An influential, if not well known, scholar

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This week marked the passing and then subsequent funeral of William Joseph Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco, and one of the highest ranking American clerics ever to work in the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI chose Archbishop Levada to succeed him as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2005.

I was well-versed in the cardinal’s scholarship and writing, because we both had our graduate work (his Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Gregorian and my Master’s from Boston College) directed by the same Jesuit ecclesiologist, one of the most underappreciated figures in 20th and 21st century Catholic theology – Father Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. I then went on to write my own dissertation and first book about Father Sullivan’s vision and methodology, citing Archbishop Levada at parts in it.

Unlike some of his confreres, Father Sullivan remains relatively obscure to many well-read Catholics in America and beyond, though he is lionized as perhaps the preeminent living expert on interpreting statements of the magisterium by theologians and those involved in ecumenical dialogues. His careful and meticulous study of the teaching (and learning) role of the church has been recognized as itself “magisterial,” in the rhetorical and not technical definition of the term. Now 97 years of age, Father Sullivan has continued to publish in the last few years, although of course not at the prodigious pace he once kept.

As I researched Father Sullivan’s work basically over the course of a decade at Boston College, Fordham, and Rome, I was consistently amazed by the scope of his reach. Everyone from papabile cardinals, to respected theologians in every field imaginable, to my high school principal, to my close friend and colleague Donna Orsuto, the director of the Lay Centre in Rome, crossed paths with Father Sullivan in the classroom or outside of it. His humble demeanor and sardonic wit remain legendary, in addition to the erudite contributions he has made to the life of the church in the last century.

His books and extensive list of articles deal with how the church speaks and understands its role in informing the faithful, how doctrines develop amidst the currents of wider history, and how human beings are called to receive and appropriate God’s continuing offer of self-communication in the limiting but ubiquitous confines of linguistic and intellectual finitude. His work reflects the goal of theology once defined by Karl Rahner as “the systematic and precise effort to obtain the fullest possible understanding of the revealing word of Christ in his Church with all the means available.”

My co-author on a number of projects, and leading expert on contemporary theology among the millennial generation, Professor Mary Beth Yount of Neumann University, shares an affectionate reverence for Sullivan: “I spent many delighted weeks reading, re-reading, and outlining Father Frank Sullivan’s books for use in the classroom and beyond. I am exceedingly grateful for his incisive intellect and his care for our church.” 

I would echo my own thankfulness that one Francis’ longing for the full implementation of the Second Vatican Council and its synodal approach to decision-making may be coming to fruition under that of another, more widely-recognized Francis.

From the “Holy Office” of the CDF to local voices in the South Jersey and Philadelphia area, Father Sullivan’s rippling impact on “the shape of the church to come” continues to resonate and mold a generation of believers, teachers and life-long learners. I am grateful to count myself among those touched by his priestly and academic service to the People of God. Ad multos annos!

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.