Avery, Richard, Paul and the Rest of Us

At the moment we need them most, our leading lights are gone. Cardinal Avery Dulles, the quintessential American Catholic intellectual, died Dec. 12 at age 90. Father Richard John Neuhaus, his friend and spiritual son, died Jan. 8 at age 72.

We could have used them right about now. Perhaps that’s why God took them from us.

Avery Dulles was as blue-blood American as they come: related to three secretaries of state and a CIA director, and a decorated World War II intelligence officer. One wonders what it felt like for him to fly into the airport named after his dad.

He was as accomplished an intellectual can be: a Harvard law alum who wrote 27 books and 800 significant articles (including several for the Register).

Father Richard John Neuhaus was a friend of Dulles. His output was also prolific and important.

These great men grappled with precisely the problems that we face heading into 2009. With the pro-life defeats in Congress and a pro-abortion president newly in office, it can feel like bad timing on God’s part to let these men go.

The Jan. 25 feast of the Conversion of St. Paul can help us see why men like these were so important — and what direction we should take in their absence.

It’s natural to think of Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus on this feast. After all, they’re both converts. Avery Dulles, a son of privilege, rejected his Presbyterianism at Harvard. Imagine his parents’ surprise when, after serving in the Navy, he became a Jesuit priest.

Richard John Neuhaus was a bit of a radical Lutheran pastor, son of an illustrious Lutheran pastor. He marched with Martin Luther King, participated in sit-ins and protested the Vietnam War. He broke with progressives in the 1970s over abortion.

Both these men were leaders in one world. Both converted, and used their unique qualities to become pioneers in a new world.

Just like St. Paul.

After he converted, Paul didn’t abandon his identity to lose himself in a new way. His conversion made him greater than the sum of the old and new.

“At this moment he did not lose all that was good and true in his life, in his heritage, but he understood wisdom, truth, the depth of the law and of the prophets in a new way and in a new way made them his own,” said Pope Benedict XVI in an audience. “At the same time, his reasoning was open to pagan wisdom. Being open to Christ with all his heart, he had become capable of an ample dialogue with everyone; he had become capable of making himself everything to everyone.”

When this Pharisee became a Christian leader, he didn’t make Christianity more Pharisaical. When he made the choice to become Christian, he didn’t become closed to other wisdom. He forged a new way for the Church that was utterly true to what Christianity was and confident enough in itself to incorporate the best of other traditions.

Pope Benedict attributes this nimbleness to Paul’s radical Christ-centeredness. He didn’t so much “convert” as meet Christ and do what he said.

Perhaps the Jan. 25 feast’s true significance is “the conversion of the other apostles.” In the end, as Paul’s force of personality and apostolic dynamism made its mark, it’s the other apostles who had to undergo a transformation. They had to learn to change their preconceptions of what the Church would be. They had to be willing to see Christianity not as a Jewish sect but as an international movement.

That’s analogous to the situation we find ourselves in today.

Many Catholics have many agendas. Our vision of the Church is rooted in tradition, which is good. But our imagination is also, inevitably, rooted in our own experience. And limited by it.

The Church is in need of renewal and reform. The first task of renewal and reform is to sort out what is essential from what is ancillary. Reform goes awry when we treat what should be absolute as relative, and also when we treat what should be relative as absolute.

Paul was able to refocus the early Church on what was essential in the mission Christ gave them: not circumcision but Christ crucified. Converts in our day are able to teach us what is essential: not the trappings of the Church but the fundamentals of the faith.

It took minds like the blue-blood Presbyterian Avery Dulles and the Canadian Lutheran Richard John Neuhaus to break open our imagination and show us the possibilities of our own faith.

They brought about “the conversion of other apostles,” like Paul did. More significant than the quantity of Dulles’ output was its influence in the Church. In a time when theologians were shrinking their thought (and ultimately their influence) to the size of their own brains, Dulles did what great theologians do. He mined the rich vein of magisterial teaching and imaginatively applied it and expanded on it in an American context.

As Father Neuhaus put it, “Generations of Christian thinkers have been placed in his everlasting debt.” Father Neuhaus was one of them.

Neuhaus was the originator of many concepts that inform the agenda of Catholic reformers in many walks of life. He wrote about “the naked public square,” and many of us set about trying to return religion there. He famously asked if now was a “Catholic moment,” in which the Church’s intelligent and expansive faith was primed to rise to the fore, and new Catholic colleges arose to make it so. He started Catholics and Evangelicals Together, building a coalition based on common policy and faith imperatives that saw much fruit in Washington.

He also championed a religious understanding of freedom, particularly American democratic freedom, that he brought to the attention of Pope John Paul II and President Bush — and with them to the world.

God gave the Church many gifts to see us through difficult times. In these two great theologians, he gave us a clarity of direction we might not otherwise have had. They did their part. All that’s left is to complete “the conversion of the rest of us.”