From Both Sides Now

Church and Society
The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988–2007
Avery Cardinal Dulles
Fordham University Press, $39.95, 546 pp.

Avery Dulles has been, for almost all his long academic career, among the most productive and widely respected U.S. Catholic theologians of our time. I unhesitatingly acknowledge him as the American ecclesiologist I most admired and from whom I learned more than I can say. This is not to deny, however, that Dulles significantly changed theological directions (some referred to it as his “lurch to the right”) at an early point in the pontificate of John Paul II—so much so, in fact, that two of his contemporaries, Walter Burghardt, who recently died at age ninety-three, and Richard McCormick, who died eight years ago at age seventy-seven, became highly critical of their friend and fellow Jesuit. McCormick correctly predicted that Dulles would be the next theologian to be given the cardinal’s red hat, as a reward for his unrelenting defense of the papacy and of John Paul II in particular.

This volume gathers all of Avery Dulles’s McGinley Lectures at Fordham University (with the exception of this spring’s farewell address), beginning in December 1988. The lectures, given nearly each semester thereafter, were the main obligation attached to the newly endowed Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society honoring Fordham’s former president. Dulles reports in the preface that at the start he had been offered a choice of accepting a two-year appointment or only one year. Ever cautious, Dulles decided to proceed slowly, “to see how things worked out before committing [himself] to a second.” Twenty years later, he still occupied what was originally intended as a visiting professorship.

Although there is a broad range of topics covered in these lectures (for example, “The Uses of Scripture in Theology,” “Historical Method and the Reality of Christ,” “Mary at the Dawn of the New Millennium,” and presentations on the death penalty, hell, evolution, and Ignatian spirituality), the greatest number have an ecclesiological dimension, even though Dulles was not originally a specialist in the theology of the church. After Vatican II, there were not many theologians in the United States who could effectively explain the teachings and significance of the council. And since the focus of the council had been ecclesiological, Dulles, by his own description, “backed into” ecclesiology by default.

All but one of these thirty-eight lectures were subsequently published elsewhere: thirteen in the Jesuit weekly America, over a span of years beginning in January 1990, but an equal number, after January 1995, in the conservative journal First Things, founded and edited by Dulles’s close friend Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. One lecture, “The Limits of Dialogue,” not surprisingly found its way into the now defunct Crisis, a publication to the right of First Things. In that lecture Dulles suggests that polarization only occurs when one side refuses to accept wholeheartedly the teachings and disciplinary decrees of the official church.

The Dulles style is evident throughout. The lectures are always clearly written, carefully balanced (for the most part), rich in categories, models, and distinctions, and ever attentive to the tradition. Sometimes, however, the lectures come across as less than evenhanded, where the author seems to have insufficient regard for the legitimate concerns of many other theologians (and not a few bishops). Such issues include the recentralization of authority in the papacy and the Roman curia; religion and politics (where his sources are largely conservative, for example, Neuhaus and Leo Strauss); the Catechism of the Catholic Church; the ordination of women; the Common Ground proposal by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin; the development of doctrine (in a lecture that differs markedly from the thrust of his earlier book, The Survival of Dogma [1971]); the “population” of hell; Eucharistic adoration; and the argument over evolution versus intelligent design (where Dulles is evidently more sympathetic to the latter).

In my judgment, the best lectures are “The Church as Communion” (March 1993), the two on the Ignatian charism (April 1997 and November 2006), “Mary at the Dawn of the New Millennium” (November 1997), the paper on the Joint Declaration of Catholics and Lutherans on Justification (October 1999), and “The Mission of the Laity” (March 2006), which in some respects may be the strongest of all. In that lecture, Dulles traces the development of lay ministry from the days of Popes Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII, when it was more commonly referred to as the “lay apostolate” and Catholic Action. He singles out Yves Congar as the principal theological force behind the conciliar document on the laity, and notes how Congar had laid the foundation for it about a decade earlier in his own magisterial book, Lay People in the Church. The lecture cites various postconciliar teachings of the U.S. bishops (such as their “Co-Workers in the Vineyard,” issued in 2005) and those of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II in which, Dulles suggests, there has been “a growing tendency to apply the term ‘ministry’ to lay activities, where the council would have used ‘apostolate.’” He concludes his lecture with a wise, if also self-evident, observation: “Because the lay faithful constitute the overwhelming majority of Catholics, the future of the church lies predominantly in their hands.”

Occasionally, Dulles seems to be leading us confidently down a similarly centrist path, only to bring the reader up short with a comment injecting a more negative tone. For example, in his “Historical Method and the Reality of Christ” (April 1992), he is surprisingly critical of my Notre Dame colleague Fr. John Meier for his widely respected work A Marginal Jew. I can think of no specialist in biblical studies or any theologian who is more securely in the scholarly center and more faithful to the Catholic tradition than Meier is, and yet Dulles is critical of him for allegedly separating history from faith. In another lecture (March 2001), Dulles supports Vatican II’s Declaration of Religious Freedom but then repeatedly and emphatically opposes the common view that it represented a development of doctrine, a view that was originally espoused by the document’s chief architect, the late Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray.

Dulles does the same in “True and False Reform in the Church” (April 2003), which also happens to be the title of one of Congar’s major works, a book withdrawn from circulation in the early 1950s by order of the Vatican. Although Dulles defends Congar, the tone of the lecture is more critical of institutional reform than favorable toward it. He insists, in fact, that personal reform is more important than structural reform, as if the one were somehow at odds with the other. His lecture on “Benedict XVI: Interpreter of Vatican II” (October 2005) concedes that John Paul II had a more positive attitude toward the council than did Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now himself the pope. Dulles traces the change in Ratzinger’s theological approach, providing perhaps a personal rationale for his own journey from the center to the right since the 1980s. “Only gradually,” Dulles writes of Ratzinger, “did he come to see that he and [Karl] Rahner lived, theologically speaking, on different planets.” And then he concludes: “When rightly interpreted, the documents of Vatican II can still be a powerful source of renewal for the church” (italics mine).

It should be acknowledged, however, that sometimes the sudden turns involve movement from the right toward the center. In “The Rebirth of Apologetics” (March 2004), for example, though Dulles calls for a revival of apologetics that looks very much like the polemical style of the pre–Vatican II era, he later acknowledges with approval that both Paul VI and John Paul II insisted that witnessing, not proof-texting and other forms of argumentation, is the more effective form of apologetics.

Perhaps the most widely discussed and debated of the McGinley Lectures is Dulles’s “The Papacy for a Global Church,” delivered in March 2000 and published the following month in America, where it provoked a detailed rebuttal by fellow Jesuit Ladislas Örsy. In that lecture, Dulles strongly defends the recentralization of authority in the papacy under John Paul II. What others, including even some cardinals and bishops, had seen as deficiencies of John Paul II’s papal style, Dulles views as assets. Against critics’ insistence on greater authority for national episcopal conferences, for example, Dulles points to the dangers of nationalism and recalls how the resurgence of Roman authority in the nineteenth century was a “signal benefit” in this regard. He is also generally satisfied with the current method of appointing bishops, fearing that a return to a more broadly participatory approach would compromise confidentiality. In the end, Dulles insists that it is the responsibility of what he calls the “Roman center” to hold everything in balance. The year after Dulles delivered this lecture, he was named a cardinal.

This collection is a reliable window on the kind of theological priorities Dulles has nurtured and developed over the past quarter of a century. Those who have been pleased with (and perhaps even jubilant at) his so-called lurch to the right will also be pleased with this collection. One hopes that those who have been more critical of (and perhaps disappointed in) Dulles’s change in theological direction will recognize and applaud the many flashes of the earlier Dulles’s intellectual acumen, his extraordinary balance, and, yes, courage in calling our attention to the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the institutional church. Church and Society offers enough variety to motivate both sides to buy and read this book, even if only selectively.

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About the Author

Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of Catholicism and The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, both published by HarperOne.

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