Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918–2008) was probably the most respected Catholic theologian in the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The author of twenty-four books and more than eight hundred articles, Dulles was widely known and read long before he received his red hat in 2001.

A scholar with a voluminous knowledge of the history of his craft, Dulles was cherished as well for his carefully calibrated evaluations of theological positions and a rare ability to see and understand many sides of a theological argument. Both those who agreed with his theological opinions and those who did not knew him to be a fair and engaging conversation partner.

Dulles, a convert from the Presbyterian Church, entered the Society of Jesus in 1946 and earned a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He went on to teach at Woodstock College in Maryland, the Catholic University of America, and Fordham University. Many of his books appear on standard reading lists for doctoral students in theology. The Catholicity of the Church, The Assurance of Things Hoped For, The Craft of Theology, The Splendor of Faith, and A History of Apologetics are sometimes called “Dulles’s Greatest Hits.” Yet his single greatest hit was undoubtedly Models of the Church, published in 1974 and instantly acclaimed as a classic.

Some have cast Dulles as a theological liberal who, as a result of the seeming chaos of the Catholic sixties and seventies, lost the faith and joined the other side: an increasingly conservative Vatican seeking to correct a radicalized reading of the documents of Vatican II. Others, perhaps less charitably, portray him as an independent thinker who, as a result of the ecclesiastical honors bestowed on him, became enamored of Roman recognition and, therefore, increasingly espoused the party line. Still others have asserted that Dulles never really changed his theological opinions; it was the American Catholic community itself that lurched to the left while Dulles remained fairly stationary.

Two of the most perceptive readings of Dulles’s work have been offered by Joseph A. Komonchak, emeritus professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, and Anne-Marie Kirmse, Dulles’s research assistant at Fordham. Writing in this magazine (“All Dressed in Scarlet,” February 23, 2001), Komonchak observed that Dulles tended “to be conservative when among liberals and liberal when among conservatives.” Dulles’s seeming theological move from left to right might be better understood by conceiving of his entire career as a “commitment to conversation.”

As a centrist, he often let his conversation partners determine his specific positions. Komonchak wrote that Dulles was “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.” Komonchak opined that Dulles had learned his art of conversation from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, and had incorporated this Ignatian tradition into a quite distinctive theological method. The focus of that distinctive method was to be found in Dulles’s penchant for models, most famously expressed in his magisterial work, Models of the Church.

For Dulles the seeming differences of opinion among Catholic theologians actually reflected deeper shared preconscious understandings of how the real world operated. Theologians therefore needed to address those (largely buried) preconscious models, and in the process they could discover that there was more wisdom in others’ theological positions than they had previously thought. Dulles’s lifelong exploration of these deeper models, in Komonchak’s estimation, thus performed a double service to Catholic theology: it encouraged a salutary modesty by undercutting the claim of any single model to explain the great mystery at the heart of the Christian gospel, and it promoted mutual understanding and communication among theologians, allowing them to agree to disagree while remaining members of the same household of faith. In Dulles’s irenic approach, “none of the models is dismissed out of hand, each having its strengths; and none becomes all-determining, each having its weaknesses.”

In her PhD dissertation, Anne-Marie Kirmse agrees with Komonchak that the models approach is central to understanding Dulles’s thought, but she also emphasizes his commitment to maintaining a healthy pluralism in Catholic theology. Kirmse argues that Dulles always insisted that “the various models used to illustrate a theological concept must be kept in dialectical tension with each other, and that each should be used to critique and complement the others. To choose only one as paradigmatic would lead to distortion.”

If Kirmse is right, then students of Dulles’s work must never lose sight of the strategic nature of his thinking. His firm belief that reality was more complex than any single model we can construct to explain it helps us to understand his famous remark that theological models “are neither true nor false, but only apt or inapt.” Rather than conceiving of some models as right and others as wrong, he argued that all models are more or less helpful in explicating the faith. Pluralism was built into the very process by which Dulles approached the craft of theology.

Kirmse writes that Dulles’s work helped the larger Catholic theological community to avoid canonizing any one model as the crucial one, “as if no other time had anything to contribute to our understanding of revelation.” She agrees with Komonchak that such pluralism helped to keep theologians (including Dulles) humble in their system-building efforts. A truly effective theology for the church could never be constructed by offering a frozen, unchanging model of some perfect church achieved in the past. Indeed it was precisely against such an understanding of theology that Dulles maintained a “mediating position between conservative and liberal viewpoints,” Kirmse writes. “He has attempted to present a balanced view of the issues at hand, describing the assets and liabilities of each side. He is grieved by the polarization which has occurred since Vatican II, and he has tried to escape being labeled as either a conservative or a liberal.”

Both Komonchak and Kirmse offer invaluable insights for understanding Dulles’s theological legacy. Yet there is another factor to be considered: the law of unintended consequences. Although Dulles had a strategic and mediating style, the pluralism inherent in his models approach had some radical effects. His study of the Christian past showed that the church had defined itself in many ways over the long course of its history, so that a monolithic vision of its core identity appeared to be both historically baseless and theologically improbable.

This pluralism, and the historical-mindedness that accompanied its recognition, was especially troubling for traditionalist Catholics. The True Church, in the traditionalist model, was indistinguishable from the visible institutional structures of the Catholic Church. In this understanding, the church was marked by the values of strict hierarchy; by (perhaps overly) legal understandings of both the sacraments and Mass attendance (it “counted” if you arrived before the Offertory); by careful attention to a vast array of institutional minutiae, from how to correctly fold one’s hands during prayer to the color of nuns’ habits; by a deeply ingrained belief that it was easy to tell who was in the Ark of Salvation and who was not. Catholicism was, in this view, alarmingly concrete, embodied, and legal.

But as Dulles so deftly illustrated, though such an institutional emphasis had indeed been present in Catholic Christianity for centuries, it had also been considered the least important way of talking about the church for the early church fathers and for the giants of the tradition, Augustine and Aquinas. A number of other models—the church as the sacramental embodiment of Christ’s presence in history; the church as the herald of the Good News to the marginalized; the church as the servant of all humanity, and not just of Catholics—had far more stature than the institutional model.

In The Survival of Dogma, a 1971 work definitively announcing his presence as a theological voice to be reckoned with, Dulles observed that in the century between 1868 and 1968—that is, roughly the period between the First and Second Vatican Councils—the Catholic hierarchy, and especially Vatican officials, had been particularly vigilant in scrutinizing the orthodoxy of theologians. This vigilance had unfortunately resulted in the “suppression of ideas which later proved [to be] sound and useful.” Dulles argued that a return to the suppression of theological debate might very well contribute to an already growing decline of respect for the teaching authority of the institutional church. He noted that many of the Catholic faithful and theologians already believed that some members of the hierarchy were better middle managers than they were theologians. The result had been that some bishops resorted to the least convincing kind of argument, that from authority (“Do this because I tell you to”), when their interpretation of the tradition was challenged. But such an appeal to authority—even for Dulles, who always evinced the greatest respect for duly constituted church authority—was problematic at best. “In this situation,” he wrote,

little is gained by passionate insistence on “religious submission of mind and will.” The precise point at issue is whether such submission is morally responsible and whether the alleged charisms of the episcopal office (to which appeal is made) can in fact compensate for the apparent lack of professional competence. The plea for obedience often fails to answer this question, for it overlooks the fact that assent to teaching cannot normally be a matter of sheer voluntary obedience. As an intellectual act, it demands grounds for honest conviction.

The unspoken presence in Dulles’s analysis of this crisis of authority was, of course, the controversy surrounding Humanae vitae. Dulles thus situated the reception of that encyclical within the larger frame of what he took to be the primary challenge facing the postconciliar church: finding the proper relationship between the well-defined power of bishops to teach in the name of the church and the “equally undeniable right of the faithful in general, and competent experts in particular, to exercise” their responsibility to teach the faith. Dulles suggested that the apparent decline in respect for the bishops’ teaching authority—for which Humanae vitae formed the flashpoint—was “partly due to the fact that the universal episcopate has not yet achieved a satisfactory working relationship with the intellectuals and prophets in the church.”

In Dulles’s estimation both bishops and theologians had a divine mandate to offer different kinds of teaching. A careful study of the Catholic past showed clearly that doctrine did not

in every case, flow down to theologians and the laity from the top officials of the church. If the Spirit dwells in the entire Body, enlivening all the members, doctrinal initiatives can begin from below as well as from above.... The theologian, then, cannot be rightly regarded as a mere agent of the hierarchical teaching authority. His task is not simply to repeat what the official magisterium has already said, or even to expound and defend what has already become official teaching, but, even more importantly, to discover what has not been taught.

Of course, Dulles also insisted that theologians should not seek to substitute their charism for that of the bishops. Although there certainly existed other sources of teaching in the church, none of these could replace the episcopacy as an authoritative source of teaching. Still, bishops did have to pay more careful attention to the work of theologians. This was especially important in Catholic Christianity, which had consistently held that bishops’ powers to teach had “no charism that operates mechanically or magically.” Instead a study of the past showed that bishops, and indeed the pope himself, had an obligation to bring the best and most accessible theological talent to bear in offering official teaching.

Dulles’s argument on what would come to be called the “two magisteria”—that is, on the complementary teaching obligations of bishops and theologians—was taken by many to be a theological position well left of center. But in fact The Survival of Dogma was a decidedly centrist work of theology, deeply rooted in the historical evolution of a complex theological tradition. What Dulles found in the Catholic past—and especially in the High Middle Ages, when the term magisterium had been used almost exclusively to refer to the work of theologians and not to the teaching authority of bishops—was that the very concept of teaching authority was multivalent. Abbots and mendicant friars, lay mystics and university theologians, no less than bishops and popes, had all pronounced in the name of the church and had all been heeded as official teachers at different points and in various circumstances. Dulles had rediscovered a theological tradition in which “manyness” was not only tolerated but even celebrated. Thirteenth-century nominalists and realists, seventeenth-century Dominican “rigorists” and Jesuit “laxists,” twentieth-century devotees of the nouvelle théologie and neo-Thomist scholastics—all of these fought like cats and dogs in their respective eras. Yet all considered themselves and their theological rivals to be Catholics holding a common faith. What Dulles had found in his mastery of the history of Catholic theology was that the tradition had always, wisely, allowed various theological emphases to flourish.

History, then, and not liberal ideology, served as the reservoir for Dulles’s argument. Balance, nuance, and a deep respect for (and astounding knowledge of) the historical record had led him to the belief that the past did not support the univocal and one-sided positions of some theologians and bishops. The evidence of history seemed to condemn both members of the hierarchy who believed that they alone possessed the authority to pronounce on disputed theological issues, and theologians who seemed to argue that their academic expertise could substitute for the teaching office of bishops.

Models of the Church, published three years later, would go even further toward elucidating a pluralist theological past. In that book Dulles argued that Roman Catholicism was catholic (in its Greek root meaning, “universal”) precisely because its theological tradition sought to balance various models of religious community that had evolved over time. He claimed it was this very pluralism in ecclesiology—conceiving of the church as both sacrament and herald, servant and institution—that made the church both catholic and apostolic.

Dulles presented five approaches, or models, for understanding the church: the church as “mystical communion,” which included both the older metaphor of the Christian community as the mystici corporis (Christ’s “mystical body” in history) and Vatican II’s preferred metaphor of the church as the “People of God”; the church as the sacrament of God’s encounter with humanity, both in its specific sacraments and more broadly through its embodiment of grace in observable forms; the church as the prophetic herald of the Good News to humanity; the church as the servant of both God and humanity through its care for the marginalized and the poor; and the church as the institutional continuation of Christ’s message and witness through its offices, hierarchical figures, and formal protocols.

In Dulles’s opinion the model of the church privileged after the sixteenth-century Council of Trent was that of a “perfect society,” and the privileging of that institutional model had unduly colored the popular conception of Catholicism. “In the popular mind the Catholic Church is identified with what I describe as the institutional model of the church,” he wrote. “Catholics, therefore, are commonly thought to be committed to the thesis that the church is most aptly to be conceived as a single, unified, ‘perfect society.’” But this popular misconception was problematic for twentieth-century believers: “I hold that Catholics today should not wish to defend a primarily institutional view of the church.” Thus of all the models presented in his book “one of the models cannot properly be taken as primary—and this is the institutional model.” This was so, he argued, because institutions are, “of their very nature, subordinate to persons.” We mustn’t forget that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” he noted.

Dulles’s (perhaps surprising) downgrading of the institutional model proceeded not from progressive loyalties, but rather from his belief that pluralism and not homogeneity, tension and not uniformity, marked the Catholic theological tradition. This tradition, as he understood perhaps better than any other Catholic thinker of his generation, called for the dominance of this or that particular model of the church at different points, depending on time and circumstance. The overemphasis on the institutional model had served its purpose, perhaps too well, and it was imperative to restore a more balanced (and thus more Catholic) appreciation of the many-sided nature of Christ’s church:

The most distinctive feature of Catholicism, in my opinion, is not its insistence on the institutional but rather its wholeness and balance. I am of the opinion that the Catholic Church, in the name of its “catholicity,” must at all costs avoid falling into a sectarian mentality. Being “catholic,” this church must be open to all God’s truth, no matter who utters it.

Dulles thus offered a sober caution about absolutizing any one model. Instead, the tradition could be defined as an ongoing tension between unity and pluralism, between “oneness” and “manyness,” between the institutional protocols (which were certainly necessary) and the theologically more important metaphors that pointed to the church’s transcendent reality. In this creative tension, the pluralism does (and should) remain as real and determinative as the unity. The real Catholic past was far more diverse, pluralistic, and messy than many in the twentieth-century church understood or wanted to believe. Those who sought to force that broad tradition into any single model—but especially into the institutional model—were betraying the tradition, not restoring it.

If any of the models were to be privileged in the context of American Catholicism, Dulles believed that the “communion” model had “special merit.” This was so because it preserved the institutional realities of Catholicism within a much larger set of loyalties: the external offices and laws were important not in themselves, but because they served as a “vivid sign” of a deeper community of shared love and compassion (agape in the New Testament) that transcended laws, officers, and rituals.

In expanding this argument, Dulles made several points that undoubtedly disquieted traditionalist critics of the messy Catholic sixties. Their efforts to highlight an institutional understanding of Catholicism were to be expected, given the novel public debates and battles then being waged. If only everyone would obey the rules that applied to them within the institution; if only everyone would listen to duly constituted institutional authority and stop second-guessing church officials, from the pope to the local pastor; if only the laity would return to their older agreement to “pay, pray, and obey,” then all would return to normal—or at least to that normal that had defined the post–Vatican I church in the United States.

But the entire point of Dulles’s book was that such Catholic “normalcy” was anomalous. What one actually encountered in the theology and practice of the early church, in the theological schools and ritual practices of the Middle Ages, and in the rich and ancient traditions of Catholics in the “oriental churches” was an understanding of Catholicism that made nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American understandings of faith seem pale and thin. And what Dulles had discovered in the rich but messily pluralistic past was that returning to the older set of definitions—with their clearly demarcated boundaries between “us” and “them,” between clear rules and messy mixings, between the safely parochial (in every sense) and the dangerous (and seemingly secular) demands of history—would only constrict what Catholicism was really about and make it less able to meet the demands of the fractious present.

The models Dulles offered demonstrated that the tradition had opted for different, sometimes even contradictory ways of conceiving of itself, depending on the context and the audience. There was not a single master narrative for Catholicism, but several master narratives. And it came as a shock (at least to some) to learn that the church had changed its dominant model at different periods of its history.

That the church had changed was obvious to Dulles and to others who had studied the tradition. He believed that he was offering an insight intrinsic to the Catholic tradition itself, one that the church’s greatest thinkers and intellects—St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Bousquet and John Henry Newman, Yves Congar and Karl Rahner—had written about. And that insight was simply that no single metaphor or model could contain or fully express the truth of God’s rich dealings with humanity in and through the church. In this sense, Dulles was simply doing for the twentieth century what Thomas Aquinas had done for the thirteenth: presenting multiple models for understanding the complex reality that was the church. The very pluralism of the models bore powerful witness to the fact that manyness and tension were as intrinsic to the community of the faithful as were uniformity and docility.

The trajectory of Dulles’s thought after 1974 makes it highly unlikely that he ever sought to pour fuel on the fires raging within the American Catholic community during the sixties and seventies. Yet his 1974 work played an important part in nurturing what proved to be a historical consciousness that had already been let out of the bag by the council. Models of the Church did in fact lend aid and comfort to those who found the static model of post-Tridentine classical theology both confining and unconvincing. Such an understanding of Catholicism was both stunted and ahistorical, and Dulles had the goods to prove it.

For those who believed that a reassertion of institutional order and hierarchical power was the needed antidote to the seeming chaos of the postconciliar church, Dulles appeared to be a publicist for the other side of a family feud. But Dulles himself never put much stock in identifying serious theologians—least of all himself—in such polarized terms. Ever the balanced and dispassionate thinker, he might best be understood as the author of an apolitical and sophisticated work of theology that had unintended consequences in its time. His mastery of the dense and complex history of Catholic theology militated against an institutionalist understanding of the church.

Dulles’s brilliance in presenting the many models of the church confounded the effort to hold up just one of those models as normative or defining. In other words, the things that made Models of the Church so persuasive—his impressive mastery of the past, his catholic willingness to engage so broad a spectrum of Catholic thinkers in conversation, his lucid arguments, which even nonspecialists could understand—made his work a classic in the historicist canon. Things change, including how the church thinks and teaches about itself; that, Dulles thought, was very good news indeed. His 1974 classic contributed important theological heft to the burgeoning awareness of pluralism in the church—not pluralism as threat or pluralism as disobedience, but pluralism as the most Catholic stance of all.


This essay is adapted and reprinted with permission from The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever by Mark S. Massa, SJ, published by Oxford University Press Inc., © 2010 Oxford University Press.

Related: Model of the Church, by Robert P. Imbelli; From Both Sides Now, Richard McBrien's review of Dulles's book Church and Society; All Dressed in Scarlet, by Joseph A. Komonchak

Published in the 2010-08-13 issue: 

Mark S. Massa, SJ, has been Karl Rahner Professor of Theology and co-director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, and was recently named dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College.

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