Avery Dulles and His “Catholic” Understanding of the Origin of the Papacy?

Fr. Raymond de Souza on Twitter: "Requiescat in pace Cardinal Avery Dulles,  who died ten years ago today, 12 December 2008. https://t.co/WOz7Dhh5yL" /  Twitter

Any avid readers of the late Avery Dulles that could comment on the below? I haven’t read all his works, but I came across the below comment while going through his “Survival of Dogma” (1971) where he gives a description of how the origin of the Papacy in terms which you’d be more expecting to find in a liberal Protestant academic journal. Some say he was the most respected Catholic theologian in the 20th century.

“A contemporary scholar familiar with modern biblical and historical studies would see the need of important distinctions that would scarcely have occurred to a sixteenth-century theologian. So too, speaking of the origins of the papacy, we should be unlikely to use the concepts and terms of Vatican I, which forbade anyone, under pain of anathema, to deny ‘that the Blessed Peter the Apostle was constituted by Christ the Lord prince of all the apostles and visible head of the entire Church militant or that Christ invested him ‘directly and immediately with the primacy not of honor alone, but of true and proper jurisdiction.’ These statements embody important principles regarding the unity of the Church, and to these the contemporary Catholic feels strongly committed. But the formulation reflects the religious ‘style’ of the baroque Church and the exegesis of an age less sensitive to historicity. If someone were being asked to become a sharer in the belief of the Church as of 1970 rather than 1870, it would not be desirable or necessary to hold him to anachronistic or triumphalistic declarations of this kind. The path toward Christian unity would be greatly facilitated if Catholics abandoned any thought of obliging other Christians to submit to outmoded and admittedly deficient expressions of the faith, even though these expressions are to be found in documents of the highest authority. To demand this type of submission would contravene the principle of Florence, reaffirmed by Vatican II, that one must ‘impose no burden beyond what is indispensable.’ Not only must outward formulations from previous centuries be clearly distinguished from revelation itself; the same must be said of contemporary statements that may have to be corrected at some future date. As stated above, we never receive the revealed truth except in fragile human vessels. Thus even the most dogmatic utterances must be questioned. The true test of orthodoxy is not whether a man accepts the official statements at their face value, but whether he has sufficient confidence in the tradition to accept its formulations, in spite of all their human deficiency, as vehicles of a divine truth that lies beyond all formulation.” (Survival of Dogma, pages 164-65)

This reminded me of a comment made by an Orthodox priest I heard long ago. He asked, “Do you know what the difference between a Catholic theologian and a Lutheran theologian?” I said, what is it? He responds, “The only difference is that the Lutheran knows he is a Lutheran.”

3 thoughts on “Avery Dulles and His “Catholic” Understanding of the Origin of the Papacy?

  1. hi, I just have a quick question i thought you would be able to answer. Can you give me the best title of a book to start reading about the history of the early Church and the early Church fathers?

    Thank you and God bless!!

  2. I have always considered his reputation as a theologian overblown. He was a very good writer but this doesn’t surprise me at all. His undermining, if not denial of the necessity, of the the formal definition reminds me of some of the writings of then Cardinal Ratzinger in his problematic Introduction to Christianity book and what he wrote on the Resurrection of our Lord.

    The prelates of the Church I find are ever wanting to appear sophisticated to the modern world. Denigrating teachings formulated in the past seems to be a way to appear more palatable to the modern ear. Orthodox(lower o) is too outré.

    Toning down Catholic dogma is the fashionable thing. He wasn’t the exception but the norm among the prelature.

    • This is a very serious accusation that you’re leveling against the hierarchy. And I think it’s very uncharitable and unfounded. With a proper judgment of charity and hermeneutic of continuity, the stuff you’re saying just isn’t true. The idea that church officials believe toning down catholic dogma is fashionable? Come on, that’s ridiculous. They’re the teaching church. They give us the learning church the doctrine and we accept it. You’re putting too much stock into your own subjective judgments.

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