A Faithful American: Avery Dulles, S. J. (1918-2008)

Today’s column was supposed to be about the birth of Christ, but I feel obliged instead to commemorate the death of a cardinal: Avery Dulles passed to his reward last Friday, and was beyond all dispute one of the great Catholic churchmen and theologians ever produced by America.

“Beyond all dispute,” however, needs to be understood literally in this case, because many disputes arose around Dulles in the 1970s and again when Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001. His 1974 Models of the Church (institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald, and servant), was often cited by liberals and dissidents for its allegedly Americanized understanding of the Church as the People of God. When Dulles got the red hat almost thirty years later, though it was clear that his work had developed along lines very similar to Karol Wojtyla’s and Joseph Ratzinger’s, many people still groused. But he was one of our great men.

I first met him in the early 1980s when he was teaching at the Catholic University of America. By then, he had settled into a familiar pattern. He was robustly orthodox and his catholicity on any question he addressed was close to exhaustive. If he was writing on the death penalty, he would read everything in the tradition and the contemporary debate, and would produce impeccably balanced conclusions. In this he reminded you of the Aquinas of the Summa Theologiae, a figure who helped draw him into the Church.

Dulles was also notoriously dry, though a good teacher and enthusiastic about youth renewal movements. And he was humble. His family, of course, were the Dulleses. John Foster (father), was secretary of state under Eisenhower, and Allen (uncle) headed the CIA. Longtime Presbyterians, with clergy and missionaries in the mix, they were surprised when he converted at Harvard, a story he tells with a simple charm in A Testimonial to Grace, which he wrote while serving in the Navy during World War II. The fiftieth anniversary edition (1996) contains an addition that begins, “In a sense I could say, as did John Henry Newman in his Apologia pro vita sua, that there is no further history of my religious opinions, since in becoming a Catholic, I arrived at my real home.”

Of course, this is true, but not the whole truth. Part of the controversy over Models of the Church had to do with the fact that, like Ratzinger, Wojtyla, and others prior to Vatican II, Dulles became impressed with the more personal view of the Church in the nouvelle théologie of De Lubac, Daniélou, Congar. Unfortunately, other admirers of these quite orthodox thinkers moved towards the radical sides of Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and lesser known figures. John Paul II was the pope who finally separated the sheep from the goats.

Dulles himself became skilled at this task. In a seminar at the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1995, he laid out fifteen criteria (I told you he was thorough) by which we can tell whether a theology is truly Catholic. He was a past president of CTSA and knew where the bodies were – and are – buried.

I went to Rome when Dulles was made a cardinal along with the archbishops of New York and Washington, D.C. It is a rarity for a priest to be so elevated, though De Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar had received similar recognition. We scheduled a telephone conversation a bit later so that I could write a long piece on his work. I wish there were space to transcribe parts of the tapes, but there were two points I particularly wanted him to clarify.

First, St. Augustine wrote his Retractationes in his old age. Did he, Cardinal Dulles have anything that he would put in that category? Without hesitation, he said no. And for an interesting reason: in the 1970s, a lot was in flux, and he didn’t want to close off any possibilities that the magisterium might decide to pursue. Some might regard this as rationalization. But Dulles convinced me that his aim, then as always, was “to think with the Church.” To anyone who knew Dulles, this sort of humility was entirely in character. I once even saw him embarrassed when he had to mention Dulles Airport (named after his father).

The second thing I wanted was to get the old Presbyterian to do something out of character: tell me, when you got that call from the Vatican, how did it feel. No trick known to man could pry that out of him. He was with a student, the secretary buzzed, he excused himself briefly, and took the call. The only thing he asked: could he be dispensed from being a bishop (he was), and had the Jesuit superior general agreed? Yes. They didn’t ask him if he would accept – I’d say because they knew he would do what he was asked.

The great story of his conversion and growth into one of America’s premier theologians cannot be told in a column. You have to read through several of the books and a lot of the masterly essays. One of my favorites among the later books is The New World of Faith, where he writes: “The world disclosed to faith is immense. It opens up vistas that extend beyond the world of sense and into a realm not reached by telescopes and astronomical instruments, however powerful. . . . Its population includes the living and the dead, saints and angels, and even, at the summit, divine persons. . . .We cannot even sketch it, still less enter it, unless we receive and accept God’s loving revelation.”

Avery Dulles received and accepted and, we can hope, in God’s good graciousness has now entered into that world.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.