The Dimensions of the Church by Cardinal Avery Dulles

The Dimensions of the Church: A Postconciliar Reflection by Cardinal 
Avery Dulle. Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1967.

Cardinal Dulles book is a postconciliar reflection on the sacramental ecclesiology of Vatican II, as highlighted in Lumen Gentium. 

“The unifying theme of the present work is the Church’s relationship to the total human family” (viii).

This relationship can be seen through a triple dialogue: 

  1. With other Christian churches
  2. With other religions and peoples to be evangelized.
  3. With the “modern world”

“Both the urgency and the difficulty of this triple dialogue derive from the paradoxical tension between exclusiveness and inclusiveness which is built into the Christian concept of the Church” (viii).

Chapter 1: The Dimensions of the Church

Cardinal Dulles uses the Pauline phrase about “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love (Eph 3:18) as a metaphor to speak about the Church.

  • BreadthHow wide is the Church’s spread here on earth? This concept of inclusiveness is a complex one. The Church’s breadth is actually universal because Christ is the Alpha and Omega of all things and every act of Christ in glory includes his Body the Church. Dulles takes us on a journey from understanding the Church of Christ as simply the Roman Catholic Church to the Vatican II’s general principle that “elements of the Church” are found outside Her visible structure, “something which can be more or less realized, according to the measure in which God’s saving work in Christ is believed and lived” (11).
  • LengthHow long has it existed and how long is it destined to endure? The Church has a solidarity with the past and a future destiny as Church triumphant.
  • Height & depth: The Church’s “feet are on earth, its head is in heaven” (6). The height of the Church must be balanced against its depth, its splendor against its misery (7).
Chapter 2: The Church and the Churches

“Instead of radiating life and holiness to a world which desperately needed such an influence, the Church had become static, isolated, estranged from the world” (21). 

The ecumenical contribution of Vatican II was to make room for a far more optimistic view of the ecclesiological position of non-Catholic Christians (27). They went beyond the juridical sense of membership (either/or) and instead focused on communion (levels & degrees of intensity). This “flexible ecclesiology” allowed the Church to recognize that although it possesses the total Christian patrimony for salvation and acts as a sacrament and sign leading other Christian communities to heaven, it is also in constant need of purification and renewal and adaptation to the times.

“The basis of ecumenical ecclesiology of Vatican II that Catholics may have a great deal to learn from the separated brethren” (35).

This dynamic view of the Church left room for healthy ecumenical dialogue with other Christian communities. The Church must see Christ as the decisive “center of unity and the abiding norm of Christian renewal” (40) and recognize that “unity that does imply uniformity” (40). 

Chapter 3: The Church and the Nations

Vatican II marked a shift from a “static to a dynamic vision of the Church” (44). Dulles notes “that the most significant advances in missionary doctrine” is found in Lumen Gentium, “which is from first to last impregnated with missionary concern” (44).

The church is missionary by essence. It is, so to speak, a great missionary society; its primary vocation is to be a herald. Constantly in motion, it must deliver its message whether men are” (45)

Dulles believes that “the best clue to the salvific value of missionary work… [is] that the Church is the “universal sacrament of salvation” (51). Since the Church was instituted by Christ to be a “sign and an instrument of salvation… the Church must signify what it accomplishes, namely, the salvation of the nations”. The true nature of the Church as a universal sacrament of salvation necessitates that it flourish in all nations. The Church’s “semieological catholicity” — universality in its capacity as a sign (51).

“Just as every individual person is driven by an ineradicable instinct to express his personality, and achieves adulthood through such authentic self-expression, so the Church achieves its maturity through showing forth, in concrete historical visibility, its universal mission as instrument of divine salvation” (52).

The church is a sign that represents redeemed mankind.

“The Church must constantly strive to make itself genuinely representative of mankind in all the diversity of its ethnic and cultural strains. Only by incarnating the Word of God, as far as possible, among all peoples can the full import of Christ’s salvific work by properly signified” (53).

“The primary task of the mission is not to convert every individual but rather to raise up a visible sign of the universality of Christian redemption… implanting the Church as an autochthonous reality” (54).

Chapter 4: The Church and the World

“The world”

“The world, as we here understand the term, is not an additional class of persons but the sum total of all those realities which pertain to man in his life here below and which confront him whether he is a believer or not” (66).

The relationship between the Church and “the world”:

“The Church and the world coexist in polar tension. Neither can get along without the other, but each retains its own nature and principles. The world will lose its way unless guided and sustained by the Church. But the Church will become ineffective unless it listens to the world…The Church cannot afford to ignore the world, any more than the world can afford to close its eyes to Christ and the Church” (84-5). The Church serves the world by sanctifying it from within through charity, protecting what is good, and leading the world towards its eshatological end. 

Chapter 5: The Church in Bonhoeffer’s “Worldly Christianity”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leading influence behind contemporary secular Christianity, wanted to “seek God exclusively in the world” (116). His incarnational vision of the Church led Bonhoeffer to say that “the Church must summon the world into the (95) fellowship of the Body of Christ, to which in truth it already belongs” (96). His non-religious interpretation of Christianity reinterprets the whole message of the New Testament for the modern man. 

Bonhoeffer’s amazing feat was to combine a straightforward wordliness with a mystical devotion to Christ crucified (102).

“The Church is her true self only when she exists for humanity” (103).

“The Incarnation enables us to share in God’s love for the world, whereas the sight of Christ crucified delivers us from any temptation to divinize it” (107-8).


Overall, the Church needs a more positive attitude toward the whole human family. 

“general principle that the Church stands in solidarity with all mankind and must be ready to enter into respectful dialogue at every level” (114)

“it should be kept in mind that the Church’s own inner transformation is of decisive importance if the face of the earth is to be renewed” (117).

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