Avery Dulles: Vir Ecclesiasticus

Author: Robert Imbelli

Avery Dulles: Vir Ecclesiasticus

Fr Robert Imbelli

Remembering Cardinal Dulles one year after his death

The following are excerpts of Fr Robert Imbelli's Foreword to the book "Church and Society", a collection of the Laurence J. McGinley Lectures given by Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, from 1988-2007. This Saturday, 12 December [2009], will mark the first anniversary of Cardinal Avery Dulles' death. Fr Imbelli is a Professor of Theology at Boston College.

One of the most heart-felt accolades the early fathers could bestow on a theologian was to praise him as a vir ecclesiasticus: an ecclesial person. I can think of few theologians of our day who so merit the title as Cardinal Avery Dulles. He merits it not merely because of his rank as a "prince of the Church," or even because his primary theological focus has been ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. Rather, his whole theological and priestly existence has been in service of the Church, dwelling in its midst, nourished by its tradition, seeking to extend that life-giving tradition to meet the questions and challenges of our time. The "Introit" for the Mass of a Doctor of the Church surely summarizes his life's commitment: to speak and write "in the midst of the Church" — "in medio ecclesiae aperuit os ejus".

However, the earthly Church is not some Platonic idea, floating free of history. Like its incarnate Lord, Christ's Church is immersed in history, as it pursues its pilgrim journey to the fullness of the Kingdom, the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of Peace. Every theologian inhabits a specific historical context, speaking and writing a distinctive language within a given social and cultural setting.

For the contemporary Catholic theologian a defining characteristic of the context in which he or she labors is the ongoing reception of the Second Vatican Council. In the "Introduction" to his 1977 book, The Resilient Church, Dulles wrote:

"There are some events in church history so decisive that they set the agenda for an entire historical era. For Catholic ecclesiology the Second Vatican Council seems to have been such an event. More than a decade after the Council the Catholic ecclesiologist has no choice except to frame his questions in the light of what the Council initiated".1

What he wrote in 1977 he, doubtless, would repeat in 2007. The Council continues to set the agenda for our day into the foreseeable future. Few have contributed so magisterially to the elucidation and appropriation of the Council's ecclesial vision as has Avery Dulles.

One of the expressions of Vatican II that has passed into everyday currency is that of reading and interpreting "the signs of the times". It occurs in Gaudium et Spes, the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World".

The Council teaches: "[T]he Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about the present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics".2

Dulles has always echoed this call of Vatican II to read the signs of the times; indeed it is but the extension, to the Church as a whole, of the Ignatian urgency for discernment of spirits. However, it is self-evident (or at least ought to be) that not all "adaptations" are faithful to the Gospel which must ever be the measure. The subtitle of Dulles' 1977 book, The Resilient Church is, as we have seen: "The Necessity and Limits of Adaptation".

After a prolonged period of stasis and uniformity, the Council unloosed a theological whirlwind that threatened to sweep away not merely the dry wood, but the very life-giving roots of the Tradition. Dulles does not defend the "excessive uniformity" that prevailed prior to the Council. But he deprecates what at times appears to be an almost anarchic pluralism. In the "Introduction" to his award-winning book of 1992, The Craft of Theology,he comes close to issuing a cri du coeur:

"The different theological schools have drifted so far apart that what seems false and dangerous to one school seems almost self-evident to another. Theologians lack a common language, common goals, and common norms. Civil argument has ceased to function, and in its absence opposing parties seek to discredit one another by impugning the motives or competence of their adversaries".3

In effect, Dulles has scrutinized the theological and ecclesial signs of the times and found them tempestuous.

Rather than contenting himself with lament, Dulles charts, in TheCraftof Theology,a constructive way forward — one that his McGinley Lectures of the next fifteen years will illustrate in a dazzling range of topics. Indeed, two of the early lectures, in revised form, were incorporated into the book.4 Far from sounding a retreat from the requirements of aggiornamento, he voices the conviction that "theology can never be static".

He further explains: "[Theology] must deal with new questions put to the Church by the course of events and by the circumstances of life in the world. Continual creativity is needed to implant the faith in new cultures and to keep the teaching of the Church abreast of the growth of secular knowledge. New questions demand new answers, but the answers of theology must always grow out of the Church's heritage of faith".5

As a help in furthering this program, Dulles devotes a pivotal chapter of The Craft of Theology to a fruitful dialogue with the distinguished Lutheran theologian, George Lindbeck. Lindbeck's important book, The Nature of Doctrine,had distinguished three styles of theology which he called "propositional-cognitive, experiential-expressive, and cultural-linguistic". To a great degree, the first two approximated, in Catholic theology, the approaches of neo-Scholasticism and modernism".6

Dulles agrees with Lindbeck concerning the shortcomings of these approaches to the task of theology; and espouses the third approach which Lindbeck also favors. But, in a crucial change of terminology, Dulles calls this third approach: "ecclesial-transformative". Let me indicate what I take to be some of the salient features of his suggested approach.

Firstly, in the face of a widespread exercise, in scholarly circles, of a "hermeneutics of suspicion" towards the Church and her Tradition, Dulles urges a "hermeneutics of trust," especially in the Church's constitutive symbols. Secondly, these symbols are not merely affect-laden. They bear significant cognitive content. However, this content cannot be exhausted by conceptual analysis or propositional statement. The symbols lead, in mystagogic fashion, to the depths of the community's lived encounter with its Lord, especially in its liturgical celebration. Thirdly, the encounter, thus realized, effects a real transformation in the participants, a purification of the human spirit. Finally, all of this transpires, of course, within the Church, whose reality is not instrumental, but sacramental.

As Dulles writes: "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":


1 Avery Dulles, The Resilient Church: The Necessity and Limits of Adaptation (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), p. 1.

2 "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World; Gaudium et Spes" (Boston: Pauline Publications), #4.

3 Avery Dulles, The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System  (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. viii.

4 Ibid., pp. 219 and 220: "Sources".

5 Ibid., pp. 10 and 11.

6lbid., pp. 17 and 18.

7Ibid., p. 35.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 December 2009, page 14

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