National Catholic Register


Into the Millenium And Beyond

A noted theologian on the meaning of recent papal letters and the future of the faith

BY Avery Dulles

August 09-15, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/9/98 at 1:00 PM


Last week, the Register interviewed Jesuit Father Avery Dulles, the Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham University. In a continuation of that interview, Senior Writer Gabriel Meyer elicits the theologian's views on the state of Catholic theology and the three new papal pronouncements by Pope John Paul II.

Personal: Age 79; native of Auburn, N.Y.; entered the Society of Jesus at age 27; ordained at 37; U.S. Navy veteran.

Education: Licentiate degrees in philosophy and sacred theology from Woodstock College (Woodstock, Md.); doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Positions: Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham University (Bronx, N.Y.) since 1988; professor of theology at The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.), 1974-88; visiting professor of theology at Boston College, 1981-82; president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 1975-76; president of the American Theological Society, 1978-79; consultor for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine; contributing editor for New Oxford Review.

Achievements: Author of 21 books and some 500 articles; honorary doctoral degrees from 20 institutions.

Meyer: Where do you see Catholic theology going in the near future? Is so-called Catholic liberalism on the decline?

Father Dulles: Many of the liberals developed their theological consciousness in the early 1960s. Vatican II, they believed, required one to look favorably on other Churches and religions, to be critical of one's own tradition, and be prepared to change one's commitments. What's becoming evident now is that this kind of theology engenders no posterity. If faith is just a vague orientation to transcendence or a tentative opinion, constantly bending with the times, it is impossible to generate a strong community of faith.

This generation is graying, though it still thinks of itself as avant-garde. Many of the younger theologians tend to be much more in line with the age-old tradition of the Church. I notice that the younger graduate students I teach here at Fordham University have enormous respect for the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas. Few of them are attracted by post-modernism because they do not think it will nourish their faith.

Besides reconnecting with tradition, what do these younger students want? What are they looking for?

The exaggerated relativism and historicism of the past generation has tended to weaken people's faith. Many of the younger students in theology value faith very highly. It's necessary to arrive at some transcendent truth that's not dependent on cultural factors. If we can't do that, Christianity is bankrupt. God has to be able to get his revelation through to us despite our human weakness. We need an epistemology that shows how we can hear the word of God and grasp its real meaning. Much of the recent neo-Kantian epistemology, even as filtered through great intellects such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, is weak in this respect. It's not enough to say that God is absolute mystery or that we speak of him only in metaphors.

If not Rahner and Lonergan, which theologians are generating the most interest today?

The stock of [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger and [the late Hans Urs] von Balthasar are high. But Ratzinger has been burdened with the responsibilities of his office as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Von Balthasar is hard to get a hold of; he's massive, and hard to classify. He works from a bewildering number of sources — biblical, patristic, and modern.

[The late Henri] De Lubac is also a growing figure, partly because he was a brilliant writer. Communio magazine, which stands in the tradition of de Lubac and von Balthasar, is an excellent influence. In other quarters, Thomism is thriving again. With that, there's a revived interest in the thought of Jacques Maritain, who was prescient about the modern age and the tendencies of the post-conciliar generation. What we lack, though, are contemporary theologians of real speculative talent. Walter Kasper has such talent, but they made a bishop out of him!

You've spoken recently about the Great Jubilee. Do you see the apos part of the Pope's ongoing program to prepare the Church for the new millennium, to clear up ambiguities and unfinished business before the Church enters the new century?

From the beginning of the pontificate, he's conceived his mission as preparing the Church for the year 2000. Many of his encyclicals and letters, beginning as early as 1979, focus on this. The 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente brings the program into view. It's a very interesting program and, if carried out, could be highly beneficial for the renewal of the Church.

He proposes a three-year period of preparation (1997-99) in which the faithful would focus successively on the three divine persons and the three theological virtues — faith, hope, and charity. He also calls for an ecclesial examination of conscience and for acts of repentance for the collective sins of Catholics over the past millennium. Studies are now being made on themes such as the record of the Inquisition and the treatment of Jews by Christians. In calling for all this, the Pope shows great courage and insight.

How will such recognition affect the practical conduct of the Church's mission in the new millennium?

Public manifestations of sorrow for the sinful aspects of our history frees us from defensiveness. We shouldn't feel obliged to defend the whole record of the past. The new evangelization is impeded when people say, “You're his why we should join you.” We have to distinguish between what comes from Christ and the Gospel and what comes from human sinfulness, fully acknowledging the latter.

The Pope acknowledges that the recognition of human rights was weak in earlier centuries; it comes as a result of progress achieved in the past few centuries. He's very strong in insisting on religious freedom and opposing the use of violence in the service of faith. By sharing in his vision for the millennium Catholics can enter the new century with vigor and optimism.

One doesn't get the impression that much of the Catholic rank and file are paying attention to the preparatory program for the Jubilee, though.

Not many people read papal documents, that's for sure. The message has to be mediated to them. I think that many bishops are beginning to put in place programs of preparation for the coming Jubilee, but more needs to be done on the pastoral level. The media, including the Catholic press, can help mediate the message to the faithful.

Surely the indulgences issue will come up in the context of the Jubilee. How will the Church present the Jubilee indulgence theologically?

The Church will handle indulgences the way Paul VI did in [the 1967 apostolic constitution] Indulgentiarum Doctrina. He acknowledged some of the past abuses and renewed the teachings on indulgences in the light of Vatican II. He emphasized the need for personal dispositions such as sincere sorrow for sin in order to benefit from the external actions prescribed for gaining an indulgence. We can't buy our way into heaven with cheap grace.

The teaching on indulgences has its roots in the experience of the early Church, doesn't it?

It started with the martyrs who were asked to offer up their sufferings for the benefit of sinners. Indulgences pertain to the doctrine of the communion of saints: We can effectively pray and intercede for one another. For people undergoing pain and suffering, it's consoling to know that they can put negative experiences to use to help atone for sin.

The true treasury of the Church, according to Paul VI, consists in the Christ's merits have before God.

The Pope wants us to see indulgences in a Christologically centered way. The saints and martyrs are not a substitute for Christ. All that they do has value only in him and in light of his definitive act of atonement and inter-cession.

In a recent article you wrote for America, you spoke about two Christian mentalities: a secularized, cultural Christianity and an orthodox one. Explain.

I meant to call attention to the fact that in the United States and other affluent countries, there is a dominant secular culture that creates a psychological undertow, making it difficult to profess Christian faith in an orthodox way. Because the concepts of change and pluralism have been so drummed into us, it's very hard for us to realize that there are truths that hold always and everywhere. Christians have to be made conscious of the tension between the profession of orthodox faith and the dominant mentality of our culture. Unless we are in some way counter-cultural, our faith will be undermined at vital points.

The Pope has alluded to that idea in his recent apostolic letter on the Lord's Day,Dies Domini.

Yes, the whole idea of a holy day is difficult for people to grasp any longer. The biblical idea of sacred time permeates many of the Pope's writings, especially those touching on the coming of the Great Jubilee.

Already in the creation story of Genesis and the Ten Commandments, we have the idea that the seventh day — the Sabbath — is a holy day. The secular culture substitutes the notion of the “weekend” for the sacred rest of Sunday. Relaxation has its importance, of course, but it's not the same as the contemplation, worship, and thanksgiving that belong by right to the “Lord's Day.”

Yet you seem fairly sanguine about orthodoxy's prospects long-term. Why?

People have in their hearts a deep and unquenchable aspiration for something divine and eternal, something supremely good that will not slip away. Because of God's revelation in Christ, the Church has this to offer. People are hungry for what we have to give. Once this realization kicks in, there will be a great age of evangelization.

You clearly see orthodoxy as the counter-cultural stance, not so-called progressivism. Is there a danger of sectarianism, though, from the orthodox side?

There is the possibility that some may get so excited about the gap between the faith and secular culture that they develop a blindness toward the good things in the culture, and even a hatred for the secular. The Pope does not fall into such extremes. He sees positive developments in the culture as well as negative ones.

We shouldn't blind ourselves to real progress that has been achieved, even in this century. Many Christian values have seeped into the secular culture. People who don't believe in God often adhere to certain Christian values such as the recognition of human rights, human freedom, and solidarity, and the concept of the unity of the human family.

We need to celebrate those truths wherever we find them. I wouldn't want Catholics to become sectarian, cutting themselves off from the world and hoarding salvation as if it belonged to them alone. We have good news for the whole world.

What do you make of the new apostolic letter on episcopal conferences, Apostolos Suos, released at the end of July?

Apostolos Suos goes back to the 1985 extraordinary synod of bishops, which indicated that the theological and juridical character of bishops' conferences needed to be spelled out more clearly. Were they an exercise of episcopal collegiality, and, if so, on what basis? Where do episcopal conferences get their authority from? Can they issue binding decrees, and if so, under what conditions?

You have to remember that episcopal conferences as a worldwide institution are a relatively new phenomenon, a creation of Vatican II. In 1966, the Holy See indicated that bishops' conferences should be established in every country or region, and that every bishop should be part of one, but the Church has been slow in developing general legislation for these bodies.

Wasn't there some controversy 10 years ago when the Holy See floated a proposal on norms for episcopal conferences?

Yes. In 1988, the Vatican put out a draft of the document requested three years earlier by the synod of bishops on the theological and juridical status of episcopal conferences — a very “heavy” document with lots of scholastic terminology that seemed to be rather negatively disposed towards episcopal conferences.

The American bishops were quite critical of the draft when they met in the fall of 1988, and sent it back to Rome with a call for an entirely new document. It seems to me, in Apostolos Suos, that's just what they've received.

What about the high volume of apostolic letters issued in recent weeks by Pope John Paul? An apostolic letter on fidelity to Church teaching, this one on episcopal conferences — is there some strategy at work here?

Maybe they just want to clear the Pope's desk before he goes on vacation. After all, Apostolos Suos is dated May 21. I heard that the document was ready a year ago. So, it's not as if the Pope fired off all these documents in the space of two weeks. The apostolic letter on episcopal conferences has been in the works for 13 years!

Apostolos Suos is critical of the idea of “large permanent bureaucracies” attached to episcopal conferences. Most press reports have assumed that this was aimed at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops-United States Catholic Conference (NCCB-USCC) apparatus. Do you see it that way?

That's an old criticism. It was made in the early 1970s by Henri de Lubac with reference to the French bishops' conference — and [Joseph] Cardinal Ratzinger made similar comments about the German bishops' conference. So, I don't see the criticism of episcopal bureaucracy as something especially directed at the United States. As a whole, I think that the American bishops have kept a rein on the conference, the number of committees, and the size of staff. It's my impression that the bishops do set the priorities, and not staffers.

Some Catholic commentators have suggested that the Always Our Children statement on compassion towards homosexuals, a committee document that did not have the backing of the American bishops as a whole, played a role in the timing of the apostolic letter (Apostolos Suos).

I don't think it played any role in the apostolic letter, but Cardinal Ratzinger alluded to the controversy in his press conference after the publication of Apostolos Suos. He said that in view of the tentative character of Always Our Children, the bishops may have done well to publish it as a committee statement rather than as a statement of the full conference. He also indicated that if it had been a conference document, Vatican approval would have been required according to the norms of Apostolos Suos in view of the doctrinal sensitivity of the subject matter.

Isn't the heart of the concern about episcopal conferences the Vatican's desire, not only to clarify the role of bishops, but to prevent the rise of national Churches?

Certainly. That's always been a concern, from the very beginning. The Vatican doesn't want to set up autonomous Churches. There is one Church, and Rome exercises the vital office of unity in that Church. Now that our world has a more multi-national — even trans-continental — character, it's more important than ever to emphasize unity with Rome. The present Pope is striking the right balance between unity on the one hand, and encouraging the proper development of episcopal conferences as a practical convenience, on the other.

In that context, the term “the American Church” can be misleading, can't it?

The idea of refashioning Catholicism to suit American culture was labeled a heresy by Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century. Rome's concerns about that danger were justified; the age, after all, was one of extreme nationalism. There still are groups agitating for a reworking of the Church along American lines — for example, the Call to Action and similar movements.

Having said that, it is important to point out that the American experience does have things to say to the whole Church. The American influence on Vatican II's landmark Declaration on Religious Freedom, for example. The contribution of Father John Courtney Murray was crucial in the creation of that document — a document partly shaped by the American experience. John Paul II constantly refers to this declaration in his teaching. There are echoes of American themes in papal encyclicals like Centesimus Annus, on issues raised by free market economies. By keeping in communion with others, each nation and region can both receive what the others have to give and make a distinctive contribution from its own experience to the life and teaching of the universal Church.

— Gabriel Meyer