In Memoriam: Richard Gaillardetz

The Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology was renowned ecclesiologist and award-winning theologian and author

Renowned ecclesiologist Richard R. Gaillardetz, the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and an award-winning theologian and author, died on November 7, 2023. His death comes 20 months after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 65.

A funeral Mass for Dr. Gaillardetz will be celebrated on November 16 at St. Ignatius Church beginning at 9:30 a.m. A wake will be held at Gormley Funeral Home, 2055 Centre St., West Roxbury on November 15 from 4 p.m. to 7:15 p.m., followed by a vigil service from 7:15 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Dr. Gaillardetz was a respected and preeminent voice in the interpretation and reception of Vatican II and questions of authority in the Catholic Church. He was the author/co-author of nine books, editor of six others, and author of more than a 100 articles and book reviews. He was also a popular public speaker, addressing theological and pastoral conferences throughout the world.

His book Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium of the Church, is a standard text in its field and has remained in print for a quarter century. An expert on ecumenical councils, Gaillardetz’s Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (co-authored with Catherine Clifford) presents a less intimidating and more accessible introduction to the vision of the Vatican II. His other notable works include By What Authority? Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church and An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the Renewal of Catholics. His publications have received numerous awards from both the Catholic Press Association and the Association of Catholic Publishers.

“Within the department, with our colleagues, staff, undergraduate, and graduate students, as well as within our University, the academy, and the Church, Professor Richard Gaillardetz shared his great love and passion for the present and the future of the Church, and for the not-yet fully realized contributions of the Second Vatican Council,” said Theology Department Chair Andrea Vicini, S.J., the Walsh Professor of Bioethics. “With heartfelt gratitude, we will greatly miss him and strive to continue his theological work.”

“I don’t think anyone would deny that Rick was the most accomplished ecclesiologist in the English-speaking world,” said Professor of Theology Stephen Pope. “He was immensely respected for his work ethic and intelligence."

"Rick was brilliant and prolific," said Professor of Theology Boyd Taylor Coolman. "He wrote about and for the Church, which he loved deeply and served faithfully. His great scholarly gift was to be an effective, compelling communicator of sophisticated theological ideas to a wide audience, that both satisfied specialists and stimulated non-specialists."

“Rick was a spectacularly good teacher," Pope added. "His high standards could intimidate students, but he would go out of his way to help students meet those standards, whether they were struggling to understand the material better or to write better. He could teach anyone—from a first-year undergraduate to a Ph.D. student.”

Dr. Gaillardetz was remembered for his impactful leadership as Theology Department Chair from 2016 to 2022.

"As Chair, Rick was a model of dedication, strength, and humility," said Professor of Theology Catherine Cornille, who holds the Newton College Alumnae Chair. "Though a larger-than-life personality, he was also extremely sensitive and caring about the well-being and flourishing of every member of the department."

"Rick had a vision for the mission of the department, as well as a concern for the well-being of all the individual faculty members, especially those who felt marginalized, or underappreciated, or burnt out," said Coolman. "He took the initiative on both fronts, not through imposition or coercion, but by invitation and persuasion."

"As department chair he worked tirelessly for the common good of the department and, as much as he could, for the good of everyone in it," added Associate Professor of Theology Jeremy Wilkins, director of the Lonergan Center. 

Dr. Gaillardetz was also known for his fondness for cooking, golfing, and playing racquetball—each approached with his characteristic intensity. He was a passionate fan of the University of Texas Longhorns and the Texas Rangers, who won their first World Series days before his passing.

“Whatever Rick did, he put his heart and soul into it. Rick could be very formidable and intensely focused,” Pope noted, “but he had the ability to laugh at himself. There was a real humility in him.”

Pope noted Dr. Gaillardetz's competitiveness was matched in equal parts with his compassion and intentionality in cultivating deep friendships. 

"Rick's chief virtue was friendship," said Wilkins, who credited Dr. Gaillardetz with initiating a friend group with others on campus. "Rick was a true friend. He wanted to do right by everyone."

"Rick showed his friends what friendship can really be, and why the art of friendship is in fact a spiritual art. Ever eager for joyous companionship, he also knew how to depend upon his friends in times of need," said Associate Professor of Theology Brian Robinette.

Coolman called him a "helluva friend" who is "already achingly missed."

In their remembrances, many friends noted his singular devotion to his wife, Diana, and their four sons. "Rick was one of the best family men I’ve ever known," said Pope, adding that he and Diana would would open their home to graduate students and colleagues who needed a place to go at the holidays.

“Rick was a person of deep Christian and Catholic faith," Pope added. "That's what drove everything he did professionally and personally. His faith made him hopeful.”

Dr. Gaillardetz and colleagues Thomas Groome and Richard Lennan from the BC School of Theology and Ministry co-chaired a faculty seminar on “Priesthood and Ministry for the Contemporary Church,” which undertook a scholarly, practical, and ecclesiastical examination of the priesthood and ministry. After two years of meetings, the group issued a document, “To Serve the People of God,” that outlined the essence of the priestly ministry. The document was the basis of a 2020 conference held at Boston College that involved cardinals, bishops, seminary rectors, ordained and lay ministers, and scholars. At the conclusion, a formal communique was issued that outlined 10 pastoral recommendations to expand existing ecclesial ministries and explore new models for ordained ministry. The seminar’s project culminated in the publication of Priestly Ministry and the People of God, a book of essays from a variety of voices who put forth their best hopes for the future of the priesthood. Dr. Gaillardetz served as a co-editor and contributor, along with Groome and Fr. Lennan.

In the book, Dr. Gaillardetz highlighted the flaws in the existing system for forming priests. “Our current vocational system is constructed more to discern impediments to ordination than the existence of a charism or aptitude for the exercise of genuine pastoral leadership or pastoral ministry of any kind.”

“Rick was a person of enormous energy and wonderful creativity as a theologian,” said Fr. Lennan. “Rick's work on the theology of church and ministry has enriched significantly the life of the ecclesial community in the United States and beyond. As a teacher, Rick was a skilled communicator, able to express complex ideas in a clear and compelling way that invited his hearers into conversation. Rick exemplified, in many ways, the attributes proper to ‘love for the Church’: he was neither romantic nor apologetic but always deeply committed to the realization of a Church characterized by faith, openness to conversion, and ways of living that embody all that it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

In September 2022, the University hosted a conference to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Gaillardetz as a scholar, teacher, and mentor. Hundreds of theologians and former students gathered on campus for the event, titled “New Directions in Ecclesiology: The Contributions of Richard Gaillardetz.” The conference included an address by Dr. Gaillardetz, one he dubbed his last lecture, on “Loving and Reforming a Holy yet Broken Church.”

In his talk, Dr. Gaillardetz encouraged his colleagues to continue the work of “meaningful and lasting ecclesial reform” and to seek out a middle path between over-critiquing the Catholic Church as an institution and being over-trustful of its leaders, especially after the clergy sexual abuse scandals, according to coverage of the conference in National Catholic Reporter.

“Our church today is paying the price for our failure to maintain a reflective equilibrium. We are becoming divided into two camps, those who embrace the tradition, whole cloth, as a reality that stands beyond critique, and those whose sweeping denunciations leave us only a few salvageable fragments of a largely failed tradition,” he said.

In perhaps his most profound and final act as teacher and friend, he invited others to follow his illness journey via a blog he kept. His posts touched upon both the personal and the medical, all shared through a decidedly Catholic, Christian, and faith-filled lens. 

"In addition to his important work in the area of ecclesiology, he will also be remembered for the spiritual wisdom he imparted in sharing the experience of his final journey," said Cornille.

"A teacher to the end, his best lesson for all of us was the way he practiced the art of dying well," added Wilkins.

Dr. Gaillardetz was born and raised in a military family and spent much of his youth traveling, an experience he credited with the development of a lifelong appreciation for the diversity of people.

He received a B.A. in humanities from the University of Texas-Austin, an M.A. in biblical theology from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame.

He joined the Boston College Theology Department in 2011. Immediately prior to joining BC, Dr. Gaillardetz was the Margaret and Thomas Murray and James J. Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo. He also taught at the University of St. Thomas Graduate School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston.

Dr. Gaillardetz was a member and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the largest professional association of Catholic theologians in the world. He was also a member of the American Academy of Religion and the College Theology Society. He was the recipient of the Yves Congar Award for Theological Excellence from Barry University and the Sophia Award from the Washington Theological Union for theological excellence in service of ministry.

Earlier this year, he received an honorary doctorate from Oblate School of Theology, a Catholic graduate school for theological studies in San Antonio, Texas.

He is survived by his wife, Diana, who graduated from the BC School of Social Work in 2022, their sons David, M.S.W. ’16, M.A. ’19; Andrew; Brian ’17; and Gregory ’19, and grandson, Elliot.