Francis A. Sullivan, SJ and Ecclesiological Hermeneutics in Faithful Creativity

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Michael Canaris
Brill's Studies in Catholic Theology
  • Boston, MA: 
    , November
     214 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Francis A. Sullivan (1922–) has been in many ways a “theologian’s theologian,” someone whose work regularly appears in the bibliographies and footnotes of other theologians, but has not received much critical attention in his own right. This present book by Michael C. Canaris attempts to set this situation aright, providing what claims to be the first major study of Sullivan’s theological contributions. 

Canaris reads Sullivan’s work through the lens of three distinct approaches which he identifies as “reader centered/authorial intent,” “text centered,” and “reader centered/reception” hermeneutics and their various theorists. Canaris’s contention throughout is that Sullivan deploys each of these approaches in his work to provide his own unique and scholarly hermeneutic of church doctrines. He locates one major source for such an approach in the multifaceted reading of church doctrine by Karl Rahner, on whom Sullivan draws for inspiration. 

At the core of Canaris’s analysis is his discernment of a five-fold method for interpretation operating in Sullivan’s doctrinal hermeneutics: (1) “familiarizing oneself with the historical context that forms part of the milieu in which the text was written,” an author centered approach (87); (2) interpreting a doctrinal text by “exegetically examining the text itself” to determine its “literary form,” a text-centered approach (88-89); (3) “interpreting the text in the light of Scripture,” placing doctrine in a larger hermeneutical circle of interpretation (90-91) as found in author and text centered approaches; (4) “interpreting dogma in the light of developing advancements in extra-biblical tradition,” including areas of secular human knowledge (91-92), reflecting a more reception approach; and (5) “communicating a contemporary understanding of the faith” as the outcome of the process (93). The outcome of applying this method is a rehabilitation of the arcane Catholic theological notion of “notes,” that is, judgments made by theologians on the level of authority of a given teaching. This tradition died with Vatican II, though some have lamented its loss as leaving believers unguided in their reading of church teachings. 

Canaris briefly demonstrates this method at work in relation to three areas that Sullivan has worked on: the magisterium’s ability to teach infallibly; Catholic teaching on contraception; and the non-ordination of women. These treatments to my mind are a bit too skimpy to be convincing, but at least they provide some concrete illustration of the method. A more fulsome treatment is provided in chapter 4 on various issues, notably Sullivan’s study of the doctrine “no salvation outside the Church” and the related issues that spin out from it: Rahner’s notion of anonymous Christianity and its significance for missionary activity; the meaning of subsistit in, in Lumen Gentium n.8 at Vatican II; and the impact of Dominus Iesus on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. These are substantial issues where Sullivan has made significant impact on ongoing theological debates, bringing to bear a sound hermeneutic approach grounded in solid scholarship. 

Canaris concludes his project with an acknowledgement of limitations present in Sullivan’s approach. Sullivan’s work “leaves much to be desired in thoroughly engaging … insights as offered by critical theory” (178). There are more radical hermeneutical approaches—liberationist, feminist, and the like—that remain unrecognized in Sullivan’s method, though as Canaris notes, some of this is generational. Similarly, he notes that Sullivan has not responded to changing technologies and their impact on communication and hence on processes of reception in particular, which again is a generational issue. He argues that “Sullivan’s method is being rendered impotent by a community that ‘shears off’ the context and on-going reception processes of magisterial teachings, by granting every statement the same self-interpreting authenticity of authority” (183). 

Overall this is an informative and well-written work that opens up Sullivan’s work for closer scrutiny. There are however some interesting issues and observations that arise in reading this work. The first concerns the coherency of the Canaris’s method. Sullivan’s approach is not based on any hermeneutic theory, but on what might be called a sound practical common sense in reading church documents. Sullivan shows no particular interest in the hermeneutic theories Canaris presents. Given that Canaris is required to use three different approaches to grasp what Sullivan is doing, it does raise questions about the adequacy of those approaches themselves. Second, Canaris raises but does not resolve the issue of “authorial intent” in what are basically committee documents (“collective author,” 11), such as we have with the documents of Vatican II. This requires more attention for hermeneutics in general. A third point is the very intra-Catholic nature of the issues explored. Even where the issue is interfaith dialogue, the focus remains on the Catholic church’s self-understanding. These concerns are quite inward-looking, as was the case in the declining years of Pope John Paul II and the reign of Benedict XVI, when most of Sullivan’s important work was undertaken. Many of these issues have shifted significantly under Pope Francis, though the question of the non-ordination of women remains. Finally, there is just a hint of paradox that given the hermeneutic depths Canaris explores to explain Sullivan’s approach, his own approach to Sullivan’s work remains largely within the authorial intent paradigm. He wants to tell us what Sullivan said and what he meant by it. 

Despite these questions, this work is a welcome addition to the literature for those concerned with the Catholic doctrinal and dogmatic tradition. Sullivan’s work is the benchmark against which others are measured in examining the authority of the various components in this tradition, and Canaris has done us a service in providing illumination of his work. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Neil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael M. Canaris is Assistant Professor of Ecclesiology at Loyola University Chicago s Institute of Pastoral Studies. He teaches systematic theology, ecumenism, hermeneutics, and immigration studies at both their Chicago and Rome campuses.

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