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The Splendor of Faith

It has been centuries since the Roman Catholic Church has elevated to the papacy a bishop who is both a deft shepherd and an intellectual giant; these two gifts rarely fill the Chair of Peter simultaneously. Avery Dulles, in his book The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of John Paul II, mentions but two: Leo the Great and Gregory the Great–placing Pope John Paul II in company with the few who have most worthily filled the shoes of the great fisherman.

Dulles's book presents the reader with a concise and systematic, though sometimes rote, summation of John Paul's theological work. The book marches along to a familiar cadence of Catholic orthodoxy, which is echoed in many circles of Catholic theological interest–except, unfortunately, the academy, where such a book is nothing less than a breath of fresh air. What is more, the fact that Dulles is an esteemed theologian recently elevated to the College of Cardinals only adds to the book's credence, making it worthy of careful study. The Splendor of Faith is ideal for students of theology interested in understanding the fundamentals of Catholicism and knowing more about the themes of the current pontificate. However, nothing about Dulles's style grabs the reader; in fact, the book is at times dry and formidably academic.

Below the surface, however, a salient objective seeps through the book's pages. In a manner characteristic of this humble and intellectually refined Jesuit, Cardinal Dulles judiciously addresses the intellectual fallout within Catholic theology after the Second Vatican Council. In contrast to the negative assertions of conservatism that assail this pope, Dulles presents a tightly woven case for John Paul's being, unequivocally, a pope of the council and a most formidable theologian of the post-conciliar church.

The book opens with a chapter-long biographical overview of the pope's life, which enfleshes the themes that vivify this pontificate. The succeeding chapters engage one article of faith after another, beginning with the Trinity and concluding with the last things. By wading through John Paul's voluminous theology, Dulles presents the continuity of the pope's thought before, during, and after the council. He shows just how wedded John Paul is to the vision of the council and, in doing so, demonstrates that his desire to implement Vatican II is the very centerpiece of his apostolic ministry.

John Paul's intellectual dynamism has clearly provided him with an untiring impetus to confront the errors of secular humanism, and yet, as the successor of Peter, he does so by affirming all that is good in the modern world. As Dulles leads us to conclude, John Paul's theology is not simply an abstract intellectual exercise aimed at entrenching the church in the distant past but an undertaking inspired by a rapt conviction that Christ is the absolute fulfillment of human desire. And for those in the post-conciliar church who insist on rooting theology in praxis, John Paul's theology is conceived and developed from the seedbed of his evangelization and pastoral ministry, both before and after his election to the papacy. Dulles's many references to the pope's personal life illustrate this fact well.

Dulles identifies, therefore, the pith of John Paul's theology as Christ-centered and personalist. John Paul's every theological reflection seems to converge on the essential dignity of persons and the enormous revelation and gift of grace that is given in the incarnation of God's Word. At its core, the pope's theological vision is, in the very best sense, evangelistic and humanistic.

Moreover, John Paul is a masterful theologian because of the rigor that he brings to the papacy from his intellectual formation as a philosopher. In applying a personalist philosophy to the sacred science, John Paul has exercised his teaching office from within an anthropological framework that infuses new vitality into the age-old truths of faith. The pope's theology is extraordinary in its affirmation of all that is authentically human, and, though Dulles never asserts as much, the attentive reader can hardly help but notice the pope's systematic avoidance of authoritarianism.

The beauty of a Christocentric personalism is that it moves morality away from an over reliance upon extrinsic structures of authority and toward the very internal logic of human action and human nature itself. The pope's personalist ethic is an enticing invitation to take up the necessary work of relating ethical norms back to their intrinsic relationship both to the subjectivity of human action and to the objectivity of human nature. By pointing out the many ways in which the pope does this, Dulles introduces the reader to a relatively novel approach to moral thought that has multiple applications. Whether it be applied to the study of law, economics, political philosophy, or medical ethics, the pope's personalism may begin healing the breach between metaphysics and epistemology, which has sent modernity headlong into the culture of death.

The lengths to which Dulles goes in defending the pope as a theologian of the council par excellence conveys his commitment to standing against the deconstructionist current of theological discourse within academia. The Splendor of Faith reflects well upon Dulles as a theologian who has risen to the heights of respectability precisely because of his commitment to moving gingerly down the center aisle of theological discourse. This book challenges any who might be tempted to dip–even ever so slightly–into the deceptive waters of heterodoxy.

The Splendor of Faith is excellent, especially insofar as it graciously confronts the false perception that this pontificate is a throwback to the pre-conciliar church. One simply cannot come away from this book with such a conclusion. To the contrary, rarely in the history of the Catholic Church have Catholics been so blessed to have a pope who has such a striking pastoral charisma and a monumental command of theological thought.