Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ and Jesuit Theology

(This is Neil). I think that most of you have already heard that the Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles passed away yesterday. I’m sure that, in the coming weeks and months, we will read sustained and learned overviews of Avery Dulles’ writings and legacy. Here, in addition to asking you to pray for him and in gratitude for his life, I want to point out one rather obvious thing about Cardinal Dulles. Even a relatively careless reader will note a theme appearing in the obituaries: Dulles’ work was characterized by a “considerable generosity to opposing views” (John Allen, National Catholic Reporter), resulting in a “sane balance in his thought, wholly within the tradition but willing to examine new ideas and to show how they could fit within the full history of Christian theology” (Joseph Bottum, Times). Even those who question the late Cardinal’s actual balancing of, say, the local and the universal church, would surely admire the careful search for a “sane balance” itself (see Christopher Ruddy’s review of Dulles’ collected McGinley Lectures). And even those who might question his emphasis on continuity – John Allen reports that Dulles worried that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were “not traditional enough” on the death penalty and just war theory – have to admire his deep respect for the “full history of Christian theology.”


A second theme to notice is that Cardinal Dulles was Ignatian. As his fellow Jesuit and theologian Kevin Burke noted about Dulles, “To my knowledge he is the first to write about and probe the question of whether the distinctive resources of Ignatian spirituality open up unique paths for doing theology in the modern, and now post-modern, world.”


We can see these two themes in a short history of Jesuit theology, published in 1991 in Theological Studies, originally delivered by Dulles as a lecture for the Boston Public Library. What is Jesuit theology? Jesuit theology seeks balance. St Ignatius’ mysticism was personal – the director of the Spiritual Exercises must “permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature” (my emphasis), but also deeply committed to the institutional church. Jesuit theology must also follow Ignatius’ balance of prescribed methods with attentiveness to, as the Constitutions say, the possibilities and requirements of particular “times, places, and persons.” In many ways, Dulles’ history, through the three periods of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, is the story of the capacity and incapacity to achieve
these and other balances.


During the “contentiousness” of the Counter-Reformation, Jesuit theologians contributed to the strength of the church by becoming the “principal architects of a renewed scholasticism.” This “systematic and deductive,” if eclectic, “heavy scholastic armor” was useful, but at the cost of imbalance. It was ill-adapted to the “modern environment,” and, presently, “it appears as excessively dogmatic, subtle, and, in its own way, rationalistic.” Dulles takes care to praise other Jesuit efforts. Robert Bellarmine and some confrères defended papal primacy and infallibility even as they “sought to counter exorbitant claims for the papacy, especially in temporal matters.” Jesuit missionaries “developed styles of theology that would permit Christianity to be preached and practiced in forms accommodated to the cultures of India and China” in ways that, even if once unfairly condemned (Dulles hints at this), clearly foreshadow today’s efforts at attentiveness to “times, places, and persons” through inculturation. The Jesuits also carefully rejected some of the seductive imbalances of the age. Where Protestants and Jansenists fell prey to rigorism and fideism, the Jesuits were humanists who nonetheless held open the possibility for discussion with Protestants and Jansenists. Where the Gallican movement suggested the fragmentation of the Church along national life, the Jesuits promoted the universal church. Amidst the absolutism of the age, Jesuits spoke of conscience and natural rights.


During the age of Vatican I, Dulles notes that the Thomist Giovanni Perrone “developed an apologetics that struck a middle path between systems that gave too much scope either to faith or to reason.” This particular balance is important to Dulles. He speaks of the “rationalistic tendencies of neo-scholasticism” and the resulting protests of George Tyrrell, Henri Bremond, and Pierre Rousselot. Of course, Tyrrell was excommunicated, Bremond was separated from the Jesuits, and Rousselot’s teaching met with official disapproval. Obviously, this situation – “a cleavage was developing between two major tendencies in Jesuit theology” – cannot make Dulles happy. “The Ignatian synthesis between mysticism and obedience to hierarchical authority was in danger of falling apart.”


The age of Vatican II saw attempts to repair this unfortunate “cleavage.” Dulles speaks warmly of Emile Mersch’s theology of the Church as Christ’s Mystical Body because it could combine mysticism with an emphasis on the authority of the institutional church. The church could now be seen as a vital, organic body in which Christians realize “intimate familiarity with the triune God.” Dulles goes on to speak of the reintegration of mysticism with theology in the thought of Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, who both “maintained that theology must proceed in the light of an immediate experience of God as He bestows Himself in grace.” Dulles acknowledges the importance of personal responsibility, discernment and vocation – the main emphases of Rahner’s thought, but, as always, is concerned about imbalance. Now, Dulles is not worried about rationalism and an overemphasis of the objectivity of ecclesiastical authority, but about inner experience drowning out the natural law tradition and a commitment to ecclesiastical obedience.


What about the present? Dulles notes that Jesuits are pursuing interreligious dialogue and liberation theology. He also notes the lack of “agreed methods and norms,” which threatens contemporary theology with confusion and disintegration. In his conclusion, we can see that Dulles counsels balance, a balance that we should ourselves seek in our more humble efforts:


The crisis, however, is not unprecedented. In the 16th century theology was in disarray because medieval scholasticism had been devastated by the mockery of the humanists and hostility of the Protestant reformers. The Jesuits, together with the Dominicans, were the primary architects of a new, updated scholasticism in which discipline and coherence were restored. In the 19th century, chaos again threatened because of the incursions of Cartesian rationalism and Kantian skepticism. The Society of Jesus threw its weight behind the neo-scholastic revival, which served the Church very well for a century of rapid growth.


It is too early to predict how the present crisis will be met. Will the solution consist in some new form of scholasticism adapted to the present day? Can any scholasticism do justice to the personal, communal, experiential, and symbolic aspects of faith, as we have come to understand it? Only time will tell. Whatever the solution, Jesuits are surely challenged to take part in its discovery and implementation.


Any system acceptable to Jesuits must, quite evidently, conform to the spirit of Ignatius and the heritage of the Society he founded. On the one hand it must be animated by a mystical dynamism toward the ever-greater God, who surpasses all concepts and institutions. On the other hand it must be humbly committed to the service of the hierarchical Church. By keeping in view both the transcendent mystery of God and the human ecclesial mediation, Jesuit theology can retain both its freedom and its fidelity, its openness to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and its conformity to sound and traditional teaching. It can simultaneously keep faith with the past and be oriented to the future.


Preserving both its mystical and its ecclesial foci, Jesuit theology will, I believe, remain strongly Christocentric, as it has been, for instance, in the cases of Mersch, Teilhard de Chardin, de Lubac, and Rahner. Christ, in a preeminent way, is the meeting point of the divine and the human.


For Ignatius of Loyola, Christ in his humanity is the pattern of the service that all disciples are bound to give, while in his divinity he is the Creator and Lord whom Christians are to serve and obey in all things. An authentic Christocentrism is the best guarantee that neither the divine nor the human dimension will be neglected.


In summary, then, Jesuit theology may be expected to be marked by a mysticism of grace, Christocentrism, ecclesial loyalty, esteem for the human, respect for freedom, and adaptability to changing situations. None of these six attributes is exclusively proper to the Jesuit order, but the teaching and example of St. Ignatius, which embodied all six, will naturally tend to affect the theological style of his sons in the Society. It would be surprising if principles so deeply inscribed in the spirituality of the founder were not to leave their mark on the theology of his successors.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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