Dr Kathleen Fenty explores Avery Dulles' unique contribution to the often stormy theological debate that followed the Council
When John Paul 11 grants a theologian a cardinal's hat, his intentions are clear. The elevation of the American Jesuit Avery Dulles on February 21 in Rome will signal not only the Pope's personal regard for an outstanding thinker, but will indicate his appreciation for Dulles' mediation between dissidents and the Vatican.
As Dulles himself noted in an interview in New York shortly after the announcement, his appointment signals "a gesture of encouragement for American theologians". John Paul's impatience with the politically correct theological academy has shifted to a public appreciation of the pragmatic and consensual vision that Dulles' theology represents.
Dulles commands such respect among both liberals and conservatives that his inclusion in the college of cardinals can only strengthen the Pope's aims of finding a balance between progressives and traditionalists.
The scion of a great American political dynasty whose surname graces the Washington D.C. airport, Avery Dulles has established credentials as both a moderniser and a conserver, a constructive critic who preserves the delicate balance between institutional stability and prophetic challenge.
The Cardinal-designate first attracted media attention with his theological best-seller Models of the Church (1972) in which he criticised the legalistic institutionalism, of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.
How this liberal theologian has come to defend the magisterium against its critics is an interesting story indeed, and a summary of Dulles' major theological concerns may shed light on his journey to Rome.
A convert to Catholicism who was decorated for his intelligence work in World War II, Dulles is best known for popularising ecclesial typologies. He has famously described the various faces of the Christian church: institu wommenomm tion, mystical community, sacramental system, prophetic herald or servant healer.
Dulles insists that these models or images are not to be taken in isolation, but are rather to be understood as aspects of the same living reality that is the Church. A pluralist vision has since persistently characterised his theological world view.
The five models as seen in Models of the Church reveal the usefulness of images in teaching. The model of
is symbolised by an army or state, indicating the order provided by Christian unity; the model of church as a Mystical Body can be seen in the biblical images of the vine and the branches, indicating the intricate relations of God and his people; the idea of church as Sacrament can he envisioned through
Baptism or the Eucharist as the places of encounter with Jesus; the church as Herald creates the picture of the Church as messenger, bringing the Gospel to humanity; and the image of Servant recalls the Church as the hands of Christ, healing a broken world.
These symbolic pictures can then be extended into a more systematic application in teaching. For example, they can also be used to avoid emphasising one aspect of church to the exclusion of its others. These errors occur when institutionalism declines into legalism, or communities degenerate into clubbiness; when sacramentalism declines into bloodless routines, or prophetic witness into strident activism; or finally when the servant approach is compromised into an uncritical acceptance of secular values.
The new cardinal has much to offer in terms of his theology of symbol, which offers a balance to the manipulated images exploited in our commercial society. Theological symbols are here understood not so much as projections of the imagination as the revealed means by which God draws his people to himself.
Images like the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God have been the way that God has revealed himself to the Church in the bible and throughout history. It is the role of theology to make similar use of metaphor to reflect upon the Gospel.
ULLES' early preference for the "sacramental" ecclesial model. with its formal structure and familial bonding within the preaching of the Word, has been overshadowed of late by his recognition of the tragic split between the Gospel and culture that has occurred over the last 30 years.
Dulles considers his two books Models of Revelation (1983, reissued in 1992) and The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System (1992) to be his most substantial contributions to theological method and consensus. His writing now focuses on the role of symbolic realism as it supports a theology based on the reality of conversion. Yet he has much to say about the necessity for dialogue.
He observes in The Craft of Theology that the Holy See has been "almost powerless" to prevent the "dismemberment and reconstruction" of Catholic theology by revisionist theologians, and he is dismayed that efforts to set limits should be denounced as "inquisitorial".
Whereas Vatican II faced the problem of refocusing attention from neo-scholastic insti
tutionalism onto scripture and contemporary experience of grace, the present problem is one of isolated reflection and a proliferation of incompatible methods.
"Theologians lack a common language, common goals and common norms," he warns. Whereas the sciences have a normative methodology and are flourishing, theologians are not even able to talk to each other.
Dulles argues that this failure stems from that fact that theologians have become so autonomous as to cease to reflect on the faith of the Church from within the Church. Theology must grapple with the issues of relevance and truth, as they are best understood within a living community of faith.
Dulles acknowledges that a "paradigm shift", or an unfolding of a new horizon of understanding, is now occurring. He believes a profound change in the way that humanity understands itself is in process.
Dulles describes this change in theological terminology as a movement from a "critical" to a "postcriticar foundation, from a mind set which favours doubt and rationalist objectivity to a foundation receptive to symbol and the "precritical" experience of faith. He is thus no reactionary, but an intellectual trying to formulate the best of the new understandings within a responsible context.
Dulles' 40 years of teaching theology — he is now Laurence J McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University in New York — has taught him the inextricable relationship between pedagogy and context, between academia and the society it is meant to serve.
Dulles brilliantly schematises modern philosophy's problem with religious belief since Kant. His discussion offers insights not only to theologians but to any Christian concerned about the contemporary indifference to religious meaning. The "critical" project, often synonymous with theories antagonistic to faith, is characterised by five presumptions: a bias towards doubt; uninvestigated and inconsistent foundations; negative and selective investigations which cannot be systematised; neglect of the social dimension of meaning; and an inability to appreciate "precriticar realities of human intuition — or Pascal's "reasons of the heart".
Dulles "postcriticar theology, in contrast, recognises that religious commitment need not be hindrances to understanding. He is calling for a new methodology receptive to symbol and effectivity but one which does not collapse into arbitrary prejudice or blind emotion.
All worldviews are in the end choices, so it is as legitimate to opt for faith as to opt against it. Christian theologians are actually better prepared for the new paradigm than their "critical" counterparts as symbolic realism best reflects how persons genuinely live, how they know and believe.
Dulles is admired because he seeks to find the mediating balance that respects both sides of the argument without undermining the stability that comes from a magisterium or ignoring the legitimate aspirations for innovation.
But he has also spoken quite firmly in support of the Pope's more conservative positions, and these views balance out this complex thinker. It is his support for the papacy's positions on abortion, the male celibate priesthood and the limits of academic freedom that now grabs the headlines rather than his creative theological writing.
Showing a uniquely American sensitivity to the politics of the "buck-stops-here" Dulles has reacted strongly against the idea that the magisterium should act like an indulgent parent and allow theologians to disagree.
In John Paul 11 and the Teaching Authority of the Church: Like a Sentinel (1997) he writes, "The teaching office has been instituted precisely so that we may have assurance about matters that would otherwise be debatable."
Possibly reflecting the respect for authority that must be instilled in his genes (he is, after all, the descendent of three American Secretaries of State and it was an uncle who first organised the C.I.A) Dulles perfectly appreciates the charism of authority and its function in these troubles times.
Dulles supports the Pope's rejection of any voluntary killing of innocent human beings, which would include abortion or euthanasia. He takes a mediating position about capital punishment, however, which is legal in the U.S. while personally accepting the Pope's rejection of the death penalty, Dulles commented recently that American Catholics had the right in conscience to agree with their government.
Dulles has defended the Pope's vision of the papacy as one of service rather than of dignity. He notes the Pope's fondness for St Augustine's remarks on the episcopacy: "For you 1 am a bishop, with you I am a Christian. The former is a title of duty, the latter one of grace. The former is a danger, the latter a title to salvation."
His loyalty to the Holy See derives from his belief that it is first and foremost a charism of service to the believer, not a protector of its own privileges.
Dulles also supports the Pope's views on the male celibate priesthood. He believes the "desacralisation" of the priesthood has contributed to the present crisis. He also disagrees with the opinion that there is no ontological claim to priestly ministry, the idea that ordination is purely ornamental or extrinsic to the priest's life. To him the relaxation of the discipline of celibacy would be "an impoverishment of Catholic life."
Nonetheless, Dulles remains liberal in the sense that he acknowledges the biblical priesthood of all believers: there is not essential differ
ence in degree between the laity and the clergy, as they are simply in different "categories", each performing their own role.
In other words, all sacraments have an indelible effect, whether it be baptism or marriage or ordination, and the church will always defend the validity of its sacramental system.
He shares the Pope's dismay with organised theological dissent which gathers under the banner of "academic freedom". Dulles is critical of disaffected theologians who seek to establish a "rival magisterium" to support their views. While he is the first to advance creative theological research (as he himself does), he agrees with John Paul 11 that dissent should fall short of explicit power plays.
Genuine theological concerns should be published in professional journals where other experts can discuss the issues responsibly, rather than be oversimplified and exploited by the media. He is clear that he does not wish to stifle but to have it responsibly conducted.
IN THE AREA of the
controversy over women's ordination, Dulles speaks with moderation. He states that due to the absence of any scriptural or historical precedes the Church "lacks the authority" to ordain women. He criticises those who mobilise the media to undermine the Church's position on this, because he sees their political ambitions as a greater threat to charity than the Papacy's firm line.
Dulles' beliefs do not evolve so much from a desire to constrain as from a respect for the charism of authority he believes Christ has given to the magisterium.
Having lived through the World War and the Cold War, the cardinal has no illusions about the human capacity for evil. Yet he remains an optimist whose life represents the victory of service over selfishness and in this way, he is both child to his family and to his Church.
In his respect for authority, Dulles reflects his American background. Whereas the recent contested Presidential election would have created chaos in other Western societies, polls show that most Americans were actually relieved when the Supreme Court finally decided the issue in a land of great, possibly irreconcilable diversity, legitimate authority is understood as a blessing.
Avery Dulles recognises personally the need for the Church to live up to its destiny as Institution, Sacrament, Mystical Body, Herald and Servant.
But he sees the present climate of sniping and scandahnongering as destructive and unrepresentative of Jesus' prophetic challenge to renew the face of the earth.