Avery Dulles, S.J. - American Theologian and Cardinal
Jun 24, 2006
The weather in Rome was beautiful in February, a welcome break from an especially dreary New York winter. The setting and the splendor of the occasion could not have been surpassed: the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, where Pope John Paul II welcomed 44 new cardinals into the highest ranks of the Catholic Church.
(Summer 2001, FORDHAM magazine) But as honored as he was to be among this group of new “princes of the church,” Avery Dulles, S.J., confessed that he felt a bit out of place. His books, his students, his office at Fordham’s Keating Hall—all were far, far away.
“I enjoyed it, but to me that’s not really what counts,” said Cardinal Dulles, the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society. “I prefer to spend my time reading, thinking, writing, teaching. I’m not particularly made for ceremonies.”
Dulles was one of three Americans that the pope named to the College of Cardinals earlier this year—the other two were Archbishop Edward Egan of New York and Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who studied at Fordham in the early 1950s.
But unlike those diocesan officials, Dulles has never held an important pastoral post. Instead, he has spent his life contemplating the most important theological issues of his time, such as how the church defines itself as an institution, especially after the Second Vatican Council, and how it interacts with other Christian denominations. This difference makes Dulles unique among American cardinals. He is the first theologian from this country to wear a cardinal’s red hat.
When the pope announced Dulles’ selection in January, the rail-thin scholar who is frequently called the leading Catholic theologian in America offered a typically cool, rational explanation for the honor. In his view, the pope’s intentions were “to emphasize the centrality of theology in the life of the church; to encourage the Society of Jesus to pursue its theological missions; and to acknowledge the growing contribution of the North American scholarship.”
Dulles’ scholarly contributions have poured forth over six decades in 21 books and more than 650 articles, essays and reviews. He has taught not only at Fordham but also at Woodstock College in Maryland and at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He has received 21 honorary degrees, as well as the Croix de Guerre for his liaison work with the French navy as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer in World War II.
“Avery is the grand old man of Catholic theology today in the United States,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., editor of the Jesuit magazine America. “And they don’t give this honor to 40-year-olds. You have to be over 80 years of age to get this.”
Father Reese was referring to the fact that 80 is the upper age limit for cardinals to have a vote in the conclaves that elect a new pope. Those red hats tend to be reserved for leaders of important archdioceses, such as Cardinals Egan and McCarrick, or senior members of the Roman Curia, the administrative body that runs the worldwide church. Theologians such as the 82-year-old Dulles are named cardinals after their 80th birthdays in recognition of their lifelong accomplishments.
“It’s very easy to share in the joy of his designation because of his own personal modesty and simplicity,” said the Rev. Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., Fordham’s president, who noted that Cardinal Dulles’ theological work bears some unmistakably American characteristics. “He is a typically American theologian in the sense that he’s addressed ecumenism, which is important in a country with religious pluralism. And in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, he’s been a good voice for religious freedom, which was a particularly American contribution to the council.”
Cardinal Dulles, the son of John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, began life as a Presbyterian, but by the time he entered Harvard University in the 1930s, he considered himself an agnostic, as he wrote in A Testimonial to Grace, his 1946 account of his conversion, which was reissued in a 50th anniversary edition in 1996.
Exposure to Catholic writers at Harvard led him to convert to Catholicism, and following his service in the Navy, he joined the Jesuits. In 1951, his teaching career began when he came to Fordham as a philosophy professor.
“As a Jesuit, I’ve always done what I was told,” Cardinal Dulles said, his eyebrows raised for emphasis. “I was quite pleased with that [assignment], but I had no reason to expect it.”
In addition to his classroom duties, he also served as the moderator of the freshman and sophomore sodality, the prefect of which was one Theodore McCarrick, the future archbishop of Washington, D.C. The two men struck up a friendship, founded in no small part on a shared sense of humor, that has lasted to the present.
“We all expected him to be an intellectual who would not have a lot of warmth, who would be a cold, dry scholar,” said Cardinal McCarrick. “And he wasn’t. He was a scholar, no doubt about that, but he had a wonderful sense of humor, and he had that wonderful laugh, which he still has—that deep, hoarse laugh.”
The young McCarrick impressed Dulles, whom the students addressed as “Mr. Dulles” in those days because he had not yet been ordained, as a promising youth with a bright future.
“He was a very bright, dedicated young man,” Cardinal Dulles recalled. “And he was a natural leader, with a great sense of humor that has not deserted him.”
In 1956, when Dulles was about to be ordained, he sought out McCarrick, who by then had left Fordham for the seminary, and asked him to serve Dulles’ first Mass, which was held in Fordham’s chapel a day after he was ordained by Cardinal Francis Spellman, a 1911 Fordham graduate.
“I got a note from him that he was going to celebrate his first Mass and didn’t know how to organize it but asked if I would serve,” Cardinal McCarrick recalled. “I was still three years from ordination. It was exciting.”
When the former philosophy teacher and the former prefect received the rings and hats of their new rank in February, McCarrick sent Dulles a note asking if he needed anyone to serve his first Mass as cardinal, Dulles recalled with one of his deep laughs.
Cardinal Dulles sees his career as a theologian and McCarrick’s life as a diocesan official as complementary, each filling a necessary role in the church.
“I’m not a person who gets things done,” he said. “I think about things. He’s been called to practical work, running dioceses. He’s done a great job of that.”
Cardinal Dulles’ work as a theologian has pivoted on the landmark reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which challenged centuries-old traditions in an effort to bring the Catholic Church into the20th century.
“Before Vatican II, I was simply absorbing the tradition,” Cardinal Dulles said. “I wasn’t trying to be original then. I was trying to learn what had been held down the centuries, what the church fathers had said, what the councils said. I think that’s the first thing a theologian has to do. And after Vatican II, the church said we’re living in a new age; try to determine what is lasting and what are the accretions.”
The intellectual ferment of the post-Vatican II years resulted in the cardinal’s most famous book, Models of the Church, published in 1974, in which he reviewed the many ways in which the Catholic Church has presented itself through the centuries: as a hierarchical institution, as a way of making Christ present in the world by proclaiming the gospel to others, as a servant or instrument of social justice and as a community of disciples that forms an alternative society to the secular world.
The cardinal says now that his intention was to bring the various proponents of each model into a fruitful dialogue with each other. Instead, he notes with a wry smile, the book has sometimes been used as a way for people to justify whatever view they hold as a valid take on the church.
And that is clearly not the cardinal’s view these days. Critics have said that of late he has become a defender of the status quo, and particularly of the pope’s traditional positions on such controversial issues as the ordination of women, abortion and homosexuality. But rather than having “lurched to the right,” as he put it, he has simply worked his way through the enduring questions of faith and concluded that the church’s time-tested teachings have been right all along.
“There were a few years after Vatican II when the church seemed to be asking people to look at different ideas, but I came to fairly traditional conclusions,” he said, citing as examples his study of church teaching about the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ as God and man. “Vatican II said we had to re-examine what is time-conditioned, but having done that, I think we came back to say the councils were right on.”
Cardinal Dulles returned to Fordham in 1988, 35 years after leaving his first teaching position there. By then, he had turned 70, the mandatory retirement age at Catholic University, where he had taught since 1974.
Fordham had recently completed raising $1 million to endow a chair in honor of the Rev. Laurence J. McGinley, S.J., Fordham’s president from 1949 to 1963, and, according to Father O’Hare, “I could think of no better occupant of the chair than Father Dulles.”
Cardinal Dulles generally teaches one or two courses a year, in addition to acting occasionally as dissertation consultant to doctoral candidates. This arrangement allows him, as he puts it, “a certain amount of leisure to do my thing,” which, in his case, means more work, such as taking visiting teaching appointments at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and at Yale University.
But his main responsibility is writing and delivering the annual McGinley lecture. He generally looks for a theological subject that has an immediate application to the real world. Over the years, he has addressed religion’s role in politics, Pope John Paul II’s teachings regarding human rights and the efforts of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches to come to a common understanding of justification, or God’s gift of salvation to Christians.
“Often I pick controversial topics,” he said. “I don’t mind controversy.”
But he doesn’t engage in controversy as an advocate for any particular position. Instead, he sees his role as theologian as akin to a judge—someone who considers all aspects of a question before rendering an opinion.
Last fall, for instance, the McGinley lecture concerned the death penalty. Rather than adopt a simple pro or con stance, Cardinal Dulles noted that church teaching recognizes the right of the state to execute criminals for very serious crimes. However, in recent years, church leaders, including the pope and the conference of American bishops, have called for an end of the death penalty because they feel that, on balance, it does more harm than good.
The subject of the death penalty brings up the most famous case of the year, that of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted for killing 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
“If there were any candidate for the death penalty, it might be he,” admitted Dulles, prior to McVeigh’s execution on June 11. “But I think making a spectacle out of it is debasing. And I think a lot of the motives of people who are clamoring for his execution are unworthy. It seems to be a question of getting back. I can sympathize with their feeling angry, but I think they should try to contain their anger. I’m more concerned about what the death penalty does to society than what it does to the individual.”
Although age has bowed his back and slowed his step, the cardinal continues to write books as well as teach. His newest book, The New World of Faith (Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2000), differs from many of his previous volumes in that he wrote it for an audience beyond the academy. His aim was to present an outline of the Catholic faith and its doctrines for general readers.
“I just wanted to make it a peaceful presentation of basic Catholic doctrine,” he said. “I try to show why it makes sense and hangs together.”
That explanatory role is what makes the sometimes abstruse world of theology so important, according to Father O’Hare, and few have proven themselves as well equipped to do it as Cardinal Dulles.
“He’s very much a university person,” said Father O’Hare. “He’s a prince of the church, but he’s also a citizen of the academy. That’s why his elevation is a great joy to all of us at Fordham.”
—Stevenson Swanson is a national correspondent in the New York bureau of the Chicago Tribune.