The Splendor of Faith: the Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II, by Avery Dulles, SJ, 1999, Herder and Herder, 204 pp., paper, $19.95. ISBN 0-8245-1792-X

Reviewed by Albert J. Schorsch, III

 

Copyright 1999, 2013 Albert J. Schorsch, III

All Rights Reserved


One of history's ironies is that great figures of an age are hidden in many ways from their contemporaries.  Everyday Elizabethans did not know that Shakespeare was, well, "Shakespeare," nor did those living in the Renaissance have any more than a fleeting acquaintance with some of its great religious thinkers.   Our modern thinkers are ironically hidden from us today by public imagery, including the false familiarity of recurrent media shots and sound bites.  We may see John Paul II's face every day, yet unless we delve into his writings, we may not come to know him.  But now thanks to the Internet and this splendid summary offered by Fr. Avery Dulles, SJ, we have no excuse not to know the actual thought of Pope John Paul II.

Fr Dulles shows us that John Paul II has been one of the most prolific religious authors in history.  As a professor, Karol Wojtyla wrote over 300 articles and books, many of them not translated, or translated very well, into English.  (Could not an institute be established in our major seminary, with the participation of
Chicago's thriving Polonia, to achieve this very purpose?)

As dean of American Catholic theologians, and as an eminent surviving participant in Vatican II, Fr. Dulles does us a service by correcting misconceptions spread from early Wojtyla biographers, by putting the critical council interventions of the young archbishop Wojtyla into their proper perspective.  Some of Wojtyla's interventions were indeed decisive in shaping the theological focus of the Vatican II constitutions, and Fr. Dulles shows that these were both more numerous and influential than earlier accounts had stated.

As pope, John Paul II has authored thousands of sermons and statements.  He has signed at the present thirteen encyclicals, great portions of which show his own personal participation.  He has authored several book-length catechetical documents, and also a handful of popular books.  This is a daunting body of work, and for clergy as well as laity, it is hard to know where to start.  Fr. Dulles's scholarship in this regard is therefore amazing.  After a brief chronology of the life of John Paul II and his writings, Fr. Dulles proceeds with a masterful topical summary of the theological themes of John Paul II.  This would be a breathtaking achievement for a theologian of any age, and in doing so, the 81-year-old Fr. Dulles has put forth again a standard of scholarship that younger theologians will be hard pressed to match.  I hope that the generation of theologians who treated Fr. Dulles's book Models of the Church as something close to scripture will give this book a similar hearing.  It is a sad reflection on American Catholic theology that there is no scholar whom we could include in the same sentence with Fr. Avery Dulles, SJ.

I could find but one significant omission in Fr. Dulles's treatment, and that is the place of
St. Augustine in the intellectual life of Karol Wojtyla.  The somewhat autobiographical apostolic letter of John Paul II of 1986 on St. Augustine, Augustinum Hipponensem, is not referenced by Fr. Dulles.  In this gem of a treatise, John Paul II shares with us his favorite Augustine passages, and offers us a glimpse into the development of his own theology.

The Splendor of Faith is a challenging but appropriate book for advanced Catholic high school seniors or college undergraduates--indeed, adult Catholics of any age--to undertake. Today's educated Catholic should not consider him or herself such without reading both this book by Fr. Dulles, and George Weigel's recent John Paul II biography.   For those many advanced students who have departed Catholic education without reading a single writing of John Paul II, Fr. Dulles's book can provide both an important remedy, and a wonderful door to a world of mystery and sublime meaning.