Discerning Dulles; blessing Baum; baking Latin

Missing matter

In his review of Patrick Carey’s biography of Cardinal Avery Dulles (“An Ignatian Spirit,” January 13), J. Matthew Ashley rightly stresses the Ignatian-inspired principle of “spiritual discernment” as central both to Carey’s biography and to Dulles’s prodigious theological labors over fifty years.What disappoints, however, is the review’s lack of substantive engagement with what that discernment entailed for Dulles.

Though referring several times to a shift in Dulles’s stance dating from the mid-1970s, Ashley focuses primarily on Dulles’s more critical view of contemporary American culture. He illustrates this by appeal to some “unusually personal” reflections that Dulles delivered in 1975. Unmentioned in the review, however, is the much more public and detailed discernment that Dulles engaged in at the same time in collaboration with his fellow signatories of “The Hartford Appeal.” Nor does Ashley consider the extensive elaboration of Dulles’s concerns regarding the promiscuous drift of postconciliar Catholic theology documented in his magisterial The Craft of Theology (1992).

I realize, of course, that a review (even one of generous length) is not a theological study. Nonetheless, one comes away from Ashley’s exposition with little sense of the fundamental givens of the great tradition that Dulles’s discriminating analysis perceived to be at risk. Whether Dulles’s discernment will prove to be prophetic, only time will tell. But, whatever the merits of Ashley’s assessment that the biography “fails to capture the complexity of the figure that emerges in the pages of this book,” it unfortunately does characterize, all too aptly, his review.

(Rev.) Robert P. Imbelli

Boston, Mass.

The reviewer replies

Since I was not charged with a review of The Craft of Theology, much less of Dulles’s entire opus, I trust my review may be assessed in the light of its subject: Carey’s biography. On that subject, allow me to note that I did not state that the biography failed to capture the complexity of the figure; quite the contrary. The portrait that emerges is complex and fascinating (to Carey’s credit). What I wrote was that the particular thesis that Carey proposed for making sense of that complexity (a combination of development and continuity) was instructive, but needed to be corrected and augmented. To that end I used materials provided in a central chapter describing what Carey himself names (and accurately, it seems to me) as a turning point in Dulles’s career, and in the spiritual discernment at the foundations of his theological work. Finally, I would argue that for engaging something as individual as discernment (at least as it is understood in Ignatian spirituality), a committee-produced document like “The Hartford Appeal” is far less apt than Dulles’s own writings, including personal ones.    

J. Matthew Ashley


Thank you for the fine article by Michael Higgins on the irrepressible and irreplaceable Gregory Baum (“The Journalist as Theologian,” December 2, 2011). If any younger readers wish to understand the authentic spirit of Vatican II, they may read Gregory Baum—and if really fortunate, may someday meet him.

(Rev.) David Tracy

Chicago, Ill.


My thanks for “The Journalist as Theologian.” In addition to being a fine piece of writing, it does justice to Gregory Baum’s life and work. While I was a graduate student at Ohio State University in 1968, I had the privilege of hearing Baum lecture at the Newman Center. One of his talks was worth a thousand homilies. He immediately became one of my Catholic heroes, along with Thomas More and Thomas Merton. Baum and Merton have helped many progressive Catholics remain in the church.

For Baum, the role of the laity should be more than “pay, pray and obey.” Baum has had the courage to speak the truth, respectfully, to the church authorities. One of those truths is that our leaders need to be alert to the presence of an ideology within the institutional church that protects the interests of those in authority.

Such an ideology can be most harmful to the whole church. Exposing its existence naturally would be unpopular with those in power. Instead of causing disloyalty (as some conservatives charge), Baum has made a major contribution to the compassion and solidarity of the church.

Anthony J. DiStefano

Aiken, S.C.

Happy memory

With great delight I read Michael Higgins’s tribute to Gregory Baum. As a pre-theology student at St. Jerome’s College in the early 1960s, I became aware of Baum and his innovative theology. I think I was one of the earliest subscribers to the Ecumenist, the journal he edited, which I read until it was no longer published. I was quite disappointed when Baum announced it would be discontinued. Now I’m thrilled to learn that he is alive and well in Montreal, and even more pleased to know he is practicing his faith with the same vigor that first captured his imagination as a young convert. Most of all, I am happy to be reminded that “in Christ the whole of humanity is divinely graced.”      

(Rev.) John Mudd

Washington, D.C.

Baked goods

Thank you so much for that delightful “recipe” for Christmas cookies (January 13)! Better to laugh than cry over the new translation of the Roman Missal. I believe that the tone of the original Latin version was probably clear and down to earth—unlike the pompous Latin cognates in the new English version. I pity the priests who have to read the worst of it, and I can’t imagine why the bishops approved this. With so many parishes in financial trouble, having to purchase new Missals for such a shoddy translation seems like a waste of money.

Ellen M. Donahue

Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Syllabus material

In “Myth & More” (January 13), John Garvey manages to put into one short, well-worded column most of what we learned many years ago in a seminary course, Introduction to the Bible. I will be handing out Garvey’s article to my students here at Mt. Angel.   

(Rev.) Paul Peri

St. Benedict, Ore.

Published in the 2012-02-10 issue: 
Also by this author
‘Society Men’: An exchange

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads