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In Honor Of Catholic Theologian Reverend Donald J Keefe, SJ — Guest Post by John Kelleher

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.

What If?

“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.

10 thoughts on “In Honor Of Catholic Theologian Reverend Donald J Keefe, SJ — Guest Post by John Kelleher Leave a comment

  1. So, if I understood the brief example correctly: A can only be understood to be A and non not-A if you first accept as a basic premise that A is A and not not-A.

    This actually makes sense. Circular logic always arises at the foundation of any coherent philosophy. The towering edifice of mathematics rests, ultimately, upon the sand of assumptions. Logic cannot, by itself, prove the existence, veracity, and utility of logic. Every branch of philosophy, every religion rests on basic propositions that may seem nonsensical to an outsider. The faith can only be understood by the faithful, for it is only after your eyes have been opened that you can see.

    In other words, “You must be this tall to understand this ride.”

  2. Doesn’t look like that a big deal. But consider this – what if it is preciselly the other way around. What if the extended existence of any religion relies on capture of the wild mystics, of the desert dwelling or cave dvelling excentrics and ectatics, to extract the truth from them, to systematize it into something that resembles a coherent outlook.

    What If the metaphysical framework for studying the Catholic Faith can only be developed from the outside, then brought in as a sort of a gift?

    And what if there is a shitload of people that were able to bring the pieces from the darkness and the big boy theologians were too busy putting together their tomes to notice what is actually happening around them? Like this kid:
    http://www.gabbysplayhouse.com/webcomics/the-only-thing-i-know/

  3. Doesn’t look like that a big deal. But consider this – what if it is preciselly the other way around. What if the extended existence of any religion relies on capture of the wild mystics, of the desert dwelling or cave dvelling excentrics and ectatics, to extract the truth from them, to systematize it into something that resembles a coherent outlook.

    What If the metaphysical framework for studying the Catholic Faith can only be developed from the outside, then brought in as a sort of a gift?

    And what if there is a shitload of people that were able to bring the pieces from the darkness and the big boy theologians were too busy putting together their tomes to notice what is actually happening around them? Like this kid:
    http://www.gabbysplayhouse.com/webcomics/the-only-thing-i-know/

  4. I see that McChuck beat me to the same idea. A great many religions must be “done”, not “studied”. You cannot study your way to an understanding of revelation or inspiration; such things are experienced or they simply don’t exist. To merely study a religion is to look at its empty shell.

    “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… that’s the only way to begin to do Catholic theology.”

  5. “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.
    “…
    “… he [Keefe]e 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…”

    The theology has some [centuries old] “nagging problems” that have been “papered-over” and “never really resolved.”
    And that theology, with those ancient ‘unresolved’ “problems” is simultaneously “coherent” and “makes sense.”

    Hhhhmmmmmm.

    “The faith can only be understood by the faithful, for it is only after your eyes have been opened that you can see.”

    “A great many religions must be “done”, not “studied.””

    “Al’s a good boy.”
    – Teresa Capone, mother of notorious gangster Al Capone

    “They only see what they want to see.”
    – Cole Sear, kid who could commune with the dead [who don’t know they’re dead] in the movie Sixth Sense.

    Curious, that seeing with opened eyes and doing and reaching conclusions in so many areas involves actively putting on mental blinders to avoid seeing inconsistencies that are usually quite apparent to the less enlightened.

    Also curious is that so much practical philosophy and psychology comes out of finance (the capatilistic discipline)! But then, not so curious considering that finance fundamentally keeps score and those numbers cannot be easily, if at all, not seen. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway, studied and compiled “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment” years ago, and this is readily available on-line (e.g., http://web.archive.org/web/20151004200748/http://law.indiana.edu/instruction/profession/doc/16_1.pdf). His summary covers a lot of territory in abridged practical form, that he’s applied this to identify competent managers and turn that into $Bs suggests he’s figured it out. He’s certainly figured out how human nature fundamentally inclines people to see only what they want by shutting out conflicting information and confuse that with having their eyes opened — that’s a behavioral phenomena that appears in every area of human activity (not just religion), and being fundamental aspect of human behavior is not something effectively addressed by philosophy.

  6. “And it turns out, that St. Thomas was incorrect about some fundamental things.”
    Yes, and what’s wrong with admitting that?

    “What If” that’s true?
    Well it puts everybody out on their ear since everybody has broken the commandments. So if ‘it’s true’ there’s nobody on the inside to know it! So that tells you that that notion isn’t true.

    This post was honest.
    ignoring the author’s entertaining the familiar intellectual snobbery that the actual truth of a thing depends upon one’s being initiated. That is relativism right there. This is to confuse The Truth with partial understanding, perspective, knowledge, privilege or Michael 2’s ‘milage. ‘

    Too busy thinking difficult thoughts, to notice such things.

    Slightly amusing that one of the initiated is allowed to, dare say, Thomas Acquires was not always right.

  7. As I have said, there are a few of Aquinas’ conclusions that I would be prepared to dispute “to his face” using his very own, excellent, Scholastic Method. Nothing very fundamental, just a few incidentals like his notions of predestination, and usury come to mind instantly.

    But I bet that I’d be prepared to argue with some of Keefe’s fundamentals if I could be goaded to wade into his apparently wooly verbosity.

    For now, though, I’ll enter a minor dispute with McChuck who said:
    ” Circular logic always arises at the foundation of any coherent philosophy. The towering edifice of mathematics rests, ultimately, upon the sand of assumptions. Logic cannot, by itself, prove the existence, veracity, and utility of logic. Every branch of philosophy, every religion rests on basic propositions that may seem nonsensical to an outsider.”

    1, Circular reasoning is not logical. It cannot be the foundation of any coherent philosophy.
    2, The towering edifice of mathematics is a sand castle but fundamental mathematics is a logical rock of non-contradictions.
    3, What you say of logic is, in fact, reason unguided and unconstrained by logic.
    4, Now, to the guts of it; every real, valid, philosophical (scientific) endeavour must rest on basic propositions that are “self evident” to any sane mind. Self evident is a proposition that is undeniably true because its only alternative is its contradiction which is self contradictory and thus absurd. Examples include; “I exist”, “things exist”, “the whole is greater than the part”, “things that do not exist cannot cause themselves to exist”…. there are more. In mathematics we can say 0 is not 1; even a child can “intuitively” know that fact.

    Such are the basic facts of reality that are not esoteric, arcane, “basic propositions that may seem nonsensical to an outsider.”

    Tom Aquin spent practically his whole adult life demonstrating the congruency of Reason and Faith with observed reality.

    I suspect that Keefe is trying to adapt Christianity to contemporary unreal ideologies of speculative theoretical physics, mathematics and sociology as have many of his brothers in the Society of Jesus “back then” and now.

  8. “The objective truth of human existence is given in the liturgical freedom of the Church’s mediation of her faith”

    What does “the liturgical freedom” mean?

  9. Thank you, everyone, for reading; and a special thanks to the commenters. May I steal a few paragraphs to provide some additional information to the still-interested?

    I urge a re-reading of “Oldavid’s” comment; it seems not too far from the reactions of a number of current professional believing theologians: no need to ‘encounter’ Keefe’s thought: if it’s a ‘fundamental critique’, we know it has to be wrong, so why bother? And it’s tough-going. And he’s probably a heretic, anyway.

    St. Anselm defined the project of Catholic theology as fides quaerens intellectum: faith “searching for” understanding; that is: I believe with my life that this is real, and makes sense: how may I learn more about the sense that it makes?

    The very structure of the Summa can be taken as St. Thomas’s lively and honest effort to consider every extant argument, and answer it. But within the coterie of his disciples, this happens no more. For an inveterate incuriosity now exists within current Thomism.

    For it is precisely the correspondence of the Facts, of Reality, to all current variants of Thomism, that Keefe’s work puts in issue.

    Within the meetings and literature of current Thomists, there is no discussion of, because there is no answer within classic Thomism for, any of the fundamental contradictions Fr. Keefe brings up, for instance: “for the species, the signs of bread and wine, of food and drink, then had, as ‘accidents,’ no correlative substantial subject of inherence.” [CT (Vol II) p. 426]

    Classical Thomism can give no coherent account — none — of the Eucharist, the heart of the Catholic Church. Within Aristotelianism, as within all current Thomism, it is impossible for accidents to be without a “correlative substantial subject of inherence”, but in the Eucharist, this must be possible, or the entire Thomistic account of transubstantiation falls apart. Fr. Keefe is kind by calling the Thomistic papering-over ‘nominal’.

    Where then, is the famous Thomistic single-minded focus on the “Real”? How much Reality could be left in Thomism if the Eucharist, the most Real, the prime analogate, the font and source of the entire Catholic Church, is found to contradict the method being used to ‘understand’ it?

    Current Thomists implicitly claim that (their favorite variant of) Thomism is the Faith, or at least, is coterminous with the Faith; and in doing so, suggest that theology as a project is finished, except for a few minor details.

    It was not lightly that I suggested a correspondence of Keefe to Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger. Reality is intact; our accounts of it may require some fundamental improvement.

  10. Thanks, John, for your reply. Your implied criticisms of me are pretty close to the mark. However, I am not stuck in C13 perceptions; but I have been considerably astonished by Tom’s implied assumptions of physical reality principles that were not described for centuries after him.

    But you are right that I am deeply suspicious of the Society of Jesus in that they have had many (uncensored) men who have been in the forefront of trying to infiltrate secular fashions of thought to subjugate the Mystical Body.

    Unless Keefe thoroughly repudiates the fantastic speculations of the likes of de Chardin and his sycophants then I have no time for him whatsoever.

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