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Fifteen Criteria of Authentic Catholic Thought Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Thursday, 31 March 2011

About fifteen years ago, the late Fr. Avery Dulles S.J. (later cardinal) explained “the criteria of Catholic theology” in a speech of the same title to a pre-convention gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Leaving aside the irony of presenting such a topic before that highly resistant audience, the criteria are a succinct statement of the basic requirements of any truly Catholic theology. No surprise there, because Dulles was a master of the clear expression of orthodox Catholic thinking.

Now theology is simply (or not so simply) faith seeking understanding. We might be explaining points in a catechism class or hearing a homily or reading formal church documents and statements. No matter. The teaching that we hear is theological, if it is any use at all. And it follows certain criteria. The foundation of everything is that “if it wishes to be Catholic, theology adheres to the faith professed by the Catholic Church.” I will follow Dulles’ numbering of the principles that follow from that initial adherence.

First, when we look at somebody whose thinking claims to be Catholic, we need (1) to see reasoning within the faith. This requirement frames the operation of the individual thinker, however insightful and creative. Yes, human reason can really reach the truth, but only with the light of faith for all of the important matters of human life. Then the object of the thinker’s inquiry is (2) the God who is knowable. We don’t only have vague metaphors to describe God. Instead, we have real analogies that actually tell us something. God is one, true, good, and beautiful. He is Father, Son, and Spirit, and God is really known in Jesus Christ.

Then too, we must acknowledge (3) the Catholicity of Christ, which is to say that everything came to be through him, “in whom all things hold together, the mighty Word who sustains the world in being.” (Dulles) Fourthly, this truth has a genuine missionary universalism. It actually is the horizon of the meaning of the whole world and needs to be spread to the ends of the earth.

There is (5) an inescapable ecclesial context to this thinking because, “faith is ecclesial in at least three senses, the Church mediates faith, is perceived in faith and is the Great Believer.” The faith of the Church precedes the faith of the individual believer, and so thinkers serving the Church “cannot make themselves accountable in the first instance to secular communities whether academic, political or ethnic, or the like.”


     Avery Dulles, S.J.

Tied in with this ecclesial context is the fact that the thinker belongs to a community that is (6) in communion with Rome: “Catholic theology emanates from the Catholic Church, as it calls upon its members to meditate on its heritage of faith; such theology is directed to the Catholic Church inasmuch as it strives to build up that Church.” (7) Further, thinking that builds up the Church is ecumenical in that it recognizes the gifts of the Spirit in the churches and ecclesial communities. It also recognizes differences and does not cede the authority of the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless thinking in the Church is (8) a differentiated unity, which is to say that it does contain different emphases and spiritualities while not introducing contradictions. “All members, being one in the Body of Christ, must aspire to have one heart and one mind (Acts 4:32) and to speak in harmony with one another (Phil 2:2).” This is a genuine human communion of meaning and not merely a pious platitude.

The same unity is maintained (9) in continuity with the past thinking in the Church: “Far from impeding the development of doctrine, solidarity with the past is the very condition of authentic development.” Now, the unity of thinking in the present and with the past is nourished through (10) sacramentality and worship. Thinkers in the Church need to pray privately and publicly with the Church. They need to avoid sin and go regularly to the sacraments. This is the only way to avoid poor habits of thought or action, which may then come to dictate one’s thinking. People often argue to justify their sinful behavior.

Catholic thinking is guided, too, by attending to (11) the sense of the faithful, which is not the same as public opinion because it “exists only in those who think with the Church . . . and the pastors.” Furthermore, thinkers who are Catholic (12) accept the authorities in the Church “especially the authorities of Scripture and tradition as the pre-eminent forms of the word of God.”  Yet another dimension of the Catholic communion in the truth.

This communion is guided and fed by (13) reading Scripture within the tradition of the Church. So not surprisingly (14) Catholic thinkers are faithful to the teaching office of the Church. They also work in (15) association with the teaching office to offer research and insights to those who hold the teaching office.

These fifteen criteria point to and protect the Catholic communion of truth as it embodies and expresses the one truth of Jesus Christ. Avery Dulles, as in so much else he produced, gave us a valuable tool here. It’s high time for theologians and others to make use of it.


Bevil Bramwell
, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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written by Ars Artium, March 31, 2011
From Pope Benedict: "... But just as a liturgy which no longer looks to God is already in its death throes, so a theology which no longer draws its life breath from faith ceases to be theology. - "...theology must be practiced on 'bended knee." (Heiligenkreuz Address)
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written by Kathy, March 31, 2011
I am so blessed to have had you for an instructor at Catholic Distance University. These criteria were in full force during my MA Theology coursework. I am encouraged to think that as I teach and work at spreading the Kingdom of God, I employ these very principles because they were taught to me with passion and compassion. Thank you for sharing your insights and the wisdom of Cardinal Dulles.
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written by Catherine L, April 01, 2011
Yes, Kathy, as I complete the final week of my final CDU graduate course, I must agree with you completely. CDU is a blessing, and Fr. Bramwell is a treasure.
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written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, April 02, 2011
You are making me blush!
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written by Graham Combs, April 02, 2011
Although not a Catholic at the time, at both a Catholic high school and minor seminary, the most tedious class was religion. Not least because text and teacher worked hard to "be relevant" (at that time, to "the Sixties"). Cardinal Dulles via Fr. Bramwell is yet another eyeopener to this convert. Dulles, Chesterton, Belloc, Ratzinger, Newman, the Church Fathers and on and on... it is baffling that so many catechism and RCIA teachers do not avail themselves of these incredible resources for teaching the Faith. Then again, I would recommend TCT to every student of Catholicism from high school on up. And I am reminded again that being a Catholic (Catholic identity) is anything but cultural chauvinism (and I too often meet Catholics who seem to think it is). Thank you again Fr. Bramwell.
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written by Cathy K, April 03, 2011
The fifteen criteria proposed by Cardinal Dulles are reminiscent of the seven Notes of the authentic Church proposed by John Henry Cardinal Newman in "An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine."

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