A Labor of Love: The full text of Fr. Imbelli's response to Cardinal Dulles

It is a great privilege to be here with you this evening to be with the many friends and admirers of Cardinal Dulles and to offer these words in deep appreciation and gratitude for all that he has been for us, all that he has shared with us as priest, as theologian and as friend.

It would be negligent of me not to express heartfelt thanks to two collaborators of the Cardinal who have worked tirelessly to make this evening possible: Mrs. Maureen Noone who has been a mainstay in the office of the McGinley Professor for the past six years; and, most especially, Sister Anne-Marie Kirmse, O.P., who for twenty years has been the Cardinal’s executive assistant. Those who know Sister Anne-Marie know how much we all owe to her generosity and dedication.


I have entitled my reflections this evening: “Cardinal Dulles’ McGinley Lectures: a Labor of Love.” May I suggest to you that we reflect upon them as the fruit of a four-fold love: for Fordham, for the Society of Jesus, for the Church Catholic, and grounding all these loves, a love for the Lord Jesus: “in quo omnia constant”–in whom all holds together.

Love for Fordham

I first set foot on this campus as a freshman on a late summer day in 1956. Laurence J. McGinley, S.J., was the President of Fordham University and Leo P. McLaughlin, S.J. who became a mentor and friend, was Dean of Fordham College. W. Norris Clark, S.J. was already inspiring students and pioneering a more personalist approach to the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

Like a number of my peers from New York area Jesuit high schools (Regis and Fordham Prep, Xavier and St. Peter’s), one of the organizations I joined was the flourishing Fordham College Sodality. The Sodality saw its role as wedding spirituality and devotion with intellectual commitment. Among the seniors in the Sodality there were still respectful reminiscences of the Jesuit scholastic who had been moderator of the Freshman and Sophomore Sodality from 1951 to 1953: the young Mr. Avery Dulles of the Society of Jesus.

In addition to guiding his “sodalists” (among whom was a young lad Ted McCarrick, created Cardinal by Pope John Paul II on the same day as his friend Avery Dulles), the young scholastic taught philosophy, thus beginning his Jesuit teaching career and his Fordham commitment. An outcome of that teaching was a book that he co-authored entitled Introductory Metaphysics: one of the first in a long line of scholarly works from the fecund pen, typewriter and computer of Avery Dulles.

I will not pretend that in the mid-1950s Vatican II was on the horizon of even the most far-sighted. But I very much want to insist that seeds were germinating at Fordham as elsewhere, indeed that Vatican II’s ressourcement was well under way. And let it be acknowledged that Pope Pius XII surely deserves credit for making much of that ressourcement possible: promoting biblical studies with Divino Afflante Spiritu, enriching ecclesiology with Mystici Corporis, revitalizing liturgy with Mediator Dei and the reform of the Paschal Triduum. Perhaps the book most quoted by the Fordham Sodality members of that decade was Yves Congar’s Lay People and the Church, while Newman and Blondel, de Lubac and Danielou figured prominently on our reading lists.

My point in recalling this is, I admit, to evoke the Fordham of the fifties fondly, as a place intellectually alive: to which devoted lay people and Jesuits, like Avery Dulles, contributed so creatively. Dulles’ two years of committed teaching and guidance were but providential prelude to his twenty years as McGinley Professor of Religion and Society. And a ripe fruit of these twenty years is the volume of superbly crafted McGinley Lectures now fittingly and handsomely published by Fordham University Press.

But I confess to another motivation, a tad more controversial, as I recollect those Fordham years of the fifties. It is to assert that Vatican II’s achievement looks, in retrospect, to have been the fruition rather than reversal of what we were already experiencing as lay people in the Church. From this vantage Vatican II can clearly be read,as Cardinal Dulles does, in terms of a hermeneutics of deep-rooted continuity amidst enriching change.

Love for the Society

If love for Fordham is a characteristic of the Dulles’ legacy, an even more defining feature is his love for the Society of Jesus, the brotherhood from which he has received much and to which he has given so much. And, of course, the animating spirit for “this least Society” is provided by the spiritual vision and method of its founder, Ignatius of Loyola.

In my “Foreword” to the McGinley lectures volume I suggest that “one may profitably read these collected essays as so many soundings of the Ignatian charism brought to bear on crucial theological and societal issues of our day.”

Let me identify four aspects of the Ignatian vision that underlie Dulles’ commitment to the Society of Jesus and that structure his lectures. I lift up, first, the radical sense of the transcendent mystery of God, who is semper Major–alone worthy of adoration and praise. In a time and culture of often one-dimensional secularity (recognized even by so sympathetic a scholar as Charles Taylor), Avery Dulles has consistently called his hearers and readers beyond programs and causes, however worthwhile, to the transcendent Source in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Absent God, the abolition of man follows.

The second aspect of the Ignatian vision is inseparable from the first. It is the celebration of the wondrous exchange of natures, the admirabile commercium, whereby God’s eternal Word has taken flesh in the beloved humanity of Jesus the Christ. The Society Ignatius founded is dedicated to the Lord Jesus himself, and is animated, as Dulles writes, by “a personal love for Jesus and a desire to be counted among his close companions.” In his address this evening, Cardinal Dulles shows himself a true son of Ignatius as he speaks movingly of “the discovery of the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the Lord Jesus himself.”

Christological reductionism and relativism is not the way of Ignatius, and not the way of his spiritual son, Avery Dulles.

Thirdly, Ignatius’ vision refuses to countenance any sundering of Jesus from his body, the church. To say, as some do today, “Jesus–yes! Church–no!” would be to speak nonsense for Ignatius of Loyola, as it makes no sense for Avery Dulles. How can Christ be separated from his body, or the Church divorced from its Lord? Moreover, neither for Ignatius nor for Dulles is the Church some Platonic entity, floating above history, or possessing a merely invisible nature. Rather, the Church of Christ, concretely immersed in history, subsists, in visible form, in the Catholic Church, in hierarchical communion with the successor of Peter and the college of bishops in union with him.

To these aspects of Ignatius’ vision, a fourth must be added: the practice and virtue of discernment. The word is, of course, frequently invoked, but the reality is, perhaps, less in evidence, because quite exigent. Two of the demands of authentic discernment strike me as characterizing Dulles’ McGinley lectures.

Discernment requires, first, the ability to listen carefully to a variety of voices. In his address this evening the cardinal put it with disarming simplicity. Speaking of his approach in the lectures he says: “in general I have begun my investigation by asking what others, especially authoritative voices, have had to say about the topic. I want to learn before I speak” (emphasis mine). In this the cardinal’s method more closely resembles the “quaestio” of Thomas Aquinas than it does the “thesis” procedure of the neo-scholastic manuals (pedagogically useful as these latter may have been).

But authentic discernment requires more than respectfully marshalling opinions. Its further responsibility is to come to judgment, to critique courageously what appears inadequate. Inadequate to what? Well inadequate to reason–as, for example, when positions lack consistency or coherence. Or in Dulles’ typically laconic admission: “I abhor mixtures of contradictions.” But most especially inadequate to the Gospel, to the scriptures and the Great Tradition of the Church Catholic. In this ample and life-giving sense, Dulles strives to found his discernment on the Ignatian principle: sentire cum ecclesia–to discern with the Church.

The McGinley Lectures, I contend, offer us exemplary models of ecclesial discernment.

Love for the Church

The third, yet more comprehensive, love that these lectures manifest is Cardinal Dulles’ love for the Church catholic. We know well that this love led the young Harvard student, Avery Dulles, to enter the Catholic Church in 1940, finding here his spiritual and intellectual home. For over sixty years his love for the Church has grown ever stronger, not because he is unmindful that the earthly church, in the words of Augustine, is a corpus permixtum, but because precisely as such it remains the corpus Christi, the ever-beloved bride of Christ.

I entitled my “Foreword” to the McGinley Lectures volume, “Avery Dulles, Vir Ecclesiasticus,” because I am convinced that this Patristic accolade sums up the priestly and theological service of this man of the church. But however indispensable the institutional dimension of the Church is, a dimension signaled clearly by his rank of “Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church,” Cardinal Dulles knows better than anyone that the institutional element is not the heart of the Church. As faithful interpreter of the Second Vatican Council, Dulles insists, with Lumen Gentium, that the heart of the Church is the Mystery which the Church embodies.Here is how he puts it in his splendid book, The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System (1992):

As a great sacrament [the church] extends in space and time the physical body of the Lord. It is not a mere pointer to the absent Christ, but the symbolic manifestation of the present Christ. The members of the Christ, insofar as they are remade in Christ’s image by the power of the Holy Spirit, represent Christ to one another and to the world. He identifies himself with them. Especially is this true of the saints, those who allow themselves to be totally transformed in Christ. The Church, in its most basic reality, is a holy fellowship built up through the self-communication of the triune God. (Craft, p. 35)

I think that Dulles’ best-known work, Models of the Church (1974) proceeds from this realization that the essence of the church is inexhaustible mystery to which no one perspective can do full justice. As a young priest and teacher of theology in the mid-seventies, I can testify to the theological and pastoral impact of that book which allowed us to articulate a legitimate pluralism in our understanding of church, and hence to promote dialogue among different (sometimes competing) perspectives, whether in religious communities, in seminaries, or in parishes.

Yet the book’s very success may have, unwittingly, fostered a too facile accommodationism, especially when filtered through the seventies’ soft relativism of the “that’s your model/that’s my model” variety. Perhaps this is what led Dulles to elaborate in the 1980s an approach to church as “Community of Disciples” that, without pretending to be a super-model, nevertheless served to re-focus ecclesial reflection upon the distinctive identity of this community, this assembly, this body. Community of disciples serves to displace attention from an unhealthy ecclesiocentrism, with its ever-real risk of partisan polarizations, to a Christocentrism that directs minds and hearts to the source of the church’s life. It also helps bring to the fore the cost of discipleship, the realization that love for the church can be (in Dostoyevski’s words) a harsh and dreadful thing, not like love in dreams.

Dulles’ concern about polarization and the spread of an almost promiscuous pluralism in theological circles led him, in The Craft of Theology, to outline a way forward that he called an “ecclesial-transformative” approach to the theological task. I will not endeavor this evening to expatiate upon it, save to call attention to the equal importance of both adjectives: ecclesial and transformative. It proposes an understanding of the theological task as ecclesial mission: to speak and act faithfully and creatively within, not over-against, the church. Here is how the cardinal himself states it:

[Theology] must deal with new questions put to the Church by the course of events and by the circumstances of life in the world. Continual creativity is needed to implant the faith in new cultures and to keep the teaching of the Church abreast of the growth of secular knowledge. New questions demand new answers, but the answers of theology must always grow out of the Church’s heritage of faith, (Craft, pp. 10&11)

Can we fail to recognize in these words the very program of the McGinley Lectures?

I spoke a short while before about “discernment” as a salient characteristic of the Ignatian charism. In words made common currency by Vatican II, the theologian, standing in medio ecclesiae, is to discern “the signs of the times.” But two provisos must immediately be entered. First, the injunction of the Council is that the signs of the times be scrutinized and interpreted in the light of the Gospel (Gaudium et spes, 4). Second, since the church is immersed in history the signs needing discernment in 2008 may not be, in all respects, the same as those prevalent in 1965 at the Council‘s conclusion.

Allow me to hazard a “for instance.” I have suggested in other places that a great achievement of the council was the recovery of a more ample notion of tradition (a suggestion with which Cardinal Dulles has concurred). I develop this further by distinguishing two understandings of tradition: tradition as tradita–those things handed down, the deposit of faith, if you will; and tradition as traditio–the process of handing down, of ongoing interpretation.

At the time of Vatican II the former sense of tradition (as tradita) was firmly “in possession,” accepted by almost all. What was needed was to re-appropriate the tradition as living reality, as more than rigid propositions unreflectively parroted–in a word: as traditio.

Today voices ranging from Commonweal through Americato First Things acknowledge that a widespread biblical and theological illiteracy afflicts the church in the United States. The tradita can no longer be taken for granted as understood, or even accepted. Thus Dulles’ discernment–as we heard him reiterate this evening-is that “the present climate of opinion does not favor tradition and orthodoxy.” Avowing this honestly, does not lead him, however, to repudiate the complementary recognition that “tradition is a developing thing because the church lives in history.” Rather, it spurs him to affirm with one of his heroes, John Henry Newman, that “tradition develops in fidelity to its own deepest principles … a reversal of course is not a development.”

Are we then left to oscillate between shifting emphases, now on tradita, now on traditio, reduced to continual course corrections? Is the promise of Vatican II postponed to an ever-receding horizon? Here is where I think it imperative to descend, with Dulles, yet deeper, to the heart of tradition, to that fourth, all-encompassing love animating these McGinley lectures: love for the Lord Jesus himself, given for our sake.

Love for the Lord Jesus

For the tradita, the storehouse of church teachings and practices, point mystagogically to a deeper reality; and traditio, ongoing interpretation, is at the service of the inexhaustible revelation which it seeks to communicate ever anew. Thus tradition, at its deepest, is the Traditus, Jesus Christ himself, handed over for our sake, who gave and gives himself out of love.

To my knowledge Cardinal Dulles does not himself employ the term “Traditus,” but the reality of the Eucharistic Christ, the Traditus, forms the heart of his teaching as it does his priestly existence.

In this regard, I call your particular attention to two of the McGinley Lectures that are vintage Dulles: “Crucified for Our Sake” (Spring 1995) and “How Real Is the Real Presence?” (Spring 2005).

In “Crucified for Our Sake” the cardinal affirms, consonant with the Great Tradition, that “the cross of Christ constitutes the very center of world history.” And, while ready to learn from the insights and concerns of those who find “sacrificial” language problematic, he holds such language indispensable to the Scriptural and liturgical witness to “the Lamb sacrificed to redeem the sins of the world by his most precious blood.” And a quote from Ephesians anchors his persuasion: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).

In “How Real Is the Real Presence?” Cardinal Dulles, though gratefully affirming the multiple forms of Christ’s presence in the Church, singles out, with Vatican II, his unique presence in the Eucharist: the sacrament which “contains the entire spiritual treasure of the Church.” He celebrates the truth that “in the Eucharist Christ’s presence is inherent and abiding” and he concludes the lecture by probing the Eucharist’s multi-dimensional richness which “has singular power to recapture the past, transform the present, and anticipate the future because it contains the Lord of history truly, really, and substantially.” In resume:

The Lamb, once slain for the life of the world, continues to give himself eucharistically as humanity’s food and drink in the Spirit. In the Eucharist we encounter and embrace the Traditus, the crucified and risen Savior, truly present among us.

In the McGinley Lectures, fruit of his life-long labor of love, Avery Dulles has gifted us–not with the last word, but with an authoritative, always enlightening word. And for this we are most deeply grateful.

I close by calling to mind the recent General Congregation of the Society of Jesus held in Rome. Towards its conclusion the delegates, together with the new Father General, had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. At the end of his address to them the Holy Father said something truly remarkable (my undergraduates would say: “awesome!”). He asked those present to join him in the prayer which St. Ignatius gives as the culmination of the Spiritual Exercises: the “Suscipe.”

But the Pope prefaced the prayer with a stunning, perhaps unprecedented papal admission. “It is a prayer,” he confesses, “which always appears to me to be overwhelming [troppo grande]-to the point that I almost dare not say it [quasi non oso dirla]; nevertheless we must appropriate it ever anew.”

And so, together with the Holy Father, with Cardinal Avery Dulles, with his brothers in the Company of Jesus, we all seek the courage to pray:

“Take, Lord, receive, all my liberty: my memory, my understanding, my entire will–all that I am and possess. You have given all to me; I now give all back to you, Lord. All this is yours, dispose of it according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace: that is enough for me.”


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10 years 9 months ago
As always Fr. Imbelli's eloquence highlights the discipline with which he writes. Having known Fr. Imbelli since his days at the Maryknoll School of Theology, where I had the privilege of teaching alongside him, I am never surprised but always delighted by the care he has for theology, and in this case, for Cardinal Dulles. Though Dulles' voice may be stilled by the awful effects of polio, his legacy will live on thanks in part to commentators like Fr. Imbelli.


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