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Cardinal Dulles Bids Farewell

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 06, 2008

I was deeply impressed by Avery Cardinal Dulles’ farewell address as Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University. Cardinal Dulles has held this post for twenty years, and has delivered the last thirty-nine of the semi-annual public lectures associated with the position, as well as hundreds of other similar lectures. On April 1st, in attendance but unable to speak due to illness, Cardinal Dulles heard his final lecture read by the former president of Fordham who had appointed him to the McGinley chair, Fr. Joseph O’Hare.

Dulles said that he had deliberately selected controversial topics for the series of lectures, hoping to bring a reasoned resolution to issues that were dividing Catholic thinkers. He described his approach as follows:

In my conclusions I try to incorporate the valid insights of all parties to the discussion rather than perpetuate a one-sided view that is partial and incomplete. I think of myself as a moderate trying to make peace between opposed schools of thought. While doing so, however, I insist on logical consistency. Unlike certain relativists of our time, I abhor mixtures of contradictions.

The Cardinal also stated that he has always spoken as a “theologian”, by which he means that his reasoning has always depended on the Revelation guaranteed by Catholicism:

Christ the Redeemer, who has given the fullness of Revelation, has also made provision for the Revelation to be kept alive in the Church without corruption or dilution. These basic teachings of our Faith, held in common by all believers, are presupposed by Catholic theology. The Faith takes nothing away from what I can know by my native reasoning powers, but it adds a vast new light coming from on high.

Dulles pointed out that respect for the deposit of Faith “should not be called conservatism in the pejorative sense but a simple loyalty to the Word of God.” Therefore, he has never striven for originality: “If I conceived a theological idea that had never occurred to anyone in the past, I would have every reason to think myself mistaken.” For Dulles, the “current confusion in theology is in no small part due to a plethora of innovations, which last a few years only to be overtaken by further and equally ephemeral theories.” It is a poor investment, he said, to try to keep up with the latest theories. Far better to “insert oneself into the great tradition of the Fathers and Doctors of the church. I myself try to think and speak within that tradition.”

Cardinal Dulles also pointed out that “the present climate of opinion does not favor tradition and orthodoxy.” But “Catholic believers and indeed all clear thinkers have good reasons not to be engulfed in the superficial trends of the times.” Instead, we need to resume our “original quest for eternal truth and wisdom.” In his own youth, Dulles recalled, he became conscious of the “emptiness of a selfish life based on the pursuit of pleasure.” He gradually came to see that happiness “is the reward given for holding fast to what is truly good and important.” To this task, partially identified by the philosophers of antiquity, “Christian revelation brought a tremendous increase of light. God alone, I learned from the New Testament, was good and true in an unqualified sense.”

And so the young Avery Dulles committed himself to Christ, and has remained committed as a scholar, a priest, a Cardinal. “The most important thing about my career,” he said, “is the discovery of the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the Lord Jesus himself.” Now eighty-nine, his mind is still sharper than mine will ever be, but his body is no longer cooperating. He suffers from increasing paralysis, and he easily identifies now “with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels.” But he remains supremely grateful for his hope of everlasting life in Christ: “If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity.”

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