Cardinal Dulles on Doctrine and Ecumenical Unity

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles (August 24, 1918 – December 12, 2008)who died two years ago this week, was a Jesuit priest, theologian and Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University. He was also an internationally known author and lecturer. My first exposure to Dulles came as a college student in the late 1960s. Several of his early books were influential in my early theological journey to missional-ecumenism. Revelation and the Quest for Unity (1968) and Models of Church, Doubleday (1974) both come to mind in this context. In 1985 he published The Catholicity of the Church (1985), which still impacts my thinking very profoundly.

200px-Cardinal_dulles Dulles had a deep family connection with the government of the United States. He was the son of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his uncle was the Director of Central Intelligence. Both his great-grandfather, John W. Foster, and his great-uncle, Robert Lansing, served as U.S. Secretary of State.

Dulles was raised a Presbyterian but had become an agnostic by the time he began college at Harvard in 1936. His religious doubts were profoundly altered when on a rainy day he saw a tree beginning to flower along the Charles River. In his own words, after that precise moment, he never "doubted the existence of an all-good and omnipotent God." His theism eventually turned toward Christ and then specifically to Catholicism few year later (1940). A few years ago I also read his rather moving account of conversion, A Testimonial To Grace (1952). He said: "The more I examined, the more I was impressed with the consistency and sublimity of Catholic doctrine."

In 1986 Dulles wrote an article titled: “Paths to Doctrinal Agreement: Ten Theses” that was published in the journal Theological Studies. He began with this sentence: “By all accounts one of the major achievements of Vatican II was that of involving the Catholic Church officially in the ecumenical movement.” He believed that the relations between Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians, and the respective churches, were improving but major divisions still continued. He was a Christian realist when it came to his assessment of progress but he believed much progress had been made and more was sure to come. I share this view, as most readers of this post realize.

The first thesis of Dulles’ paths to agreement reads as follows:

The Necessity of Doctrinal Agreement

Dulles referred to the idea that we could pursue unity by bypassing doctrine as a “blind alley.” “I call this solution false because the practice of the churches, as they engage in worship, moral teaching, and social advocacy, is intimately bound up with their doctrinal stands.” The church, argued Dulles, can not be understood as a “coalition for action.” It is a community of faith and witness, and as such needs a “shared vision.” “Members of a single church must be able to recognize one another’s beliefs as being in essential conformity with the teaching of Christ and that of the apostolic community,” he wrote.

A Measure of Doctrinal Accord is a Prerequisite for Unity

This may seem to be an impossible boundary in the face of the obvious disagreements that we share with each other as Christians from very different traditions. Tomorrow I will share the second part of Dulles understanding to explain how doctrine works to unite us in the mission of Christ.