WESTON, Massachusetts — Jesuit Father Francis A. Sullivan, one of the leading theological experts on questions of church teaching authority, died Oct. 23 at Campion Center in Weston. He was 97 and at the time of his death he was the oldest member of the Jesuits’ Northeast province.
His funeral Mass was celebrated in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at the Campion Center Oct. 29, followed by interment in Campion Center Cemetery.
For much of his professional life, Sullivan was professor of dogmatic theology, and later dean of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was at the Gregorian for nearly 40 years. Later he taught theology at Jesuit-run Boston College from 1992 to 2009, when he retired at age 87. He took up residence at the Campion Center.
Francis Alfred Sullivan was born May 21, 1922, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to George Edward and Bessie (Peterson) Sullivan, the second of four boys. He entered the Society of Jesus July 30, 1938, at Shadowbrook, at that time the Jesuit novitiate in western Massachusetts. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1944 and a master’s degree in philosophy in 1945, both from Boston College.
For two years, he taught high school Latin, English and algebra to the students in Fairfield, Connecticut, where the Jesuits had just recently opened Fairfield College Preparatory School in 1942. He was sent in 1947 to Fordham University, where he earned a master’s degree in patristics.
He was ordained June 16, 1951, at Weston College in Weston. He pronounced his final vows Aug. 15, 1955, at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Weston College. From 1956 until 1992, Sullivan was professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, serving as dean from 1964 to 1970.
Sullivan was the author of eight books and the co-author of a ninth and a frequent contributor to Theological Studies, a quarterly journal of theology published by the Jesuits of the United States and Canada.
His books included Charisms and Charismatic Renewal: A Biblical and Theological Study, 1982; Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, 1983; and Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium, 1996.
In 1994, the Catholic Theological Society of America awarded Sullivan its John Courtney Murray award, named after an American Jesuit who was a founding member of the society and played a key role in forming official church teaching on religious freedom and church-state relations at the Second Vatican Council.
In 2012, the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University gave Sullivan an honorary doctor of divinity degree, citing “his accessible writing, his contributions to the charismatic and ecumenical movements, his steadfast defense of Vatican II, his exemplary life of scholarship and faith, and his generosity and availability to all students and inquirers.”
Over the years, he was engaged in a number of long-running debates over questions on church teaching such as the infallibility of the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, the issue of “dissent” within the Church and the nature of papal teaching authority invoked in St. John Paul II’s declaration in 1994 that the Church cannot ordain women priests.
“The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” the pope said.
Sullivan and other theologians debated whether the substance of the teaching could be described as “irreformable,” or not subject to substantive change. Another is what kind of assent or obedience it required from Catholics.
In a June 1994 interview with Catholic News Service and an article he wrote for The Tablet, a British magazine, Sullivan said the evidence pointed to the letter being intended by the pope as a formal exercise of the second form of teaching cited in the new profession — a definitive teaching, but not proposed as a matter of divinely revealed faith.
As such, he said, it would ask of Catholics something less than a response of divine faith that divinely revealed truths require, but something more than the “religious submission of mind and will” called for by nondefinitive teaching.
“We are expected to give firm and ‘unconditional’ assent of our minds to the pope’s judgment as certainly true,” he said, but he also questioned the assertion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the teaching reiterated in Ordinatio sacerdotalis regarding women’s ordination had been infallibly taught.
In March 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a directive to Catholic colleges and universities, requiring those directly connected with teaching Catholic doctrine on faith and morals to profess their adherence to the teaching authority of the Church.
Sullivan argued it left room for dissent, saying the new profession of faith showed there was “a real difference” between adhering with religious submission to a nondefinitive teaching and firmly accepting and holding that which is definitive. Non-definitive teachings are those not considered to derive from divine revelation, but are nonetheless seen as necessary to the faith.
If despite sincere efforts a person cannot give “sincere assent” to “nondefinitive” doctrines taught in papal encyclicals or apostolic exhortations, there is the legitimate possibility of “interior nonassent,” Sullivan wrote in the July 15, 1989, issue of La Civilta Cattolica.
With Germain Grisez, an influential Catholic philosopher, ethicist and moral theologian, the Jesuit priest often discussed the question of the infallibility of the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.
Grisez, who died in 2018, wrote Conception and Natural Law in 1964. The book continues to be one of the key works often referenced in support of St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), which affirmed Catholic teaching against artificial contraception.
Preceded in death by his parents and his three brothers, George, Paul and Edmund, Sullivan is survived by many nieces and nephews as well as his many Jesuit brothers.
Writing on the CTSA memorial page to the late priest Oct. 25, Jesuit Father Thomas J. Massaro described Sullivan as “a gracious and spirited priest and scholar.”
“You can learn much about ecclesiology from his lectures and writings, but I for one learned an immense amount above all about Christian service from just being in his genial company and witnessing his dedication to church, academy and world,” Massaro said. “May he rest in peace.”
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.