Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., among the Theologians: A Memorial Reflection

By Carey, Patrick W. | Theological Studies, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., among the Theologians: A Memorial Reflection


Carey, Patrick W., Theological Studies


A VERY DULLES (N. 1918) DIED ON DECEMBER 12, 2008, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For about a year prior to his death, he suffered the effects of a postpolio syndrome that made it impossible for him to walk or write, and even to swallow or speak. He bore these sufferings and incapacities with faith and grace. His last McGinley lecture, read for him at Fordham University, mentioned in passing that because of his physical infirmities he could identify with the mute and the lame in the Gospels. (1) For more than 68 years, even as a Harvard student in the late 1930s before his conversion to Catholicism in 1940, he had been on a personal journey of faith, seeking a fuller understanding of those Gospels. Throughout these years he communicated with lucid prose, clarity, and synthetic skills the results of his own search, and in the end he bore witness concretely to his identification with the one in whom he believed (Scio cui credidi, his coat of arms motto).

The editor of Theological Studies asked me to write an assessment of Dulles as a theologian--where he should be placed on the theological spectrum, and what, if any, are his lasting contributions to the discipline of theology. This article is my response.

The recent, massive one-volume The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918, (2) a major historical/theological account of theology in the 20th century, intends to introduce readers to the thought of the "most leading Christian theologians and movements in theology since the end of World War I." As criteria for selection, the editors considered theologians who had "written constructively on a broad range of theological issues" and those who were "widely studied at present." The editors admitted that, given the space limits of the text (over 800 pages), they could not include all the major theologians who would have merited attention. (3) Dulles was excluded. Nonetheless, I consider this omission a major mistake, as I will argue below, because of what Dulles' theology represents in the immediate 45 years after the Second Vatican Council.

Some have asserted that Dulles was not a creative or "constructive" theologian as were Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Hans Urs von Balthasar, or Henri de Lubac. Dulles would have agreed with this characterization; he did not intend to be original or creative in the sense of forging a new systematics. His claim to our attention as theologians and his importance to the post-Vatican II Church are based largely on other attributes: his clarity of insight into just what was essential in the theological tradition, the wisdom and breadth of his synthesis (particularly in his models approach to theology), his good sense of humor and openness to diversity and development, his theological moderation between the extremes of the postconciliar period, his emphasis on continuity with Vatican II, and his insistence on the council's developments as well as on its continuity with earlier conciliar decisions. Dulles wanted to represent the tradition in its fullest, with all its diversity and development, its continuity and change. In particular, he saw his own theology as consistent with that of Vatican II, and in fact he became one of the major interpreters of that council. He saw himself in line with the conciliar progressives and continued throughout his career to articulate what he considered the council's meaning, without denying the possibility of legitimate postconciliar theological developments. Dulles deserves attention in any history of 20th-century thought because his theology reflected so much of the intellectual and theological ferment of the times in which he lived. Protestant theologian Gabriel Fackre, in fact, has argued that "the intellectual history of Avery Dulles is a mirror of the theological journey of the Roman Catholic Church in the last half of this century." (4)

Dulles was one of the most productive publishing theologians in the United States during the postconciliar era: his theology was widely read internationally as well as nationally; he was well respected in the theological community (elected president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 1976-1977, and of the American Theological Society, 1978-1979) and in the Church (selected as member of the U. …

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