Last night, the Marquette Theology Department lost a great theologian, Dr. Ralph Del Colle, whose life and scholarship impacted many.
Dr. Del Colle and I were not particularly close: I first met him when I visited Marquette in 2007, a few months before I began the MA program. The department had assigned him as my advisor, so I thought it would be good to sit down for a quick chat. The conversation was not exceptionally memorable…he helped me pick a couple of classes for my first semester and answered a few lingering questions I had about the program…nothing out of the ordinary for an advisor-advisee conversation.
Yet, one part of our conversation stuck with me. As we were leaving his office (he was on his way to daily Mass), he asked me, “So, where do you stand theologically?” Undoubtedly, it was a question that could have been answered in so many ways. I could have said, “Oh, I’m a Wesleyan,” or “Oh, I’ve always really liked Barth.” I could have even said, “I’m not quite sure…that’s what this MA degree is all about!” Did I say any of those things? No, I did not.
As a (somewhat theologically ignorant, no thanks to my MDiv Systematics class) 26 year old graduate student, I responded, “Liberal.” At the time, I thought the answer profound. Surely, it made me appear cultured and perhaps even a bit edgy. Only in retrospect do I realize that the answer was neither good nor accurate. Dr. Del Colle (who I would never describe with the label, “liberal”) didn’t skip a beat…he chuckled and said, “I see. Well, thanks for the meeting and welcome to the department.” I’m sure what he was thinking was, “How did this guy end up here?”
I had two classes with Dr. Del Colle at Marquette: Introduction to Systematic Theology, and Christology. During those classes, I learned much about doing Catholic Theology (obviously). More importantly, I learned the value of doing theology well, regardless of one’s doctrinal commitments. I also learned that “liberal” is not an intelligent way to describe one’s theology (neither is “conservative,” for what it’s worth). Class with Dr. Del Colle was never about toeing the party line…it was about learning how to think theologically in a way that built up the Body of Christ.
Dr. Del Colle will be greatly missed by his family, his colleagues, and his students. His theology and life betray a deep passion for God and the Church, and he has left behind an example that we would do well to emulate.
Requiescat in pace. Amen.