Model of the Church


Avery Dulles, SJ, the first American theologian to be named a cardinal of the Catholic Church, went home to the Lord on December 12, 2008, at age ninety. The author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles, Cardinal Dulles was one of contemporary Catholicism’s finest and most influential theologians.

I first came to know Avery Dulles when I was still a graduate student in theology, and he was already a distinguished teacher and author. From the first he always patiently responded to my questions with his unparalleled clarity and breadth of knowledge of the theological tradition. But then he would sit back and ask: “What do you think?” The question was never pro forma: the man was genuinely eager to know and to learn—even into his ninetieth year.

Born on August 24, 1918, the son of John Foster Dulles (a prominent Presbyterian elder and later secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration) and Janet Pomeroy Avery, he attended Harvard College. In his early years there he struggled with questions about the existence of God and whether human existence admitted of any purpose. He found initial illumination in the works of the classical and medieval philosophers. Beginning a daily meditative reading of the New Testament, he was gradually led to commit himself to Christ in the Catholic Church. Dulles later chronicled his spiritual journey in his 1946 book A Testimonial to Grace. For him, the commitment to Christ was, from an early age, closely connected to the search for a community capable of nourishing and sustaining that commitment: a community of disciples.

After college Dulles served as a commissioned officer in the Navy during the Second World War. Toward the end of the war, he contracted polio. Although he recovered, the disease would reassert itself at the end of his life, causing progressive atrophy of his muscles and leading ultimately to his loss of movement and speech.

Having completed his military service, Dulles entered the Society of Jesus in the summer of 1946 and was ordained in the Fordham University Church in June 1956. He went on to receive a doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1960, and in the same year began his long and prolific academic life. He taught first at the Jesuit theologate in Woodstock, Maryland, through the exciting years of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), and then at the Catholic University of America from 1974 to 1988. Leaving Catholic University at the mandatory retirement age of seventy, he was appointed the first McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, a post he held with distinction until 2008.

Dulles’s Fordham years saw a further outpouring of books and articles, as well as numerous lectures. In 2001, Pope John Paul II named him to the College of Cardinals, a tribute to Dulles, the Society of Jesus, and the church in the United States.

Dulles contributed with clarity and insight to many areas of theology, including apologetics, revelation and faith, ecumenism, and evangelization. But the field of ecclesiology was his special province, and he will be remembered as American Catholicism’s premier ecclesiologist of the twentieth century. The titles of some of his major works provide proof enough: Models of the Church (1974, expanded edition 1987), The Resilient Church: The Necessity and Limits of Adaptation (1977), A Church to Believe In: Discipleship and the Dynamics of Freedom (1982), The Catholicity of the Church (1987), The Reshaping of Catholicism: Current Challenges in the Theology of the Church (1988). Many of his lectures, particularly his McGinley Lectures, are creative exercises in applied ecclesiology. The twenty years of McGinley Lectures have recently been published as Church and Society.

Dulles’s ecclesial vision was shaped by the Second Vatican Council, with its defining themes of ressourcement and aggiornamento: the ongoing return to the biblical and patristic witness to the faith and the discernment of its present-day significance and challenge. The council underscored (to use the subtitle of one of Dulles’s books) both the necessity and the limits of adaptation. A further trait of Dulles’s work was his familiarity with the entire history of Christian theology: from fathers to scholastics, from reformers to modernists. Often his books and articles would offer an overview of positions on a specific question, spanning centuries of Christian thought and lending historical depth and surprising perspective to contemporary problems. To read Dulles is to have one’s own view immeasurably broadened.

In Dulles, the oft-lauded Catholic “both/and” approach found an exemplary practitioner. He was steadfast in his fidelity to Lumen gentium’s insistence that the church of Christ consists of two inseparable dimensions: the charismatic and the institutional. To speak of the “institutional church” as though there were some other, purely spiritual church preserved in Platonic perfection would be fantasy.

Still, Dulles held with unwavering insistence that the institutional elements of the church were for the sake and at the service of the charismatic, and that the charismatic elements were not for individual aggrandizement but for communal growth and well-being. In his 1992 book The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System, Dulles summarized his ecclesial vision this way:

As a great sacrament [the church] extends in space and time the physical body of the Lord. It is not a mere pointer to the absent Christ, but the symbolic manifestation of the present Christ. The members of the Christ, insofar as they are remade in Christ’s image by the power of the Holy Spirit, represent Christ to one another and to the world. He identifies himself with them. Especially is this true of the saints, those who allow themselves to be totally transformed in Christ. The church, in its most basic reality, is a holy fellowship built up through the self-communication of the triune God.

If some of the polarization that followed the Second Vatican Council pits partisans of chapter 3 of Lumen gentium (on the church’s hierarchical constitution) against partisans of chapter 2 (on the People of God, sometimes mistakenly reduced to the laity), Dulles’s decades-long labor of elucidating and interpreting the council may be read as calling the Catholic people to attend to chapter 1: “The Mystery of the Church.”

In the disputatious context of the early 1970s, Dulles’s Models of the Church allowed people holding different points of view to enter into more irenic and fruitful conversation with one another. But if the outcome were merely a flaccid agreement to disagree, the urgency of the church’s salvific mystery and mission would risk being neglected. This realization led Dulles to propose one more model, what he called the “church as community of disciples.” Here the church’s Christological foundation is fully in evidence and its evangelizing mission more prominently displayed.

Over a theological career spanning five decades, different emphases and new questions will come to the fore. Still, there was a remarkable continuity and coherence in Dulles’s theological sensibility and concerns. To borrow the title of one of his last McGinley Lectures, the theological legacy Avery Dulles leaves us embodies “The Ignatian Charism at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century.” His work ceaselessly refers us to the transcendent mystery, the God who is semper major. It calls us to careful spiritual discernment of the signs of the times, and sets before us the measure of all discernment: Jesus Christ, Lord of the church and savior of the world.

Significantly, at the same time that Dulles published his Models of the Church, he was actively engaged in drafting the ecumenical (and controversial) “Hartford Appeal,” which cautioned against the lessening of a vital sense of God’s transcendence in American theology and pastoral practice. There was no contradiction in his mind between advocating legitimate pluralism and affirming community-constituting principles. Indeed, only thus can authentic development occur. The “ever greater” God calls the community beyond programs and causes to self-abandonment and worship.

The injunction to scrutinize “the signs of the times” has become one of the most popular watchwords of the post–Vatican II period. Like all watchwords it can too easily become a bromide. The Ignatian charism, as practiced by Avery Dulles, impels us all to begin ever anew: to exercise the spiritually demanding discipline of attentive listening and careful pondering. The outcome may challenge our presuppositions and confound factions. It may even require conversion.

Finally, in setting forth the Ignatian charism, Dulles identified its distinguishing feature: “personal love for Jesus Christ and a desire to be counted among his close companions.” As theological and ecclesiastical polarization increased in the years after the council, more and more Dulles directed us to the one who alone is holy, who alone is Lord and head of his body, the church. Consequently, he rejoiced in this affirmation by the 2008 General Congregation of the Society of Jesus:

What unites us as Jesuits is Christ and the desire to serve him: not to be deaf to the call of the Lord, but prompt and ready to do his most holy will. He is the unique image of the unseen God, capable of revealing himself everywhere; and in a tantalizing culture of images, he is the single image that unites us. Jesuits know who they are by looking at him.

No words, however eloquent, could approach the striking, silent witness of Cardinal Dulles’s last days. On April 1, 2008, his final McGinley Lecture was delivered at Fordham. He had written the words, but, now mute, he listened attentively as they were read on his behalf by Joseph O’Hare, SJ, Fordham’s president emeritus who, twenty years before, had appointed Dulles to the McGinley Chair. With great emotion the audience heard these words from the cardinal:

Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my ninetieth year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Avery Dulles labored faithfully in the vineyard of the Lord to his dying breath. He wrote when he was no longer able to speak; used the keyboard when he could scarcely write. On my visits with him at the Jesuit infirmary, I would fill him in on ecclesial events and cultural happenings, sometimes turning the pages of the New York Times for him—a paper he read daily (not always with approbation). Once, as I prepared to leave, I asked if there was anything more I could do for him, expecting him to ask that his pillow be straightened or his lips moistened. Instead, he wrote in a shaky but determined hand: “More paper in the printer, please!”

May the gracious God, whose greater glory Avery Dulles sought tirelessly to serve, receive his servant Avery into the heavenly Jerusalem, where, with all the saints, he will know fully the God in whom he so firmly and faithfully believed.

Published in the 2009-01-16 issue: 

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.

Also by this author
Benedict in Bethlehem (Update)

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

Must Reads