evil.

In this way we are able at least in part to avoid the type of nonhistorical, cosmological analysis forsworn by covenantal moral theologies as a matter of method, and ground our discussion of intrinsic evil, as firmly as we are currently able, with reference to what we termed "holiness per se;" that is, to ground our discussion in the radically historical work of the risen Lord with His bride, the sacraments.

Obviously, this might be a misstep, although, from the perspective of covenantal moral theologies, a misstep not in theory, but in practice. Who told us that simulating the holy order of a sacrament was the definition of intrinsic evil? Nobody; we made that up. Our only hope is that this particular "making it up" proves to have some heuristic value, and is not out-and-out foolishness.

That is not to say that we are in doubt that simulating a sacrament, or simulating the consummation or reception of a sacrament is in fact an act which in itself, independently of circumstances, is always seriously wrong by reason of its object -- which is the classic definition of intrinsic evil.

Nor is it to say that we do not find it illustrative of the kinds of nonhistorical, non-covenantal, a-sacramental blindnesses endemic to "the rationalized notion of 'nature' heretofore in common use" that at the second Vatican Council, the assembled fathers made a list [ Gaudium et Spes, 27 ] of what they took to be such intrinsic evils, and never once mentioned, from the perspective of covenantal moral theologies, what ought to be at least primus inter pares, if not the font and wellspring for any discussion of them, the simulation of the Church's sacraments, yet included such debatable, because radically ill-defined, evils such as "subhuman living conditions" and "degrading conditions of work," which nobody can be 'for', to be sure, but which scarcely can be said to be evils defined "independently of circumstances."

For that matter, "murder" (unexceptionably first on the Council fathers' list) is only on the list through begging the question (in its original meaning of supplying the answer within the question), for the taking of a human life is not evil "independently of circumstances."

Murder can be said to be intrinsically evil, evil "independently of circumstances," only circularly, only in the sense that "murder" is defined as the taking of a human life, once all the circumstances that would otherwise have reduced, mitigated, or even eliminated the evilness of the act of taking a human life have been accounted for. ("That's not 'murder', it's self-defense, or it's manslaughter, or capital punishment, or the unfortunate outcome of a necessary suppression of evil by legitimate authority, or the outcome of legitimate combat in a just war," etc.)

We attest that pointing out these things is not corrosive of morality, but rather speaks to the self-corrosive flaws endemic to "the rationalized notion of 'nature' heretofore in common use." Of course, Catholics should not engage in such evils. But "intrinsic" evil has become so unmoored from the sacraments that even Council fathers think that a laundry list of "things we are really, really against" is the same thing as a list of examples of "intrinsic" evils.

In the preceding paragraph, we were a bit unfair to "the rationalized notion of 'nature'." For the impulse to conflate "things we are really, really against" with intrinsic evil -- which is to say, evil with no exceptions -- is not specific to it, but rather is as old as we could ever trace.

For example, the modern persuasive apparatus of The Powers That Be has made itself increasingly adept at the manufacturing of an ever-shifting array both of 'goods' that are 'good' (that never were as late as yesterday), and of 'evils' that are 'evil' (ditto), "independently of circumstances." And no one, certainly not the episcopate nor the papacy, has proved entirely immune.

Everything is exceptionless; all is obvious; no one is to doubt; all must assent; even though, as mentioned above, the exact opposite prevailed yesterday: "Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia."

Both enthusiasms and revulsions can spring up unbidden, or be very bidden, indeed; and we have the historical record, let alone the record within the schools, theological and otherwise, of the last sixty years, that 'Reason' can readily be bent, or will go along willingly, to whatever end. In every age, perhaps, martyrs are few on the ground; and organized, effective resistance, such that martyrdom never becomes the only option remaining, is ever scant, as well.

Yes, we are sort-of-kind-of "making things up" here, but in an effort to ask better questions. To reprise, we (re)defined "intrinsic" evil as an act which is dis-ordered beyond circumstance, meaning dis-ordered at the level of substance.

From there, our hoped-to-be "logical" progression was to note that, for covenantal moral theologies, "substance," substantial reality, holiness per se, is radically historical, it is eucharistic, it is the New Covenant, it is the sacraments not as Ideal but as an ordo actually present in history.

Then we proposed that a simulation of a sacrament, or a simulation of the consummation or the reception of a sacrament, would count as intrinsic evil by our definition.

By the (present woefully inadequate) standards of covenantal moral theologies, that doesn't sound too illogical, not that far off.

Our temerity apparently having no limits, we then made a list of some of the constitutional aspects of the ordo of the New Covenant, and from thence, of the ordo of the sacrament of Matrimony that Images it. According to us, the ordo of Matrimony includes:

The very act of making such a list, of course, makes every element in it accurate and definitive. After all, this essay is being posted to the Internet; so it must be true.

By contrast, in an unpublished article, Fr. Keefe exemplified the kind of long and profound reflection on the constitutional nuptiality of the New Covenant, and by implication, of the sacrament of Matrimony.

Fr. Keefe's statements in that unpublished article are thus the kind of thing highly uncharacteristic of these essays 'towards' covenantal moral theology, but they are the product of the kind of reflection that we hope will one day be the goal and the fruit of the work of many brilliant Catholic scholars and many saints.

For he wrote (see below): (covenantal) "authority can be used only to support, affirm, and underwrite the free responsibility, and so the authority, of those under authority."

This calls to mind Fr. Keefe's discussion of covenantal headship within the pages of Covenantal Theology. For Jesus Himself is the glory of the Father, Who is Jesus's Head and Source, and therefore, Jesus is under the authority of His Father. Yet, if we take what Fr. Keefe implied in his unpublished article seriously, the Father expressed His authority over His Son "only to support, affirm, and underwrite the free responsibility, and so the authority" of His only-begotten Son.

And the Son, we remind ourselves, exercised His own authority that was supported, affirmed, and underwritten by His Father by fulfilling to the end His Mission from the Father to give the Spirit, even unto death on a cross. Regarding "Head" and "Source" and "Glory," Fr. Keefe writes in Covenantal Theology:

The doctrinal development of the fourth and fifth centuries, particularly as against the Arian heresy, certifies that to have a "head" and thus a source does not imply the inferiority of such a person to the source; the relation cannot be understood as between an absolute and a relative reality. Rather, it is between persons whose reality is actual or manifest in their relation to each other, even when one of those realities is divine, the Son of God, the Christ, and the other merely human, merely a creature, the Church. The reality of Christ as the glory, as the image of God, is revealed in his headship of the Church which thereby is his glory; he is her source, as his source is the Father, whose glory he is.

[ CT, Vol. I Ch. 2, p. 248 ]

Fr. Keefe's remark just below is worthy of note, and not only in itself.

For first, (with reference to his discussion of headship just above) by implication Fr. Keefe characterizes the divine authority of the Father in a very different way than we have been used to hearing: the Father's exercise of authority is "only to support, affirm, and underwrite the free responsibility, and so the authority," of His Son.

That, we submit, is worth at least one or two dissertations, if not volumes and volumes of reflection, in itself.

And, more directly relevant here, Fr. Keefe calls this nuptial, covenantal relationship by which substantial authority is alive and exercised "the meaning of the nuptial order of society."

By "society" Fr. Keefe may be read as referring to the sacramental society of the Church as she worships, or as also referring to "society" as beyond that. We have given reasons why it is essential for covenantal moral theologies to make a sharp distinction between these two "societies," or these two "cities," or, perhaps much better, these two "loves" -- for nothing but free, active, decisive repudiation is beyond the reach of the grace of Christ by Whom all things are made. But here is what Fr. Keefe wrote in the unpublished article:

The temptation of the bishops and their staffs to dragoon the laity must firmly be resisted: it has no place in a church wherein authority can be used only to support, affirm, and underwrite the free responsibility, and so the authority, of those under authority. This is the meaning of the nuptial order of society.

This is as much of this treasure as we have the current wherewithal to reflect upon here. But to continue: since 'dis-order' can only be detected with reference to 'order', we then implicitly claimed that covenantal moral theologies can assemble a preliminary list of acts that neglect or repudiate the ordo of the sacrament of Matrimony and therefore are dis-ordered at the level of substance -- that are intrinsically evil, by our definition -- by means of an examination of the (putative) particulars of the radically historical sacred ordo of Matrimony, with reference to the list that we just made up.

And of course, unlike Fr. Keefe (see below), we took no account of the possibility that covenantal moral theologies, rather than forever being armchair projects of no account, one day became "successful," meaning influential, and thus, the ordo of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church having once again become real and important to ordinary people, even to the odd bishop, the apparatus of the modern State (with control of the courts and the media, attacking from outside and hollowing out from within) would be directed towards "revising" that ordo in such ways that nothing about the sacraments could irritate the Current Consensus, ever again.

To give one pause at what potentially baneful side effects some success at reinvigorating the sacredness of the ordo of the sacraments might have, one need only consider that within the span of about fifty years, Catholicism in England was practically wiped out for generations, and that this destruction required only the ruthlessness of a couple of Cromwells and his pitifully unmodern apparatus, coupled with the garden-variety greed of sufficient members of the British elite.

To summarize:

That is a plethora of oopsies to note.

Further, it might seem that our oopsies extend even beyond these, as in the strictly moral realm -- as opposed to the systematic realm -- at first glance, we find ourselves unable to support certain of Fr. Keefe's implications, and even some of his direct statements. But our worries are unfounded.

For instance, Fr. Keefe defends Sir Patrick Devlin's advocacy of the criminal enforcement of strongly held moral standards in a given community, even over against a rationalized 'Law' drafted and proclaimed by "jurisprudents" (and nowadays, also merely by bureaucrats) that Fr. Keefe derides as the product of "sociological scientism." We note that he includes 'natural law' theorists as -- evidently and provably -- among the practitioners of this "sociological scientism."

... this sociological scientism can only undercut the very notion of an association between morality and law, nor it limited to secularists and free-thinkers. The Catholic defenders of the natural law have shown little sympathy for the proposition, defended by Lord Patrick Devlin against H. L. A. Hart and his successors in interest, that in the historical association of morality and law there is implicit the inescapable moral responsibility in a jury (and by further implication, in a legislature, in an executive, in a judge) to act as the guardian of the public decencies.

Even the adepts of the natural law seem to wince at the notion that the moral consensus arrived at by the uncredentialed in a jury room or an election can have a validity transcending theory and thus transcending the wisdom of an academic elite, whether the natural lawyers or the utilitarians or whatever other regnant group of theoretical jurisprudents. Yet the "rule of law" of any free people must give the final practical decision to just such popular consensus, whether it be gained by an election or by the verdict of a jury. 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.

["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. ]

This may be astounding -- repulsive -- enough for self-proclaimed traditionalists and conservatives, for whom "the rationalized notion of 'nature' heretofore in common use" is still in fact, in common use. Fr. Keefe was well aware that what he wrote might have such an effect on those who might otherwise consider themselves his 'natural' allies.

But for covenantal moral theologies, simply for a community to have "strongly held moral standards" is far from enough. Absent a means by which one can distinguish one community's strongly held moral standards from another, it all must descend into relativism: "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die," [ Jn 19:7 ] cannot be distinguished from "Jesus is Lord," or, for that matter, from Aztec human sacrifices or the occasional Hindu 'custom' of suttee.

"The rationalized notion of 'nature' heretofore in common use" begins to sound quite attractive by comparison, for it claims to possess and affirm a 'universal' 'nature' that is "naturally" available to 'Right Reason', and which therefore can resolve all moral conflicts, even such "strongly held" ones as those mentioned above.

We have shown that such a claim is inaccurate; no such resolution by appeal to such a 'nature' is or ever can be effective.

Reason itself provides another proof. If 'Right Reason' is taken to mean "autonomous" Reason, or "non-confessional" Reason, or "value-free" Reason, or, fundamentally, "Reason that is 'universal' because it can exist without any priors," then Kurt Gödel's two incompleteness theorems prove that such a 'Reason' cannot exist, since formal logical systems are not and cannot be comprehensive.

Gödel's first incompleteness theorem proves that any formal logical system capable of basic arithmetic contains at least one statement that cannot be proved within it; and the second incompleteness theorem proves that any such system cannot prove that it is consistent within itself.

Further, Gödel's proofs do not say how many statements cannot be proved within such a formal system (Theorem 1), only that at least one cannot; nor do they say to what extent a system cannot prove its consistency (Theorem 2), only that it cannot.

Even worse, neither theorem implies that there is only one formal logical system possible, or that all formal logical systems are necessarily translatable into each other, or that all formal logical systems will necessarily 'approach' the same 'limit' or end (get 'almost' to the same place, with some trivial differences); they may, or they may not; the theorems don't say.

In sum, no formal system of logic capable of basic arithmetic can be comprehensive; which rules out a 'Reason' that could in theory find a Theory Of Everything which is, at least in theory, 'universally' available; moreover, the morality of human acts cannot be found within any fallen system, logical or otherwise.

Fr. Keefe, however, is not finished; the basis of the 'praxis' of a free people under the rule of law is not a rationalized 'nature', nor is it anything capable of being circumscribed by, confined within, any ratio. Yet a basis for this 'praxis' can be found and is intelligible, freely responsible, but if and only if its basis is Eucharistic, sacramental:

But the praxis must itself be covenantal, free, and moral, if it is to serve. It is not enough to speak in general terms, with Palko, of "ordered liberty" for that conceptual bucket, being empty, can be given or denied any content, without limit. Neither is it enough to accept whatever may call itself free praxis, on the common supposition that all such matters are de gustibus; such diffidence is an invitation to tyranny. We seek a concrete political expression of a freedom which transcends the Madisonian dilemma: only the order which is concrete in the marital community succeeds. Therefore, we may conclude that the marital interpretation of history is in fact Bork's "rule of adjudication," which he has identified with the "rule of law" and that only with this clarification does his "original understanding" of the Constitution avoid becoming itself merely another ideology.

Finally, the marital praxis of ordered freedom should never be regarded as an automatic social dynamism needing only to be left undisturbed to flourish; the ordered freedom of sexual morality is not self-subsisting. Under continual attack in a fallen world, it is sustained only by the risen Christ, in the worship of the Church. In the end, we are a covenanted people, in a covenant which is marital. Only in the observance of that covenant do we remain free, a people under the "rule of law".

[ Ibid., pp. 31-2. ]

However, Fr. Keefe did commit the egregious error of neglecting to do our job for us. With gross insensitivity, he failed to answer questions such as the following:

[M]ay the kin of Christ morally impose the Ten Commandments on The Children Of This World?

If both the authority and the knowledge of the Church is sacramental, to what moral extent may any power of the kin of the Church among The Children Of This World be exercised, to express, defend, and spread The Way?

When brothers -- her sons -- war, on whose side does their Mother stand?

And so on.

If one day there are more essays than those we have written at present, we will write yet 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"