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James T. KeaneNovember 09, 2023
Richard Gaillardetz in an undated photo (America Media)

The theology world lost a stalwart figure on Nov. 7 with the death of Richard Gaillardetz, the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and a recognized expert in ecclesiology and conciliar history, from pancreatic cancer. Funeral services for Gaillardetz, who is survived by his wife Diana and their four sons, will be held next Thursday, Nov. 16, at 9:30 a.m. at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Gaillardetz authored or edited more than 15 books, including a number of foundational works on ecclesiology and authority in the church. His books An Unfinished Council, Witnesses to the Faith, Ecclesiology for a Global Church, Keys to the Council (co-authored with Catherine Clifford) and By What Authority? are resources prized by theologians and used as textbooks in many universities and theologates. In a 2004 review for America, Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., praised By What Authority? as “an honest and charitable presentation of the current teaching of the hierarchical magisterium, with a respectful treatment of the authority of sovereign conscience for each and all believers,” itself a fair summary of much of Gaillardetz’s scholarly work.

At Boston College, he was the director of graduate studies for three years and then the chair of the theology department from 2016-22. From 2013-14, he served as the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Gaillardetz received his doctorate from the University of Notre Dame in systematic theology in 1991. He taught afterward at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Tex., from 1991 to 2001, the University of Toledo from 2001 to 2011, and at Boston College from 2011 to 2023.

"He became one our most perceptive theologians, mining in his talks, articles and books the ecclesiology of Vatican II and Pope Francis’ vision for the church."

“When Rick Gaillardetz was a graduate student, he was told by one of his professors that he would never write,” Thomas Rausch, S.J., an emeritus professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and the co-editor with Gaillardetz of Go into the Streets! The Welcoming Church of Pope Francis, said in an email to America. But he became one our most perceptive theologians, mining in his talks, articles and books the ecclesiology of Vatican II and Pope Francis’ vision for the church. We will miss him, especially as we try to implement a synodal church. He was a dear friend and colleague to so many of us.”

Gaillardetz was a regular contributor to America, with his first article, “An Exercise of the Hierarchical Magisterium,” appearing in 1994. His most recent, in 2017, was a quintessential example of his erudition and theological interests: “Are we seeing changes in the teaching ministry of the pope?” “In the synodal, listening church of Pope Francis, we are witnessing the gradual emergence of a new exercise of papal teaching, one that is more patient, persuasive and dialogical,” Gaillardetz wrote. “It is an exercise of papal teaching particularly attentive to the complexities and challenges of living the Gospel within the concrete conditions of daily life. It is teaching put directly to the service of discipleship.”

Two months ago, Gaillardetz was interviewed for an episode of America’s “Jesuitical” podcast to discuss Catholic doctrine and dogma. The episode aired on Oct. 25. “Ahead of October’s synod meeting in Rome, there was a lot of anxiety about how the synod would—or wouldn’t—change certain church teachings,” Ashley McKinless, executive editor at America and “Jesuitical” co-host, said. “Rick really helped put the synod in perspective. I heard from one listener that ‘this episode may well serve as our guide—a guide for everyone—while trying to understand the nature of the discussions being held at the synod.’”

“It was clear that Rick took his vocation as an educator seriously,” Zac Davis, “Jesuitical” co-host, associate editor and senior director of digital strategy at America, said. “After talking with him for ‘Jesuitical,’ when the live mics were off, he said to us: ‘As someone who has probably entered the classroom for the last time, thank you for letting me be a teacher again.’”

In 2021, Gaillardetz temporarily stepped away from his duties as department chair at Boston College during an investigation of allegations that he had sexually assaulted a fellow graduate student at Notre Dame decades earlier. A law firm hired by Boston College to conduct an independent investigation concluded that the allegations were unfounded.

Gaillardetz was diagnosed with cancer in February 2022, and he and his family chose to make his journey with the disease a public one. His Boston College colleague, James Keenan, S.J., found the reflections from Gaillardetz and his family over the next 21 months profoundly moving. “The theological depth of his postings was uncanny,” Keenan wrote. “He laid out his faith with all its truth, its rawness and its suppleness. Finally, beyond his hope and faith, there was the love we all saw as he, with Diana and their four sons and their spouses, let us see how they were living this extraordinary transition. I don’t think any of us who were graced by their invitation and transparency will ever forget this extraordinary living that we witnessed.”

"The fruitfulness of Rick’s life was expressed not only in his achievements, but in his final witness: in his lessons in patience, in letting go, in humility, in the quiet forms of love and in living hope in the Resurrection.”

Robert Ellsberg, the publisher and editor in chief of Orbis Books, had a similar response. “Rick Gaillardetz left an enormous legacy through his published writings and his many years in the classroom. But in the end, I will remember him particularly for the courage and vulnerability with which he invited others, including me, to share his final journey,” Ellsberg wrote. “Rather than just report developments with his treatment and prognosis, he shared personal and theological reflections about how his own faith and beliefs were tested by suffering and the prospects of his pending death.”

“For me, the fruitfulness of Rick’s life was expressed not only in his achievements, but in his final witness: in his lessons in patience, in letting go, in humility, in the quiet forms of love and in living hope in the Resurrection.”

Gaillardetz was remembered by colleagues and former students as a caring mentor as well as a prolific and learned scholar. “Rick was a man of profound faith and integrity. Having gone through some difficult times with him, I had the chance to witness firsthand what being a Christian means when everything is on the line,” Boston College theology professor Brian Robinette told America. “He was remarkably self-reflective and drawn to lasting commitments—to his church, to his family, to his colleagues, to his students.”

“Rick also sought out and cultivated deep friendships. Ever eager for joyous companionship, he also knew how to depend upon his friends in times of need. He showed me what friendship can really be, and why the art of friendship is in fact a spiritual art.”

Elyse Raby, an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, wrote her doctoral dissertation at Boston College under Gaillardetz’s direction. “Rick was the most generous, supportive teacher and mentor in every way—in introducing his students to the depth and breadth of the Catholic tradition, in modeling a loving yet critical embrace of our common church,” Raby told America. “I enjoyed so many spirited, always goodhearted conversations with him about topics ranging from various periti at Vatican II to the future of ecclesiology to theologies of marriage and the single life to the significance of Pope Francis’ reforms and even to the minutiae of copy-editing, grammar and style guides.”

“It is hard to imagine the rest of my career without him. I take comfort knowing that he prepared me, and all of his students, so well to continue thinking clearly and carefully and to take on the theological work that lies ahead, especially as the church reaches towards more synodal forms of teaching and governance.”

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