Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. During his life, Dulles was the premier Catholic systematic theologian in the United States. He was also, from the beginning, integral to the entire First Things project.
Dulles’s theological achievements are legion, but an abbreviated list includes: his highly influential work Models of the Church; his life-long interest in ecumenical dialogue; his significant contributions on Cardinal Newman’s theology; and his careful exegesis of Vatican II’s documents.
Surely one of the most controversial dimensions of Dulles’s theology was his creative retrieval of Aquinas’s distinction between the magisterium cathedrae pastoralis and the magisterium cathedrae magistralis—that is, between the pastoral teaching chair of bishops and the magisterial teaching chair of theologians. Thomas had stated that theologians have a legitimate teaching office in the Church, thereby giving rise to the phrase “dual magisterium.” This very term, however, became something of a lightning rod.
Of course, it is beyond question that theologians exercise magisterial authority. Dulles fully understood this, arguing that there are two kinds of teaching in the Catholic Church, that of bishops who establish official doctrine and that of theologians who investigate the faith with the tools of critical scholarship. However, Dulles never envisioned the authority of theologians as an “alternate magisterium” that might compete with the episcopal teaching office. This fundamental point is never in doubt either in his earlier or later work.
Similarly, throughout Dulles’s career his profound esteem for theologians never changed. When he received the cardinal’s hat in 2001, he stated that the honor was an acknowledgment of American theology in service to the Church. And in his 2002 book on John Henry Newman, Dulles fully assented to the critical role the English thinker assigned to theologians. For example, Newman argued that whenever the Church offers a significant teaching, theologians immediately contextualize the document, reading it within the long tradition of Christian reflection. This, Newman insisted, is not minimalism but doctrinal moderation consistent with sound faith. Dulles argued similarly, writing that “the notion that theologians have authority is well-founded in the tradition,” and cautioning against “privatizing or trivializing the work of theologians.” Dulles believed that theologians have a vital role to play in properly understanding the Christian faith.
This anniversary should not pass without mentioning Dulles's critique of the Dallas Charter (Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People) approved by the American bishops in 2002 as a way of dealing with allegations of priestly sexual abuse. From the beginning, Dulles recognized the significant theological problems with the charter—problems that, unfortunately, have remained unaddressed in the years since his death. Early on, the cardinal warned American bishops that the charter’s norms were so harsh as to establish an “adversarial relationship” between the episcopacy and the presbyterate. His warnings have proved prophetic.
Dulles saw immediately that the implementation of the charter strained both natural justice and Catholic theology. Accusations of priestly abuse were deemed credible simply if they were not entirely groundless, the very definition of abuse appeared ambiguous, proper remuneration for accused priests was unresolved, and there were persistent problems with the process for returning priests to public ministry. Dulles argued that, with their charter, the bishops undermined priestly morale and struck a blow against the Church as an institution in which justice reigns. The recent National Study of Catholic Priests, conducted by the Catholic University of America, has convincingly displayed the truth of Dulles’s remarks, with an astounding 76 percent of American priests finding current episcopal leadership untrustworthy. A commission charged with revising the charter’s norms—in accordance with both natural justice and Christian theology—would be a fitting tribute to the cardinal’s theological acumen and to his profound love for the Church.
Dulles’s theological acumen was also crucial to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), founded by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson in 1994. Thirty years later, this dialogue continues to thrive. On occasion, a few have cynically suggested that ECT is little more than a political alliance among conservative Christians. But Dulles’s stature as a universally respected theologian of international repute assured that, from the outset, ECT’s statements would contain the best of Christian theology. (On the evangelical “side,” the presence of the highly respected theologian J. I. Packer was similarly influential.)
When we began our discussions for the ECT statement The Gift of Salvation—which deals with the question of justification by faith—in 1996, Fr. Neuhaus kicked off the session by leaning back in his chair, casually lighting a cigarette, and telling a story about Dulles. He stated that in his former days as a Lutheran pastor, he had no problem with justification by faith alone as a doctrine. When considering becoming a Catholic, he called his friend Avery Dulles, and asked him about Catholicism’s position on the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone. Dulles responded, “Justification by faith alone? Justification by faith alone? The only thing the Bible says about that is to condemn it!” (Dulles was referring to the Letter of James.) Our discussion was off to a rocky start.
But we made significant progress. In fact, Chuck Colson (†2012) always felt The Gift of Salvation was the most important document issued by ECT precisely because of the importance of justification for both the Reformation and for evangelical Protestantism today. As Colson told one interviewer, Avery Dulles and Richard Neuhaus died in back-to-back months (December 2008 and January 2009), but not before God had providentially allowed them to collaborate on the crucial statement on justification.
By every standard, Avery Dulles was a dedicated theologian and a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. Requiescat in pace.
Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and co-chairman of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.