Arts and Culture

Is Dialogue Hopeless?

by Father Robert Lauder

Cardinal Dulles

I was blessed to have Avery Cardinal Dulles as a friend. A provocative essay in the Jan. 13th issue of Commonweal has moved me to reflect back on my relationship with him as a friend and also as a theologian whom I greatly admired. The essay is “An Ignatian Spirit: Avery Dulles’s Theological Journey” written by J. Matthew Ashley. The essay is a lengthy commentary on Patrick Carey’s book “Avery Dulles, S.J: A Model Theologian, 1918-2008” (Paulist Press, $49.95, 736 pp.) I think I first heard the name Avery Dulles when I was a seminarian studying philosophy. As a Jesuit scholastic studying for the priesthood, he had put out a book on metaphysics and one of my professors recommended it. Somewhere along the way I read about Avery’s background: his father, John Foster Dulles, was secretary of state during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration (as was a grand-uncle under President Wilson), his uncle Allen was director of the CIA. While a seminarian, I think I also read about Avery’s conversion from a liberal Presbyterianism to Catholicism and eventually to ordination as a Catholic priest. I cannot recall when I first met him but it might have been through his godfather, Father Christopher Huntington, who was a close friend of mine. At the dinner celebrating Avery’s 50th anniversary of ordination, his opening remarks drew a round of laughter. He began his brief talk by saying “You will look in vain in my writings for anything original.” After the laughter subsided, he went on to explain that as a Catholic theologian he thought he had a serious obligation to continue in the Catholic tradition. This comment came back to me when I read Ashley’s essay. When Avery was studying theology before ordination at Woodstock, John Courtney Murray, while a professor there, was silenced by his Jesuit superiors. Avery went on to obtain a doctorate in theology in Rome. Eventually Murray was vindicated and became one of the most influential theologians at Vatican II. Ashley writes the following: “By the time Murray had been vindicated during the Second Vatican Council, Dulles had returned from Rome to teach at Woodstock and was already well on his way to becoming one of the most prominent Catholic theologians in the country. His subsequent career is well known: teaching first at Woodstock, then at the Catholic University of America, and finally at Fordham, serving as a consultor to the U.S. bishops and to the Vatican (on the International Theological Commission), becoming a cardinal in 2001. His career is well known in part because of his phenomenal theological output and in part because he was involved in virtually every battle in U.S. Catholicism.” The two words that stand out for me in Ashley’s essay are “continuity” and “development”. A Catholic theology should have both: it should be continuous with past official Church teaching and in no way swerve from that teaching and yet it should be open and receptive to development so that new insights and emphases can be incorporated into it. Striking a balance is not easy. Ashley points out that Carey argues that Dulles stressed development up until the mid-1970s and then emphasized continuity afterwards. At the time of the Council, Dulles was very much in favor of dialoguing with contemporary culture but eventually he seemed to become pessimistic about the future of the West. Ashley suggests that Avery found it increasingly difficult to engage in the Ignatian spiritual exercise of seeking and finding God in all things in American culture. This difficulty of Avery’s I find both upsetting and challenging. I wish I could ask him to explain in detail what he found valuable in American culture and what he found in American culture so empty or false that there would be no hope of fruitful dialogue. As I reflect on and examine my own ministry since Vatican II, I think many of my efforts have been to dialogue with contemporary culture. Of course there is no way that I think I can compare with a giant like Avery. What I am interested in is whether dialoguing with contemporary culture, which I think is what Vatican II encouraged us to do, is a hopeless activity. I don’t think that it is. Rather I believe that in much of contemporary culture we can find the presence of God, even in people I might describe as secular humanists. That a first rate theologian such as Avery Dulles seems to have lost confidence in such dialogue and even concluded that such dialogue might be doomed a mistake makes me pause and question my own approach. Avery Dulles is causing me to reevaluate my approach to contemporary culture. Even if I conclude that dialoguing with contemporary culture is worthwhile, I am still grateful to my friend for causing me to reflect and evaluate.