A Great American Mind

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., who died on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, showed that fidelity to the Christian tradition is the best preparation for the novelties of the age.

NEW YORK — Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., died on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe an old man at the age of 90. To the end, his theological work remained as fresh as yesterday’s controversies. He showed that fidelity to the Christian tradition is the best preparation for the novelties of the age.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Cardinal Dulles was scheduled for the daily Mass at the chapel of Fordham University in the Bronx. Only hours after the terror attacks a few miles south in Manhattan, he was reluctant to preach that day, thinking that someone else might better address the enormous congregation of students expected.

He was persuaded otherwise by his secretary, who told him that he was the perfect preacher for that ominous day. The last time America had been attacked was at Pearl Harbor, and Cardinal Dulles remembered that — he was a university student himself at the time.

He knew what it meant to be under attack, and he knew how America responded. The cardinal preached. His wisdom, his memory and his age were exactly what was needed.

Fordham on 9/11 was an apt metaphor for his long life. Cardinal Dulles brought the stability of the tradition to the turmoil of his time. At his death on Dec. 12, it was 68 years since his conversion to Catholicism at Harvard in 1940, 62 years since his entry into the Society of Jesus in 1946, 52 years since his ordination as a priest in 1956, and nearly eight years since his creation as a cardinal in 2001.

He was born in 1918, the midpoint between the close of the First Vatican Council and the close of the Second Vatican Council. At birth, it would hardly have been expected that his life’s work would be devoted to Catholic theology. On both sides, his family was solidly part of the American Protestant establishment; Avery was his mother’s maiden name, and it was expected that the talented son would follow in the footsteps of his illustrious forebears.

There were three secretaries of state in his family. His father, John Foster Dulles, served in the Eisenhower administration. His great-grandfather, John Watson Foster, did similar duty for President Benjamin Harrison, and his great-uncle, Robert Lansing, served President Woodrow Wilson. His uncle, Allen Dulles, was director of the CIA for President Eisenhower.

There was religion in the family, too; Allen Macy Dulles, his grandfather, was a Presbyterian pastor and cofounder of the American Theological Society. Avery Dulles would one day be elected its president.

When young Avery arrived at Harvard in 1936, he had already abandoned his Presbyterian faith, having become something of a scientific rationalist. Four years later he became an intellectual convert to Catholicism, having become convinced that Catholic philosophy and theology offered a more compelling account of reality as it was. Six years later, after decorated wartime service as a Navy officer, he joined the Jesuits.

At the celebrations for his elevation to the College of Cardinals in 2001, one of the new cardinal’s cousins recalled a family meeting to discuss the peculiar religious turn young Avery’s life had taken. It was concluded that in turning to Catholicism — then regarded as a lower-class religion — and even more to religious life, he was throwing his life away.

“He did throw it away,” his cousin concluded. “He threw it away for God.”

He could not have known then that he too would ennoble the family name as a prince of the Church.

Cardinal Dulles died after suffering increasing incapacity due to post-polio syndrome in the last year of his life. It would finally leave him paralyzed and mute. He had contracted polio in his youth and later in life had to use a cane, but his physical limitations did not prevent an astonishing productivity.

As a Jesuit he was assigned to be a professor of theology, most notably at The Catholic University of America and at Fordham University. In addition to his teaching, he authored more than 24 books and some 800 articles and reviews, becoming the dean of America’s Catholic theologians.

His decisive contribution was not a particular insight or argument but an approach. Dulles is not associated with a particular viewpoint so much as he is with an approach to questions, which listens to all perspectives and then weighs them against the standard of Catholic tradition. During the 1970s and 1980s, when theology and ecclesial life in America was filled with strident dissent, traditionalist polemics and no small measure of doctrinal confusion, the patient, careful, faithful research of Avery Dulles was a light amid the dark storm.

His most famous work was Models of the Church in 1974, where he read the teaching of Vatican II on the Church through various images or models. It was characteristic Dulles, an attempt to keep all the competing models in conversation with each other but rooting all of them in the Church’s ancient tradition.

“Theology must deal with new questions put to the Church by the course of events and by the circumstances of life in the world,” Dulles wrote. “Continual creativity is needed to implant the faith in new cultures and to keep the teaching of the Church abreast of the growth of secular knowledge. New questions demand new answers, but the answers of theology must always grow out of the Church’s heritage of faith.”

One of his signal achievements was the careful examination of difficult questions he conducted in his twice-yearly McGinley Lectures at Fordham — his principal public task for the last 20 years of his life. What exactly do we mean by real presence in the Eucharist? Should the Church repent? Women priests? Did the Church change her teaching on religious liberty? Is she changing her teaching on the death penalty? Evolution. Ecumenism. Human rights. Faith and politics.

All this Dulles tackled, granting opposing viewpoints the most generous construction possible, taking new insights into account, and providing answers consistent with the “heritage of faith.”

Dulles lived long enough to meet doctoral students who chose to examine his work in their dissertations. A humble man of no academic airs, he found this somewhat surprising. But young scholars were attracted to his work because he was a man so well suited for his time. He regarded his work as nothing spectacular but rather the simple task of the theologian. It was precisely because so much of theology lost its way — not least of all in his beloved Society of Jesus — that his example stood out.

Cardinal Dulles loved the Jesuits and loved being a Jesuit. The phrase of St. Ignatius, sentire cum ecclesia — to think with the Church — described fully the life’s work of one who never tired of showing how reason and faith need each other. When made a cardinal, Dulles chose for his coat of arms the Pauline phrase Scio cui credidi (I know in whom I have believed).

With the gift of intellectual brilliance, superior education and a formidable Jesuit formation, Cardinal Dulles knew more about many subjects than most people. He certainly knew more theology than anyone he encountered in his daily work.

Yet, he also knew that sheer brilliance is not a substitute for another type of knowing — no less rational or certain — that comes from faith. Last April, he delivered his final McGinley Lecture. It had to be read for him, as he was no longer able to speak. He concluded a review of his life in theology with the sure knowledge that he would be sustained by the One in whom he had believed:

“Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my 90th year, I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’”

Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register’s Rome

correspondent from 1999-2003.

He writes from Kingston, Ontario.