New York farm boy, naval officer, lawyer, Catholic priest, and systematic (i.e. dogmatic) theologian Rev. Donald J. Keefe, SJ died recently. Vols. I & II of his work, Covenantal Theology, contain 784 pages of small print and bear an Imprimi Potest, Nihil Obstat, and an Imprimatur. (If you send $55 to Professor Kevin McMahon at Saint Anselm College, you can own a hardcover copy.) Keefe later wrote Vol. III (300,000 words) and Vol. IV (500,000 words), available online.
Among the fair number of believing academic (but non-theologian) American Catholics who knew Keefe, or of him, there was a certain queasy feeling that he was doing Big Boy theology, so it seemed best to edge away from his polysyllabic periodic sentences and his massive erudition, and leave him be.
Although anything with an Imprimatur is too much for dissenting theologians to bear, he couldn’t be dismissed by current believing professional Catholic theologians, of course. His learning was just too vast.
Joyce A. Little, former professor at the University of St. Thomas and Keefe’s former student, once wrote of Vols I & II: “The footnotes alone are worth more than the price of admission. Many of the individual footnotes in these volumes are more substantive than whole books written by most other theologians today…To master Keefe’s footnotes is to master the history of Catholic systematic thought from the early Church Fathers right through to the most recently published works of contemporary theologians.”
If Keefe is right in his work, then it’s probably bad news for the projects of many believing Catholic theologians. If he’s right, he’s the theological equivalent of Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger. A surprising and yet even more Catholic Faith is illuminated, and a whole lotta fundamental re-calculating and starting over within Catholic theology has to be done.
The good news? If he’s right, then Big Boy theology is possible again, and if you’re young and smart and not yet completely committed to the old paradigms, there’s a lot of faithful, wonderful, and utterly fundamental theological work to be done.
So for the young, or young at heart, here’s a sampling, a few salient aspects of Fr. Keefe’s thought (but remember these are my words here, not his). Dr. Little has a (recommended!) clearer, longer appreciation, pp. 3-7.
The Catholic Faith is coherent; it makes sense; we can understand it, though always provisionally, and there will always be something more about the Faith to understand. Catholic theology seeks to illumine, study, model, the Faith, but only as a human project, always provisionally; it is never the Faith.
If Keefe is right, then (for example) St. Thomas Aquinas is Newton, not God; thus Aquinas, like any other Catholic theologian, is forever subject to correction, even complete refutation, without any harm at all to the Faith; no more than a star is harmed if the astrophysicist’s model of it proves to be deficient.
And it turns out, that St. Thomas was incorrect about some fundamental things.
In essence, Fr. Keefe began with the kind of deep, crazy “Thought Experiments” now familiar in physics. He imagined (really deep, really crazy) things that I think have never been imagined before, and saw where that took him.
And he did this because as a very highly trained systematic theologian, he knew that there were some nagging problems in Catholic theology that had to be deep issues, because (literally for centuries) they always seemed to be papered-over, never really resolved. It was so bad, that Catholic theologians had developed ruts in their thinking: they had found elaborate ways to keep themselves from even thinking about those really nagging questions, so that they could get on with their “real work”. And that was bad for Catholic theology.
So Keefe began instead with some (really deep, really crazy) “What Ifs” that had never been imagined before; and he discovered that many of those old stiff theological knots that nobody had been able to untie, began to untangle themselves.
In other words, he discovered that paradoxes, deep nagging problems in Catholic theology, were there because Catholic theologians put them there; the paradoxes were being self-generated, by deep incoherencies in the way Catholic theologians approached their work.
And the results of his “Thought Experiments” were three-fold: the truth, coherence, reality, and utter necessity of the Catholic Faith shone even more brightly; he could resolve problems in theology that had defeated theologians for centuries; and moreover, he could explain not only why Catholic theologians were making these mistakes, but also why they had previously been unable to resolve them.
There was just one teeny tiny problem: those (really deep, really crazy) “What Ifs.” They are really deep and really crazy.
Here’s just one. “What If” the conceptual framework for doing Catholic theology is only reliably available within Catholicism itself: first and foremost, by being a baptized Catholic, going to Holy Mass and confession, and obeying the commandments? Yes, I said the only reliable conceptual framework is to be found there, within these Events, within your participation in the sacraments, within the ongoing work of the Risen Lord; and by studying the Bible and the written professions of the Catholic Church, but solely within the context of what the Church herself says about them — that’s the only way to begin to do Catholic theology. “What If” that’s true?
Moreover, “What If” the metaphysical framework for studying the Catholic Faith is also solely available from within the Faith itself; and any insertion of any extrinsic conceptual or metaphysical framework—including Aristotelianism, Augustinianism, feminism, any -ism whatever—has temporary heuristic value at best, and will, absolutely inevitably, generate incoherencies in Catholic theology.
“The objective truth of human existence is given in the liturgical freedom of the Church’s mediation of her faith, and only if we stand there may we understand. This is a hard saying, but it is ancient in the Church, and Catholic theology exists only in the service of its truth.” [CT (Vol II), p. 652.]
Note from your host. I received a copy of Keefe’s masterpiece gratis from Kelleher and McMahon.
The allusion above to Bohr et al. is correct. This is the densest, most difficult book I have ever encountered. I do not say “read”, because it is slow going. I intend a review, but do not wait on me.