About a decade ago colleagues and former students of Avery Dulles published a volume in tribute to him on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. The book's title, Faithful Witness, both defined what the chief task of theology is and expressed our gratitude for Father Dulles's example in fulfilling it. And now we have papal confirmation of our high regard for him.
Pope John Paul II has followed the example of Pope Paul VI and honored the work of a few theologians by naming them to the College of Cardinals. To the names of Congar, Danielou, de Lubac, Grillmeier, Pavan, and von Balthasar can now be added that of Avery Dulles, S.J., the first U.S. theologian to be so honored. Friends, colleagues, and admirers are delighted, and among their not entirely negligible joys they await the day when they can see him in procession among his fellow cardinals, most of whom are plumper, dressed in "cardinalatial" finery, settling the question of what Abraham Lincoln would have looked like in scarlet.
The pope's action crowns Dulles's long life as a theologian in the service of the church. His work has been marked largely by a commitment to conversation, which, of course, involves listening as much as it does speaking. And he has been 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. Sympathetic listening was also one of the rules which Dulles learned from Saint Ignatius Loyola at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises: "Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is more ready to save his neighbor's proposition than to condemn it." This assumption is the opposite of the odium theologicum that too often poisons the atmosphere of the church.
Dulles even made the Ignatian rule the basis of a method he made popular in Catholic theology: an analysis of diversity through "models," conceptual frameworks, often image-based, which orient and articulate a certain understanding of a reality or doctrine of the faith. Lying behind more particular differences of opinion in the church often are differences at these prior levels; and an exploration of the more basic differences can encourage modesty and promote mutual understanding and communication, at least if proponents of any one model recognize that no single approach can exhaust the mysteries of the faith. …