“At the root of the human is Christ”: The theological work of Fr. Donald J. Keefe, S.J.

An interview with Dr. Kevin A. McMahon, editor of Exploring the World’s Foundation in Christ: An Introduction to the Writings and Thought of Donald J. Keefe, S.J., published by Ignatius Press.

Genealogy of Jesus Christ and the Christ Pantocrator (WikiArt.org)

Kevin A. McMahon earned his doctorate in systematic theology from Marquette University, having worked closely with Fr. Donald Keefe, S.J., during five years of study. After graduation, he joined the faculty at Saint Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire, where he continues to teach as a professor of theology. McMahon is the editor of the new collection, published by Ignatius Press, titled Exploring the World’s Foundation in Christ: An Introduction to the Writings and Thought of Donald J. Keefe, S.J.

He recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report about Fr. Keefe, the focus of Keefe’s theological work, it’s Eucharistic and covenantal core, and it’s continued importance.

CWR: Who was Fr. Donald J. Keefe, S.J.? What are some key biographical facts about his life, study, and work?

Kevin A. McMahon: Donald Joseph Keefe was born on July 14, 1924 at his family’s farm in the hamlet of Poolville, just outside Hamilton, New York. He was the oldest of five children. In May 1942, five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Keefe, then out of high school, enlisted and underwent flight training in the U.S. Naval Reserve, ultimately deploying to North Africa as a navigator. He completed this first round of active duty in August 1946 (the second came in 1951-53) and served in the Naval Reserve until his honorable discharge as a lieutenant in June 1953.

After the war, Keefe attended Colgate University. He graduated with honors in 1949, receiving his B.A. in political science. From there, he entered law school at Georgetown University and earned the J.D. in February 1951 (in those days at Georgetown it was termed an LL.B.). Within months, he was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia and the Bar of the Courts-martial of the Armed Forces of the United States; three years later, the Bar of the State of New York; five years after that the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. But Keefe had already decided upon the religious life. He entered the Society of Jesus at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, Hyde Park, New York, on September 7, 1953.

From 1955 to 1958, Keefe studied philosophy at Loyola Seminary in Shrub Oak, New York, receiving the Licentiate in Philosophy. From 1959 to 1963, he studied theology at Woodstock College in Maryland, earning a Licentiate in Sacred Theology. Between those two periods, he taught English and History for a year at Regis High School in Manhattan. One can only imagine what students thought of that experience.

While still studying at Woodstock, Keefe was ordained to the priesthood at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York, on June 20, 1962. Canisius is also where Keefe would later begin his career in academic theology.

In 1965, following his Tertianship at Auriesville, New York, Keefe travelled to France to study theology at Strasbourg, though he quickly decided to matriculate instead at the Gregorian University in Rome. His study was short and intense: in October of 1967 he was awarded the doctorate in Sacred Theology after having defended a dissertation he had already completed in 1966 entitled “Thomism and the Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich: a comparison of systems.”

Keefe moved directly from Rome into academic life. From 1966 to 1970, he was assistant professor of religious studies at Canisius College. From 1970 to 1978, he was a member of the faculty at St. Louis University in Missouri: an assistant professor, then associate professor in the Divinity School; a full professor, beginning in 1976, in the Department of Theological Studies; and an adjunct professor, from 1972 to 1978, in the School of Law. Soon after arriving at St. Louis, Keefe had pronounced his final vows as a Jesuit on February 2, 1971. In 1978, Keefe joined the faculty at Marquette University. He taught there as a full professor in the Department of Theology and an adjunct professor in the School of Law until 1991.

In 1991, Keefe exchanged university for seminary teaching. From 1991 to 1994, he served as adjunct professor of dogmatic theology at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, and as personal theologian to Archbishop James Stafford. From 1994 to 2001 he taught as professor of dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. (also known as Dunwoodie), the archdiocesan seminary of New York. And in 2002, Keefe was appointed the Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka Distinguished Visiting Professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. The next year Keefe retired to the Jesuit community at Fordham University, where he died on February 27, 2018.

CWR: What were his most important theological works?

McMahon: Over this long career, Keefe published more than forty articles and over thirty book reviews in professional journals. His papers include still more articles and essays that were never sent out for publication. His first book (apart from the 1967 work that was submitted to the Gregorian for the doctorate) was the 1966 dissertation, published by E. J. Brill in 1971 under the title Thomism and the Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich. The defining work, however, is his multi-volume Covenantal Theology: The Eucharistic Order of History. Begun in 1984, the first two volumes were published by University Press of America in 1991, and in a revised edition by Presidio Press in 1996. Keefe worked on the two subsequent volumes, three and four, until his death. They remain unpublished.

The central themes of Fr. Keefe’s work were the core interests of his life: his devotion to a free republic, his unreserved commitment to the Church, and his conviction that the world’s one foundation is the Eucharistic presence of Christ.

Kevin A. McMahon, Ph.D.

CWR: What was the focus and goal of Fr. Keefe’s theological work? And what are some essential characteristics of his theological corpus?

McMahon: St. Anselm famously wrote, “I believe in order that I might understand.” Keefe’s certainty, however, was not only that the faith sheds light on the content of the faith, but that it illumines every area of human knowledge. And the concept that lies at the heart of the faith is covenant.

There are three dimensions to the Hebrew term that is normally translated as “covenant,” the term berit, when it is used in its religious sense. The first is unilateralism. Used religiously, berit means God’s promise, his unilateral, unconditional promise. In this respect—an absolute, promissory word—it is parallel to the divine word with which Genesis opens: the creative word whereby God, entirely of himself, makes all things. The second dimension is reciprocity. God’s promise, like his act of creating, is a free gift. But the act of giving is made complete only when the one who has received responds with acknowledgement. It is in this free response that a gift is fulfilled. The third dimension is oneness. There is a bond that God establishes between himself and the one to whom he makes his promise. Arising from the promise, the bond is indissoluble. The fruit of a gift, it is made perfect only in response, though the response itself is a divine gift. But the bond remains, even in the absence of a living mutuality.

There are a number of subsidiary divine promises that are traced in the Hebrew scriptures. But they all refer back to, are founded upon, the primordial promise: that the order of life, brought forth by God’s word in the beginning, whose goodness rested upon the response of the human heart to God’s word, and which was lost in the human repudiation of his word, will be restored, and not only restored but transformed, being intimately united to the divine life. Christ is the one who fulfills this promise. The son of Mary, his human heart not only responds unqualifiedly to God’s word, it is the human heart of the Word. The Son of God, his human life is lived entirely as a gift to the Father, utterly one with the Father. This is the life, the body and blood of the promise, the covenant fulfilled, that the believer is joined to in the Eucharist.

These are the emphases in Keefe’s work. Especially important is the idea of freedom: of creative novelty and not just random indeterminateness in the physical world; of human life shaped by free decisions; and the unique exercise of the human capacity for self-disposition in the unreserved commitment of two, male and female, in sacramental marriage. For Keefe, the relational union between two—man and woman, Christ and Church, first and foremost Christ and Mary—characterizes the very structure of created reality. It is key to a comprehensive knowledge of the world, and to an integrated understanding of the tenets of Catholic faith.

CWR: You note how Fr. Keefe’s writings are both detailed and very “dense”. How does this pose challenges to readers, both specialists and otherwise?

McMahon: Fr. Keefe was a professional theologian, writing in the first instance for professional theologians. Therefore, he presumes background, particularly in philosophy and theology, that is both wide and deep. What is more, he relies upon the technical terminology of those two disciplines, often in their traditional Latin phrasing. To some degree, the difficulty of his writing is a matter of style. Keefe favors long, complex, often beautifully balanced, sentences that are packed with meaning—as if he is trying to provide a summation of his entire approach with every point he makes. Reading them demands a level of concentration that can be exhausting.

To some degree, though, the difficulty lies simply in what he is considering, the faith. A child can recite the creed at Mass. But when one begins to think seriously about every word that is being spoken, what had tripped off the tongue suddenly becomes extremely complicated very quickly. The creed accounts for our life and the world, and for our life in the world, far more truly than any other declaration. But what it declares runs counter to almost all our suppositions. In part, Keefe’s thought is taxing because he was determined to think through the faith just as far as it can be thought through. And that is because there was nothing he loved so well as the faith.

CWR: Fr. Keefe’s theological vision is deeply covenantal and Eucharistic, and it is rooted in a strong Christology. Can you reflect a bit on those three and how they relate within Keefe’s work?

McMahon: Fr. Keefe took as the starting point of his theology the event of the Eucharistic liturgy. What must be true of the world, he wonders, given that at each celebration of the Mass, the sacrament of the covenant fulfilled, bread and wine are so radically united to the sacrificial life of Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, that it is no longer they that exist but he alone, making present the very offering to the Father that he made on Calvary.

Further, since as the son of Mary his sacrifice was a human sacrifice, the one and only truly absolute, perfect, human sacrifice, it is there for the believer to be united with in communion. He is present in the world—in his risen, historical life present in the world—because the world is present in him. All things were made through him, the creed maintains. All were created in him, asserts Colossians 1:16. The fact that, as John 1:10 observes, the world did not know its own maker, the Son, at his coming, was a consequence of sin. The estrangement was on the side of the world, not the Son, nor was his birth a breaking from the outside into an alien realm.

On the contrary, it was a further instance of his drawing the world ever more deeply into his gift of self to the Father, continued in the event of the Eucharist.

CWR: As the Church in the U.S. is currently marking an initiative aimed at the renewal of Eucharist belief and devotion, what are some insights from Fr. Keefe about the Blessed Sacrament that you find particularly noteworthy?

McMahon: At a time when an ever-diminishing number of people in the Church believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, it is good to be mindful that, as Keefe says, Christ is present because his sacrifice is present, and his sacrifice is present so that we might make it our own. If the bread and wine are taken as merely conveying God’s love and his welcome, why would I think they are actually God? If, however, I’m keenly aware of my separation from the Father, and yet of the requirement that I live entirely for the Father, then either the one and only human life that is literally one with the Father is present for me, or that’s it—there’s no hope.

In the same way, the Eucharist is certainly an all-loving Father’s gift to humanity. Why, then, deny it to anyone who will take it? Are we not joyous children? But Keefe’s focus is on the Eucharistic liturgy as a whole. Before the Canon with its words of consecration there comes the Offertory, when the people bring their offerings of bread and wine. Brought forward, too, is their commitment—weak as it may be—to live their lives on the Father’s terms. They receive back, then, what they first gave, now made perfect. That is why the third Eucharistic Prayer begins with the petition to the Father, “graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,” and ends with “May he make of us an eternal offering to you.”

CWR: It is striking how often Fr. Keefe makes points that directly pertain to current controversies, including those relating to political authority and power, social order, morality, and marriage, to name a few. How does Fr. Keefe’s work help readers to better understand the root and nature of such problems?

McMahon: At the root of the human is Christ. That is why Keefe’s Christology is the most direct route to understanding what might be called his anthropology.

His assessment, though, of the current state of affairs both in society and the world is the same made by Pope John Paul II in his programmatic letter Veritatis Splendor. Keefe undertakes a critique of the very maladies John Paul addressed in his letter: individualism, subjectivism, relativism, materialism, skepticism. And like Pope John Paul, Keefe highlights freedom as a defining human attribute. Human freedom is a function of the reality that no person exists simply of himself, no person is his own creator—hence the self-destructive delusion of pure autonomy. The human person is free, open, self-transcendent, self-directing, because the person exists in and through one who is other than oneself, beyond oneself—Christ. And the more deeply one enters into the life of Christ, the more deeply is one free.

In a shifting, changing world where nothing seems to be permanent comes this assertion: the human person is capable of a free decision that endures; of a free promise whose effect is indissoluble in the case of sacramental marriage; a free action whose effect is ineradicable in baptism.

CWR: What are, overall, some of the most important contributions made by Fr. Keefe in his work?

McMahon: One of Fr. Keefe’s most important contributions is the confidence he inspires in the intellectual power of the Catholic faith. From transubstantiation to the Immaculate Conception to papal infallibility, Keefe’s interest is in understanding Church doctrines exactly as they have been handed on, not in reformulating them or explaining them by explaining them away. The assumption is always that they constitute a divinely revealed, interpenetrating whole.

What is more, Keefe regards their systematic study to be a genuinely academic discipline. Pursue serious theology in a serious, critical manner, he believed, and you will enjoy the respect of the other academic disciplines—to the mutual benefit of all.

And what may be most noteworthy of all, for all the depth and thoroughness of his analysis, Keefe barely scratched the surface of what his covenantal project entails. His construction of a theological metaphysics; the examination and integration of the full range of doctrine, not only Christology and Mariology but pneumatology, eschatology, sacramental theology; all this is work that Keefe only just began. It represents a tremendous opportunity, particularly for young theologians, to contribute to the effort of determining the full implication of considering Christ to be the center of all that has been made.

CWR: How did you go about choosing the selections in this volume? What sort of criteria did you use?

McMahon: My primary consideration when choosing selections was accessibility: I wanted people to have the chance to read this important theologian in his own words, daunting as they often are. His intended audience is typically professional, but I wanted to broaden that just as far as I could. By the same token, although I relied chiefly on excerpts from longer articles to avoid wearing the reader out, preference was always given to writing that had already been published. That way someone would have the ability to read the original in its entirety.

Another consideration was diversity of topics. Fr. Keefe was a systematic theologian; and the object of systematic theology is the study of Catholic doctrine, all Catholic doctrine. It was important to show Fr. Keefe’s covenantal method at work in as many different areas of doctrine as I could.

CWR: Any final thoughts?

McMahon: I’d like to offer a final word of thanks to Fr. Joseph Fessio and Ignatius Press for agreeing to publish this collection of Fr. Keefe’s work. Hopefully, it will help make more widely known one of the very best Catholic minds of the last generation, what has been called the country’s greatest generation.


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About Carl E. Olson 1234 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this. Fr. Keefe was a theologian who did theology on his knees.
    I think one day he will be considered a Doctor of the Church.

  2. Fr Keefe SJ, following Anselm of Canterbury was right. Faith precedes understanding. The reason is that the gift of faith sparks within our sentient nature. Love is kindled, the desire for knowledge of what one loves follows.
    Although there is a form of knowledge in faith, which is love itself. As such that initial faith inspired love, a self evident apprehension of the intellect is the rule for the reasoning that seeks to understand what one loves.
    But it is in Christ that the intellect intuitively apprehends the love which is the essence of the Father’s being.

  3. We read: “To some degree, the difficulty of his writing is a matter of style. Keefe favors long, complex, often beautifully balanced, sentences that are packed with meaning—as if he is trying to provide a summation of his entire approach with every point he makes. Reading them demands a level of concentration that can be exhausting.”

    When St. John Maria Vianny, patron saint of parish priests, asked the farmer what he did in Church looking at the tabernacle, the farmer responded: “Nothing. I look at Him, and He looks at me.”

  4. I am very happy that Prof. McMahon has edited this volume of selected writings of the late Fr. Donald Keefe, S.J. Fr. Fessio and Ignatius Press also deserve many thanks for publishing this collection. I remember Fr. Keefe when he was a visiting professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit during the 2002-2003 academic year. Fr. Keefe was a good colleague. He was always interesting, engaging, and respectful of different points of view (provided they were within the realm of Catholic orthodoxy). His insights on the Eucharist and covenant are traditional and creative at the same time. Some excellent Catholic theologians hold Fr. Keefe in high esteem. Mention should be made of Dr. Monica Migliorino Miller, Fr. Earl Muller, S.J. of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, and Fr. Joseph Murphy, S.J., formerly of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio.

  5. I wss blessed to know Fr. Keefe during his time in the Archdiocese of Denver. I treasure the conversations we had and the support he offered to me in my work for the archdiocese. Memory eternal.

  6. 1. “At the root of the human is Christ.”
    2. That phrase in the title and body of this article grabbed by attention.
    3. There is a small minority of Catholic theologians who take the position that that formulation contains and spreads theological errors, such as are found generally in the theological modernism and theological liberalism that were condemned by the popes prior to John XXIII and Vatican II.
    4. I think the alternative, and arguably traditional, Catholic theological point of view is that at the root of the unbaptized human is Original Sin, and at the root of the baptized human who has fallen out of the State of Grace are the remnants of the powerful effects of Original Sin.
    5. The expression “At the root of the human is Christ” communicates a kind of optimism and salvific universalism that some say is not Catholic, and which some say is at the heart of Pope John Paul II’s seeming endorsement of (or at least respectful consideration of) the “one may hope hell is empty” thesis.
    6. Some Catholics wonder how a papacy like the current one could be happening. But I think this historical perspective might contribute to understanding this.
    7. There really is value to reading the papal encyclicals from the 1700s to 1958. They almost never read or taught nowadays. But they remain in force.
    8. Unlike decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, older papal encyclicals are not “overturned” or canceled by new papal encyclicals or pastoral documents.

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