A Tribute to Cardinal Avery Dulles

Author: Kobert Imbetli

A Tribute to Cardinal Avery Dulles

Kobert Imbetli

A man who lived to seek Christ 'the pearl of great price'

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., who died Friday, 12 December, at age 90, was the most distinguished theologian the Church the United States has produced, and the first American theologian to be named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. Along with Yves Congar, O.P., he was one of the most influential ecclesiologists of the 20th century.

Dulles' best-known work is, undoubtedly, Models of the Church (1974). In the aftermath of Vatican II, he explored the inexhaustible richness of the mystery of the Church by clarifying different models or approaches: Church as sacrament, as community, as herald, as servant. The book was both theologically insightful and pastorally perceptive, since it showed that different perspectives upon Church could be complementary and mutually enriching.

But unlike others in the 1970s and 1980s, Dulles never neglected the fact that the mystery of the Church always refers to the greater mystery: Jesus Christ himself, who alone is the Light of the world, Lumen gentium. In one of the loveliest statements of this abiding conviction, he wrote in his 1992 book, The Craft of Theology:

"As a great sacrament the Church extends in space and time the physical body of the Lord. It is not a mere pointer to the absent Christ, but the symbolic manifestation of the present Christ. The members of the Christ, insofar as they are remade in Christ's image by the power of the Holy Spirit, represent Christ to one another and to the world. He identifies himself with them. Especially is this true of the saints, those who allow themselves to be totally transformed in Christ. The Church, in its most basic reality, is a holy fellowship built up through the self-communication of the triune God".

In many ways the Ignatian tradition permeates Avery Dulles' writings, as it did his life. At a time when some theologians seemed to stress one-sidedly the horizontal and this-worldly dimension of Christian discipleship, Dulles insisted that we must not lose the radical sense of God's transcendence. Christians are certainly called to action on behalf of justice in the world. But they are also summoned to worship the God who is semper Major.

When intra-ecclesiastical disputes threatened to polarize theological debate and pastoral priorities, Dulles, like his spiritual father, Ignatius of Loyola, sought to keep the Christocentrism of the Spiritual Exercises to the forefront. The absolutely crucial questions, for disciple and theologian to alike, center upon Christ:: quid egi pro Cristo?quid ago pro Christo? quid agam pro Christo?

Thus Dulles insisted that the heart of the Jesuit vocation was "personal love for Jesus and a desire to be counted among his close companions".

And when a too facile appeal to "the signs of the times" was used to justify the most disparate courses of action, Dulles wisely drew upon the Ignatian charism of spiritual discernment for guidance and depth. Moreover, for Dulles, discernment was always profoundly ecclesial. With Ignatius, he emphasized the need to "sentire cum ecclesia". Authentic discernment always takes place within the Church and its Tradition.

Cardinal Dulles was ever the proponent of the Catholic "both/and" God is both one and three. The Lord Jesus is both God and man. The Church is both institutional and charismatic. There is no merely invisible Church, no non-institutional Church. Yet the institutional dimension of Church is at the service of the charismatic. In a particularly forceful passage of his 1982 book, A Church to Believe In, he writes:

"Since charisms, in the widest sense, are simply concretizations of the life of grace, a Church without charisms could only be a Church without grace. Such a Church would be a false sign; it would betoken the presence of what is absent; it would be a pseudo sacrament, and for this reason it would not be truly Church".

For the last 20 years of his life Cardinal Dulles was the McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, the Jesuit University in New York City. Part of his responsibilities was to deliver a public lecture twice a year. These collected lectures were recently published under the title Church and Society (Fordham University Press, 2008).

In one of them he expressed his lifelong commitment to doing theology according to the rhythm of Vatican II's ressourcement and aggiornamento. He said: "Theology must deal with new questions put to the Church by the course of events and by the circumstances of life in the world. Continual creativity is needed to implant the faith in new cultures and to keep the teaching of the Church abreast of the growth of secular knowledge. New questions demand new answers, but the answers of theology must always grow out of the Church's heritage of faith". The Catholic theologian must he both faithful and creative, an advocate of renewal within Tradition.

Cardinal Dulles had the great blessing of a long and extremely productive life. But his last months saw him afflicted by a growing paralysis that left him unable to speak and finally deprived him of the ability even to move his arms. However, his faith in and witness to the Lord Jesus, whom he called "the pearl of great price", was manifest, a source of inspiration to those who cared for him and visited him – including Pope Benedict when he came to the United States last April.

Just prior to the Pope's Visit, the last of Dulles' "McGinley Lectures" was delivered at Fordham University. The Cardinal could no longer speak. But he was present in a wheelchair as the words, which he had composed, were read on his behalf. This is how he concluded his Farewell Lecture:

"Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my ninetieth year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. 'Blessed be the name of the Lord'".

May the gracious and merciful Lord now receive his faithful servant, Avery Dulles, into the full light and unending life of the heavenly Jerusalem, where saints and angels rejoice ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24/31 December 2008, page 8

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