All Dressed in Scarlet

Avery Dulles Goes to College

About a decade ago colleagues and former students of Avery Dulles published a volume in tribute to him on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. The book’s title, Faithful Witness, both defined what the chief task of theology is and expressed our gratitude for Father Dulles’s example in fulfilling it. And now we have papal confirmation of our high regard for him.

Pope John Paul II has followed the example of Pope Paul VI and honored the work of a few theologians by naming them to the College of Cardinals. To the names of Congar, Daniélou, de Lubac, Grillmeier, Pavan, and von Balthasar can now be added that of Avery Dulles, SJ, the first U.S. theologian to be so honored. Friends, colleagues, and admirers are delighted, and among their not entirely negligible joys they await the day when they can see him in procession among his fellow cardinals, most of whom are plumper, dressed in “cardinalatial” finery, settling the question of what Abraham Lincoln would have looked like in scarlet.

The pope’s action crowns Dulles’s long life as a theologian in the service of the church. His work has been marked largely by a commitment to conversation, which, of course, involves listening as much as it does speaking. And he has been a good listener, first, in the sense that he has attended to the voices of the past in large works on the history of theology, to separated Christians in several ecumenical dialogues, and to fellow Catholics in analyses of postconciliar church life and theology. Sympathetic listening was also one of the rules which Dulles learned from Saint Ignatius Loyola at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises: “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it.” This assumption is the opposite of the odium theologicum that too often poisons the atmosphere of the church.

Dulles even made the Ignatian rule the basis of a method he made popular in Catholic theology: an analysis of diversity through “models,” conceptual frameworks, often image-based, which orient and articulate a certain understanding of a reality or doctrine of the faith. Lying behind more particular differences of opinion in the church often are differences at these prior levels; and an exploration of the more basic differences can encourage modesty and promote mutual understanding and communication, at least if proponents of any one model recognize that no single approach can exhaust the mysteries of the faith. Then none of the models is dismissed out of hand, each having its strengths; and none becomes all-determining, each having its weaknesses. Dulles has excelled at this type of analysis, and he has refrained from constructing any grand theological synthesis of his own, maybe out of modesty, maybe especially out of his great respect for the divine transcendence.

The most famous of his books is Models of the Church (1974), in which he described five theoretical approaches to the church: as institution, communion, sacrament, herald, and servant. His own sympathies at the time seemed to be with the sacrament model. But in the early 1980s he offered a sixth model, the church as a community of disciples, which he thought retained the strengths of the other models and was especially appropriate in the circumstances of the church’s life as a cognitive minority in the contemporary world. The analogy was with the community of disciples stumbling after Jesus during his ministry, and the focus fell on the distinctiveness of the faith required and the countercultural challenge it represented.

Dulles says he borrowed the new image from Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, and for the last twenty years he has been a firm and articulate defender of the present pope’s teachings and pastoral undertakings. Whereas he once was criticized as a relativist by the Right, now some people speak of a conservative shift in his theology; but anyone acquainted with his thought over the years has to admit that respect for the tradition and for the church’s doctrinal integrity is nothing new in him. It was sometimes said of him, decades ago, that he tended to be conservative when among liberals and liberal when among conservatives. This was always, I think, more than simple impish desire to prevent anyone from becoming too comfortable in his stance. If today he seems often to find it more urgent to be conservative, that is probably in part because he thinks it is a certain liberal paradigm that most needs to be challenged, at least in theological circles. His own example may lead us to question the adequacies of these categories altogether, since they are often used as an excuse not to follow Saint Ignatius’s rule, which, it turns out, is not as easy to follow as it may seem.


Related: All Dressed Up, by the Editors
Model of the Church
, by Robert P. Imbelli
A Model Theologian, by Mark S. Massa
Richard P. McBrien reviews
Dulles's Church and Society

Published in the 2001-02-23 issue: 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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