Michael S. Attridge OPL
I write as a lay theologian who teaches at the University of St. Michael’s in Toronto (Canada) in areas related to Vatican II and the development of 19th and 20th century theology. My association with the Dominicans goes back to 1992 when I first arrived in Toronto. Over the years I have remained close with the friars of the community, who have always extended warmth and hospitality to all those who come to them. I have also collaborated with members of the community in various areas of research and in conference planning. Several years ago, I professed final vows as a lay member of the Order.
I won’t answer the question “What is Dominican Theology?” in any definitive, objective or propositional sense. Instead, I offer some hallmarks of what I have come to know as characterizing Dominican theology. These are also the reasons that I find so easily a home in the Order. I offer three memorable encounters that have struck me as emblematic and then conclude with some summary comments.
In 1994, during my first trip to Rome I met Fr. Leonard Boyle OP, who had already left Toronto and was at the time Prefect of the Vatican Library. He welcomed me and gave me a lengthy tour that concluded in the Salone Sistino. At the end of our meeting, he pointed to the paintings of the Ecumenical Councils that hung on the walls. He drew my attention to the center of each painting, pointing to the book of the Gospels surrounded by the Council Fathers. He said: “You see, Michael, it is always about the Book. Never forget that.” I would be reminded of this, years later when I read Henri-Marie Féret OP’s response to the Master, Emmanuel Suarez in 1954 when the Order was under investigation by the Holy Office. Against the Curia’s rigid, procedural juridicism Féret insisted that he must continue to preach the Gospel.
The next story is about the first time I met Fr. Jean-Marie Tillard OP. I had been studying ecclesiology and ecumenism and had already read much of his work. One year I traveled to Fribourg to research at the University and stayed at the Albertinum. Fr. Tillard was there. We spent the entire time talking about theology. I will always remember him emphasizing that, for Dominicans, the oldest sources are the most authoritative – right back to the words and deeds of Christ and the apostolic preaching. Many times over the years, I would hear him repeat the same thing.
Finally, ten years ago, we invited a notable Dominican theologian to St. Michael’s to speak to our graduate students about the vocation of the theologian. The subject of religious life came up and the roles that communities and theologians have played in the work of theology in the history of Church. Our speaker postulated that religious orders go through 150 year cycles, after which they either renew themselves and continue for another 150 years, or they cease. Dominicans, he said, have been successful because their ministry is perennially relevant to all times and places.
These brief vignettes illustrate the two elements or hallmarks that for me comprise Dominican theology: the Gospel of God incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and revealed through his saving words and deeds 2000 years ago; and the proclamation of this Gospel, made present and alive in all times and all places for the needs of the world. Indeed, as the primitive constitutions affirm, the Dominicans were founded to preach the Gospel for the sake of salvation. Dominican theology always returns to the well-spring of the Good News in order to deliver life-giving water to the world. As circumstances and the needs have changed so too has the teaching and preaching. We take for example proclamation of the message of salvation. When Thomas Aquinas taught of salvation, he understood the Gospel to have already been preached to the entire world. Centuries later, when European Christians – Dominicans such as Bartolomé de Las Casas – arrived in the New World, the very idea of “world” expanded and so too did the idea of salvation. Today, the proclamation of salvation includes the work that is done to overcome violence, poverty, structures that marginalize, oppress, and dehumanize people. In light of recent challenges throughout the world, the need for this work continues to be great.
Dominican theology is not one that is fixed for all times and places. It returns to the sources of Christian life and faith and preaches it anew to a world that awaits it.