Theology & Censorship: A Surprsing History, a Hopeful Future

By O'Donovan, Leo J. | Commonweal, April 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

Theology & Censorship: A Surprsing History, a Hopeful Future


O'Donovan, Leo J., Commonweal


When Cardinal Avery Dulles died in December 2008, a distinguished German theologian friend of mine who had known him for many years told me that Avery was "one of the noblest men" he had ever met, blessed with a holy readiness to listen to every side of an argument or discussion. Neither my friend nor I knew at the time of a "discussion" Dulles had had with certain diocesan authorities shortly before the publication of his influential 1974 book Models of the Church. The case may offer a useful object lesson regarding the relationship between official teaching and theology--an issue raised recently by two controversies to which I shall later return.

In 1971, then-Fr. Dulles had published The Survival of Dogma: Faith, Authority, and Dogma in a Changing World, a book that aimed "to achieve a general vision of the dialectical interpenetration between stability and change, fidelity and initiative, in the areas of faith, authority, and dogma." The Survival of Dogma had borne a nihil obstat and an imprimatur, and when preparing to publish Models of the Church, Dulles expected to follow the same procedure. With his superior's permission, in January 1973 he again negotiated a contract with John J. Delaney at Doubleday. He asked Francis A. Sullivan, SJ, the distinguished professor of ecclesiology at the Gregorian University in Rome, to read the manuscript. Sullivan made some useful suggestions, and after revising his book accordingly, Dulles suggested to his provincial superior that Sullivan might serve as the censor for the imprimi potest appropriate for a Jesuit--which Sullivan agreed to do, writing his positive assessment of the manuscript the following August.

Preparing for diocesan approval, and having been asked to expedite the publication of his manuscript, Dulles wrote to Msgr. Daniel V. Flynn of the Archdiocese of New York to suggest that Sullivan might serve as the censor for the archdiocese, as he had for the Jesuits. The suggestion was rejected, and Dulles was informed that a censor from the archdiocese would be given the assignment. On October 18, 1973, Flynn wrote John Delaney at Doubleday to tell him that neither the first reader of Models nor a second had approved the book. He enclosed the first reader's comments, which asserted that "the tenor of the entire work and especially the ambiguity of many statements call into question certain fundamental teachings of the church concerning her own nature, her divine constitution, her relation to other Christian Church and ecclesial communities." Citing basic truths found in the documents of Vatican II and represented by Mysterium ecclesiae (1973), the censor faulted "statements of the author ... [that] appear to question or leave ambiguous" these truths.

Read today, the criticism clearly seems to misunderstand Dulles's style of presentation; the censor demanded of the book precisely the kind of definitional approach whose limitations the book set out to explain. Though the censor does not deny the importance of historical variability, open dialogue in the church, or the ecumenical imperative, his sympathy for the text is clearly minimal. Some statements are startlingly authoritarian. "A distinction between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church is implied here (and throughout the work)," he writes, "and is unacceptable in Catholic doctrine." And: "It is positively taught that the church of Christ is essentially complete in the Catholic Church in which it subsists." He disputes Dulles's suggestion that the thesis of vicarious satisfaction needs reexamination, insisting that it is simply biblical and traditional doctrine, and wonders what could be meant by saying that "it is anomalous for the Eucharist to be celebrated in solitude." To Dulles's view that Modernism began as an effort "to bring the church abreast of the times," he responds: "It was a heresy."

The censor did not see how the book's inadequacies could be remedied "unless an entire chapter be included expounding the Catholic position. …

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