Terrence W. Tilley, Ph.D., Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D, The Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, Ph.D, Miroslav Volf, Ph.D. and Patrick W. Carey, Ph.D. Photo by Leo Sorel

A new book about Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., served to launch a panel at Fordham about how the preeminent American theologian’s ideas will fare over time.

The book’s author, Patrick W. Carey, Ph.D., professor of theology at Marquette University, was among a group of Dulles experts at the Dec. 14 event. They focused not only on his book, Avery Cardinal Dulles: A Model Theologian (Paulist Press, 2010), but also discussed how the Catholic Church should handle dissent.

The panel opened with a debate about whether Cardinal Dulles’ most storied book,Models of the Church (Doubleday, 1974), is still relevant.

Terrence W. Tilley, Ph.D., chair of the theology department at Fordham and Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Professor of Catholic Theology, praised his chair’s namesake as a generous reader of others’ work, which he critiqued fairly and without rancor.

“Models enabled him to engage with—and even utilize—his opponents’ work,” Tilley said. “Models also explained how and why theologians agree to disagree.”

Trends suggest that Models may have been a product of its time, he added.

“Theology done at a university for a multicultural church in a religiously plural world is very different from the context in which he wrote,” Tilley said, “so it’s not clear how much power his voice will have in the future.”

Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D., senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra, likewise noted kindness in Cardinal Dulles’ work.

The issue of academic dissent, she said, was one that she and Tilley encountered over years spent working with the cardinal.

“Avery Dulles would agree that saying a teaching is not definitive is not the same as disagreeing with its content,” she said. “I say this because there is a creeping infallibility that is growing in tandem with the explosion of social communication in the two years since Dulles’ death.

“Creeping infallibility threatens academic debate. Now, even academic hair-splitting finds its way to Twitter,” she said.

The Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, Ph.D., associate professor of theology at Boston College, disagreed that theology is growing increasingly singular. He noted that in The Craft of Theology (Crossroad Publishing, 1992), Cardinal Dulles described Vatican II as a reaction to excessive uniformity that had dominated the church.

“Today, however, we are faced by the opposite problem,” Father Imbelli quoted. “The different theological schools have drifted so far apart, that what seems false and dangerous to one group seems almost self-evident to another.”

In 2007, Cardinal Dulles cautioned against going too far in re-interpreting aspects of faith like the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Father Imbelli said. He also cited four examples of a Christocentric turn in Dulles’ work:

• his distancing from the work of theologian Karl Rahner, S.J.;
• his elaboration of a new model of the church as a community of disciples with Jesus Christ at its head;
• his reception of the works of George Linbeck;
• and his renewed dedication to evangelization.

Tilley took issue with the propriety of talking about the language of Christ’s resurrection, and later pointed out that “dissent” can only be done in a seminary setting, not in a classroom, since a teacher’s role is not to govern.

Moving away from the Models approach, he fears, will limit diversity of opinion on what God’s revelation means to the church’s members.

“Saying that the resurrection is just a metaphor is certainly excessive, but I would like you to think about this a bit. What does it mean for God to raise Jesus from the dead? Like, Tilley raised the pitcher from the table? Or John raised Jane’s spirits? Or we raised an army?

“So this term isn’t simply metaphorical; it suggests we have to have multiple metaphors or multiple models to understand this mystery that we express that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

Anne-Marie Kirmse, O.P., research associate for the McGinley Chair, gave an update on Cardinal Dulles’ research at the time of his death. He looked to the theological insights and teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, whom he regarded as the greatest theologian of our time and whose embrace of evangelization he supported.

As for what he left unfinished, Sister Kirmse said that she and Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Cardinal Dulles’ graduate assistant, are editing a collection of his unpublished lectures and articles. A compendium of his homilies also will be forthcoming.

Finally, she said that in the last months of his life, Cardinal Dulles weighed in on two recent developments in the church.

He expressed concern about the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was enacted in 2002 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He criticized the document for not distinguishing between the gravity of various actions.

Secondly, he worried about the public denial of communion to Catholic politicians whose public positions run counter to church teachings.

Cardinal Dulles thought this was a subject that needed to be handled more with education and pastoral sensitivity than with authoritative pronouncements, especially in the public sphere, she said.

“Shortly before he lost the ability to speak, the cardinal shook his head sadly and said, ‘Catholic politicians will have to choose between their faith and their ministry in the public arena. Eventually, Catholics will not choose politics as a career, and we will lose our place at the table and our voice in the public arena.’”

The panel also included Miroslav Volf, Ph.D., director of the Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale.

“Avery Dulles and the Future of Theology” was moderated by Aristotle Papanikolaou, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and co-founding director of Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Program.

It was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.