Died 27 February 2018
Jesuit Father Donald J. Keefe died on Feb. 27, 2018, at Murray-Weigel Hall, in the Bronx, New York. He was born on July 14, 1924, entered the Society of Jesus at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, New York, on Sept. 7, 1953, and was ordained on June 20, 1962, at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York. He pronounced his final vows on Feb. 2, 1971.
By Fr. Ray Schroth, SJ
He was a hard man. Grave. Aloof. At least that’s how things would appear to a group of younger men in September 1953 at the Jesuit novitiate, St. Andrew-on-Hudson meeting one another for the first time. Most of them were fresh out of Jesuit high schools, while this serious guy Donald Keefe, born in Poolville, NY, raised on a dairy farm, was an honors student at Colgate University (1946-1949). This was followed by two stints in the U.S. Naval Reserve, including time as a navigator, then three years (1949-1951) getting a degree at the Georgetown University Law Center from 1949 to 1951, where his plans came to a head as he signed in at St. Andrew’s. Here he was, a lieutenant, U.S.N.R., and a lawyer, pushing 30, surrounded by teenagers. As they got to know him, they also got to admire his smile.
After three years at Loyola Seminary at Shrub Oak, he taught English and history at Regis High School, followed by the usual theology at Woodstock and ordination in 1962. Clearly, theology was to be his thing, so, off to the University of Strasbourg (1964-1966), then back to Canisius College in Buffalo (1966-1970) to teach theology, which he would do for the rest of his life. Next came eight years at Saint Louis University, where he both taught theology and was an adjunct professor in the School of Law. This led to 15 years at Marquette, again teaching both theology and law until being suddenly terminated in 1991.
Those whom he taught speak well of him. He was a serious scholar with Eucharistic theology, Christology and theology of law as his concentration in publications as well as the classroom. His first book, based on his dissertation, Thomism and the Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, appeared in 1971. His major works were a two-volume set combined into Covenantal Theology, The Eucharistic Order of History (1996). Between 1971 and 1994 he published 44 articles and 31 book reviews. The articles occasionally dealt with some controversial issues on which he took a conservative stand, like the ordination of women, which he opposed, and articles for the newsletter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a group of professors who shared traditional points of view. The book reviews were often in Library Journal and Review for Religious.
The years between 1991 and 2001 were different experiences in that they took him out of the standard Jesuit list of jobs. He began as the personal theologian of Archbishop Stafford, of Denver, while also teaching at St. Thomas Seminary. Then he moved to the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. In 1994 he returned to New York and taught at the St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie until 2001.
These seven years, he told a friend, were the happiest years of his life, filled with the good company of other priests who shared his vision, and seminary students. His conservative points of view were mostly not an obstacle to good relations with students and fellow faculty. He would teach what he saw as the Church’s position and then consider the adversaries, refute them and return to his central thesis. But the delightful years at the seminary came to a sudden end. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Egan, apparently had been convinced that the whole institution was in need of radical reform. He arrived one day with a long, prepared list of names which he presented: they must leave. Don was among them.
He moved to Fordham’s Loyola Hall in 2001, then home of the Jesuit faculty, as an emeritus professor and writer. When that hall became a student dorm, Don moved to Murray-Weigel Hall, part infirmary, part retirement residence. He brought his favorite books with him: the original thesis Thomism and the Ontological theology of Paul Tillich, which he dedicated to his mother and father; Paideia, the Ideals of Greek Culture by Werner Jaeger (1945); Ronald A. Knox’s very popular Enthusiasm, on the history of religion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and a collection of personal essays by conservative columnist George Weigel, Practicing Catholic, to nourish Don’s conservative imagination in the final years.
I asked a distinguished scholar and friend of Don’s for a passage in Covenantal Theology that best expressed Don’s theological position. He chose: “In sum, our objective reality as human is covenantal, and as historical is Eucharistic; this reality is the single interest and single subject matter of Catholic theology, because it is the ground of existence in Christ. The Eucharist is the center of objective existence because it is the constituting Event of the historically free world, of the Good Creation . . . There is no other dignity than this, our participation in the One Flesh of the One Sacrifice by which in Christ we have access to the Father.”