Cardinal Dulles' Christ-Centered Theology

Author: Robert P. Imbelli, SJ

Cardinal Dulles' Christ-Centered Theology

Robert P. Imbelli, SJ*

Two years after the death of Cardinal Avery Dulles

December 12th marked the second anniversary of the death of Cardinal Avery Dulles, one of the finest theologians the Church in the United States has produced, and the first to be named a Cardinal. As is well-known, Dulles converted to Catholicism while a student at Harvard University, and, after military service during the Second World War, entered the Society of Jesus. His love for the "company of Jesus" was surpassed only by his love for the Church and for the Lord Jesus himself.

Dulles became known throughout the theological world for his creative employment of the notion of "models" in the doing of theology. His most famous work in this regard was his 1974 book, Models of the Church. In it he distinguished five models or ways of understanding the mystery of the Church: Church as institution, community, sacrament, herald, and servant.

Dulles' purpose in doing so was two-fold. First, at a time of increasing polarization within the Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, he aimed to show concretely the inexhaustible nature of the Church's mystery as set forth in chapter one of Lumen Gentium. Like the facets of a diamond, each model reflects one dimension of the rich reality of Church. Second, Dulles hoped to promote responsible pastoral dialogue by stressing that each model needs to be complemented by the valid insights of the others.

However, by the 1980s a new challenge had arisen. In pursuing the necessary ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue that the Council had initiated, some were neglecting or obscuring the distinctive nature of the Church. Hence Dulles proposed a new model which he called: Church as "Community of Disciples". This was not to serve as a "super model," but to bring to the fore distinctive features not as prominent in the others.

The positive merit of this new model, he wrote, lies in this: "It calls attention to the ongoing relationship of the Church to Christ its Lord, who continues to direct it through his Spirit". At the same time, viewing Church as a "community of disciples", "precludes the impression that ecclesial communion exists merely for the sake of mutual gratification and support". The community of disciples can never displace the primacy of its Lord. The body can never usurp the place of its Head.

This more explicitly Christo-centric orientation characterized the last 25 years of Cardinal Dulles prolific theological ministry. One result was that Dulles moved from a Rahner-influenced focus upon the transcendental dimension of revelation to a renewed insistence upon revelation's specifically Christian content and newness. In an address to the 1984 convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, he reminded his colleagues that "Christianity, as a historical religion, cannot escape from what has been called 'the scandal of particularity'". And he went on to insist that "its source and center is not some abstract metaphysical principle or virtue, but a concrete universal, Jesus of Nazareth".

Significantly, one consequence of this renewed insistence was the recovery of the urgency of evangelization, of a joyful sharing of the gospel of Jesus, "the pearl of great price". In this, Avery Dulles fully shared the concerns of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to promote the "new evangelization". Indeed, the last book that Cardinal Dulles managed to complete, as sickness paralyzed his body, was a collection of his essays under the title Evangelization for the Third Millennium — his last loving service for the Church.

In one of these essays, Dulles made his own the words of John Paul II: "It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind's only Savior. For only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangelization develop". And he warmly applauded Benedict XVI's assertion, early in the Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, that "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction".

This Christ-centered vision, in its Catholic understanding, does not reduce the Gospel to a merely private relation to the Lord Jesus. Rather, it calls the believer to grow into the fullness of personal reality in Christ, to open himself or herself to the universal scope of the gospel's transformative power. Dulles writes: "A truly Catholic form of evangelical theology... will seek to renew the entire life of believers, of the Church, and of society itself through the leaven of the Gospel". Though Cardinal Dulles did not live to receive Benedict XVI's "social" Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he would have applauded and embraced its comprehensive, Christ-centered vision.

To mark the second anniversary of the death of Cardinal Avery Dulles, the United States publishing house, Paulist Press, has issued a fine biography: Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian. Written by the historian of theology, Patrick Carey of Marquette University, it recounts, in nuanced detail, Dulles' remarkable theological journey and achievements. Hopefully, it will become, for a new generation, the springboard for a renewed appreciation and appropriation of one of the Church's premier and prolific theologians. Cardinal Dulles' Christ-centered vision and ecclesial commitment indeed make him "a model theologian."

*Professor of theology at Boston College, USA

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 January 2011, page 12

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