When the phone call came from the papal nuncio telling him he had been named a cardinal, Rev. Avery Dulles, S.J., was in his Fordham University office talking with a student.
Father Dulles had heard rumors about his pending appointment, but he also knew that it is as easy to be dropped from a gossipy list as it is to be included. He asked the nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, two questions. “Do I have to be made a bishop?” Archbishop Montalvo answered yes, but he could write to the pope for a dispensation (which Father Dulles later did). And was Rev. Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Jesuits, okay about this? Yes. So it was settled.
“They didn’t ask whether I accepted,” Father Dulles said in an interview. “They just told me that it would be announced in Rome the next day.” Perhaps the nuncio knew he didn’t need to ask, since Father Dulles has shown himself in recent years to be possibly the most distinguished theologian in America who is also profoundly loyal to the Catholic tradition and Pope John Paul II.
Weeks later, when he knelt to receive the red hat from John Paul, an odd thing happened. The pope was too weak to place the biretta on the heads of dozens of new cardinals. So he handed each one his hat, and they put them on their own heads. Accounts differ about what took place when Cardinal Dulles received his. Some say he dropped it. From where I sat in St. Peter’s Square, it seemed only that he let it slide backwards. On the Jumbotron video screen, it looked as though the yarmulke-like zucchetto hung well back on Cardinal Dulles’s head and the biretta sat on top, giving the impression of a “homey” wearing a red baseball cap back-wards. But that was a momentary illusion. By the end of that golden Roman morning, the United States had not only a full slate of cardinal-archbishops but a highly honored home-grown theologian unusually raised to the College of Cardinals though still only a priest.
It was the culmination, if not the end, of a long pilgrimage by a man who in his youth would have been thought an unlikely candidate to receive a high Church honor while kneeling in front of the bishop of Rome. Avery Robert Dulles is the son of the late John Foster Dulles, who, among other achievements, negotiated the U.S. peace treaty with Japan ending World War II and served as secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Avery Dulles’s uncle, Allen Dulles, once directed the CIA, and his grandfather had been a liberal Presbyterian theologian.
But even these luminaries were only the latest in a long family line going back at least as far as the 1840s, when an ancestor, John Watson Foster, served as President William Henry Harrison’s secretary of state. In short, Avery Dulles’s lineage was purebred WASP aristocracy in the days when that class still essentially ran the public machinery of the nation.
Despite the intense Presbyterian faith of his ancestors, religion played only a small role in the Dulles family by the time Avery was born. In fact, as he related in his first book, A Testimonial to Grace (1946), an account of his conversion to Catholicism, by the time he entered Harvard College in 1936, after being trained in one of the “‘better’ non-sectarian boarding schools of New England,” he had imbibed a thoroughgoing atheism and skepticism “of a type all too often infused into adolescent minds by well-meaning teachers of physics, history, and literature.” Young Avery Dulles lamented that “skepticism, materialism, liberalism…hold almost unchallenged sway in our secular universities and thus set the tenor of our intellectual life.”
Even the young Dulles was not deluded about the consequences for morality of skepticism, materialism, and liberal-ism. Moral rules were considered at best social conventions that might or might not be useful to follow. Cheating a little on mere conventions was believed to be understandable; anything else was hypocrisy or insanity. The only elevation available to those under the spell of modern materialism came from the Promethean fire of the arts. Dulles found that elevation in artistic modernists such as Cezanne, Rimbaud, and Wallace Stevens.
But a characteristic feature of the later Dulles was born in that barren spiritual desert. It became clear to him that a life lived on materialistic principles could never be noble—or truly happy. Plato and Aristotle opened his eyes to dimensions of the world and the highest human aspirations that had not been rendered obsolete by science. The Catholic philosophers Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson added a modern touch to those ancient truths. A turning point came when one day, after reading a chapter of St. Augustine’s City of God at Harvard’s Widener Library, he walked out into a rainy spring afternoon and saw a young tree budding along the Charles River. Though he didn’t use the term at the time, something like the “argument from design,” the notion that God had personally created the world, had become a living reality for him. Happiness followed and, remarkably, conviction: “Never, since the eventful day which I have described, have I doubted the existence of an all-good and omnipotent God.”
But Avery Dulles was destined to go far beyond a bare theism. Though it took two years, he came to believe in the Christian gospels, not so much by the rationalistic arguments that marked the liberal Christianity of his time, but by a powerful intuition that Jesus spoke as no other man ever had. Many writers then (and now) tried to portray Jesus “as a mild, tolerant, and ever gentle moralist,” Dulles wrote in Testimonial. The gospels, by contrast, seemed to Dulles to describe a figure “whom one could hate tremendously, as most of his contemporaries did hate Him, for what they took to be His bad manners and extravagant ideas…. The moralists never seemed to rise above the obvious. Christ never paused to state the obvious. He told of things no man had seen.”
In the Protestant churches that Dulles first frequented, he was distressed to find that “lay poets and essayists were repeatedly invoked as lending authority to divine revelation.” Hell was downplayed, along with salvation, giving the impression that church members would have been able to handle things as effectively if “the bloody holocaust of Calvary” had never occurred.
The Catholic Church did not attract Dulles immediately, either. The Mass’s “elaborate symbolism” at first repelled him. The statues were clearly not art—not as he had been taught art at Harvard. The sermons were solid, but dry. Several Catholic intellectuals he started reading, however, seemed to him to be on the right track. Gilson, Maurice De Wulf, Paul Vignaud, and especially Maritain were rock- solid philosophers and theologians. Revs. Martin D’Arcy and C.C. Martindale, along with E.I. Watkin, conveyed to him a “seasoned comprehension and serenity of outlook.” And Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, whom his friends thought a vulgar demagogue, “expressed that boldly Christian view of man and the modern world for which I had sought in vain in Protestant churches.” From there, it took only some reading about the claims of the Catholic Church to be the body established by Christ. Dulles observed: “The more I examined, the more I was impressed with the consistency and sublimity of Catholic doctrine.”
The Protestant stereotypes of the authoritarian Council of Trent and the wicked Renaissance popes melted away. Dulles met with a priest and was received into the Church in 1940. He feared alienation from his family, but his relatives did not reject him. He wrote A Testimonial to Grace a few years later, while serving in the United States Navy, partly to explain his conversion to his family.
Testimonial, for all its subdued passion, was not Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain. Dulles would not become widely known until later, with work of a very different kind and tenor. In a long addition to Testimonial, which he included in the 50th-anniversary edition in 1996, Dulles began: “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.”
But as a human being and a scholar, he still had a long pilgrimage ahead. In 1946, after his discharge from the Navy, he lived at the St. Benedict Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he had helped found five years earlier. Rev. Leonard Feeney, a distinguished and later, controversial, Jesuit (he believed that non- Catholics were damned), was one of the center’s leaders, and Dulles generally admired both the man and his work.
Dulles soon moved to the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, then to Woodstock, the Jesuit institute in Maryland, for three years of formation. He was ordained a priest in 1956. He taught philosophy at Fordham (where he teaches now) and then returned to Woodstock for training in theology under Rev. Gustave Weigel, S.J. Though a convinced Thomist in philosophy, Dulles also found himself drawn to the more personalist approaches of what became known as the nouvelle theologie practiced by Henri de Lubac, Alain Danielou, and Yves Congar, leading theologians of the era before the Second Vatican Council. In the late 1950s, Dulles went to the Gregorian University in Rome for a doctorate in theology. It was there that he began his work on ecclesiology, which would bring him notoriety some years later.
The ‘Radical’ Dulles
The book that gained Father Dulles his greatest prominence was Models of the Church, which appeared in 1974 and is still in print. During the 1970s and for some time after, it was common to hear liberal Catholics, and even outright dissidents, invoke the book as a denigration of the “institutional” model of the Church in favor of some other, Americanized notion of the “People of God.” Father Dulles seemed to bear some of the responsibility for this. Though his “models” were carefully calibrated to reflect a rich understanding of the many dimensions of Christ’s Church—as institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald, and servant he, along with many others during that time, downplayed the institutional dimension in favor of the others. Many readers overlooked the book’s defense of the Church as institution and fastened on passages in which he described the institutional model as “out of phase with the demands of the time…. It is exceptionally difficult to attract people to a religion that represents itself as primarily institutional.”
More than a quarter-century after it appeared, Models, with its calm tone and focus on evangelization rather than dissent, is actually rather tame stuff, especially in light of recent more radical notions of a completely deinstitutionalized Church. But at the time, it was red meat for theologians looking for a way to dissent from Church teaching while appearing—even to themselves— to remain faithful.
Almost a decade after Models, Father Dulles published A Church to Believe In (1983). In that book, he supported the idea of ecclesiastical authority, but he also said that good bishops “will love the community committed to their care; they will avoid domineering over their people; they will lead by example and persuasion rather than by force and threats.” The conservative commentator Msgr. George Kelly found himself deeply disturbed when he read this and other passages that suggested to him that Father Dulles advocated a more congregational Catholicism. Msgr. Kelly summed up the book as “carefully phrased to suggest balance, but his questions or hypotheses are often tendentious, i.e., leading in the direction of dogmatic relativism and radical in their implications for Catholic truth.” Figures as different as the Lutheran theologian Jaroslav Pelikan and the Jesuit John R. Sheets referred to Father Dulles’s characterization of the pre-Vatican II Catholic understanding of the Church as close to “caricature.” It was still not at all clear to some formidable minds whether the future cardinal was part of the solution or part of the problem with the Catholicism of the mid-1980s.
It is curious to recall this history today, because Father Dulles is now largely thought by friend and foe alike to be one of the most forceful voices for a renewed orthodoxy in the contemporary Church. Liberals see him as having turned his back on his younger radicalism; like many an older man, they suggest, he has grown more conservative with age. His experiences with certain forms of liberal Catholicism, while not changing his ideas about the Church, seemed to have alerted him to their potential for disaster. For example, he had spoken at a symposium on the social mission of the Church that led to the notoriously radical “Call to Action” conference in Detroit in October 1976. In the 1996 edition of Testimonial, he characterized the conference participants as “questionably Catholic” and the whole process as an “object lesson in how a small group of militant activists could manipulate a large majority of open-minded liberal delegates, thus aligning the assembly with an agenda that had little in common with the Catholic tradition.”
Father Dulles faced a similar problem when, as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) during the mid-1970s, he presided over the handling of a report on human sexuality commissioned by a previous president that took issue with Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical opposing birth control. Father Dulles and other CTSA board members dissatisfied with the report agreed to the society’s “receiving” instead of “accepting” or “approving” it. He also knew and generally admired Rev. Charles Curran, who in 1968 lost his canonical mission (his license from the Vatican) to teach theology at the Catholic University of America because of his dissent from Humanae Vitae. Despite the friendship, Father Dulles came to believe that it was “probably better for [Father Curran] not to be teaching in a situation that requires a canonical mission.”
When I asked Father Dulles whether he, like the aged Augustine, had any “retractions” that he would like to publish to set the record straight, he answered with a flat no. He conceded that during the 1970s and 1980s, he had wanted “to keep some possibilities open” before Church authorities pronounced on them definitively. Artificial contraception and women’s ordination were two issues that then seemed in flux; since then, the Vatican has made it clear that the Church’s opposition to both is not open to change. In his new material in the latest edition of Testimonial, he wrote: “In the late 1960s, seeking to make a strong case for the new directions set by Vatican II, I may have tended to exaggerate the novelty of the Council’s doctrine and the shortcomings of the preconciliar period.” But he changed his assessment over time: “During my years as a Catholic, I have grown in my confidence in the ‘charism of truth’ conferred upon the hierarchical leadership.”
The Orthodox Dulles
Whatever will ultimately be made of Father Dulles’s writings immediately after Vatican II—and we will probably need further distance from the controversies of those days before a dispassionate appraisal is possible—there is no question that his recent work puts him squarely in line with John Paul II’s vision of Church renewal. Furthermore, even in his most adventuresome days, Father Dulles notably tried to follow a method perfected by one of his heroes, St. Thomas Aquinas. Like Aquinas, Father Dulles often approaches his arguments with a calm review of all the available positions, authoritative or not, on any given point. Perhaps he has not always succeeded in getting all the proportions exactly right, especially during the period of greatest turmoil after the council, but even his critics have noted that he has always tried—or at least given the impression of trying—to be complete and balanced, which are two ways of describing what it means to be Catholic.
In recent years, Father Dulles has had some sharp disagreements with the Catholic theological guild in America. In 1998 he wrote an article for Commonweal titled “How Catholic Is the Catholic Theological Society of America?” Since he had once headed that body, the article drew a great deal of attention. Examining the record of the CTSA’s 1997 convention, he remarked: “The convention speakers mounted a series of attacks on Catholic doctrine more radical, it would seem, than Luther and Calvin.” In particular, he singled out the views of some theologians on the Eucharist and priesthood (especially women’s ordination) that seemed to fly in the face of Trent, Vatican II, Paul VI, John Paul II, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). (Elsewhere, Father Dulles has described the CDF’s head, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as “one of the ablest living theologians, [who] has shown firmness and moderation in exercising his role as prefect.”) After reviewing several serious departures from Catholic understanding at the CTSA, he asked: “Can anything be done to clarify or restore its Catholic character? Or must some new theological agency, more committed to Catholic principles, be established?”
In our interview, he said he believes his shot across the bow in that article caused at least some rethinking of the direction of the CTSA. And his assessment of its prospects for the future is optimistic. It’s true that the dominant figures in the theological academy still belong to the generation of dissenters, he said. But his own students and many others he has met around the country promise a far different future: “They don’t have the same hang-ups as the people for whom the rejection of Humanae Vitae was the first principle of their lives.” A decade from now, he believes, the majority of professional theologians will present a very different profile, one more in harmony with the line set by John Paul II and the Church itself over the past few decades.
Father Dulles has made his own contributions to advancing that goal. In a seminar he gave to the CTSA in 1995, he laid out 15 criteria by which we can assess whether someone’s theology is truly Catholic. Among them: holding that faith and reason are compatible; belief in traditional trinitarian theology; communion with Rome; fidelity to the Church’s magisterium; and a sense of continuity with the past. He also made it clear that theologians are interpreters, not authoritative proponents, of the doctrines of faith (only the pope and the bishops can function as the latter), and that theologians should refrain from acrimonious public challenges to ecclesiastical authority. “The theologian’s personal faith is a limited participation in the richer faith of the Church itself,” he declared.
Catholic theologians, even when they work in universities, should think of themselves as primarily accountable to ecclesiastical authority, not as “secular communities, whether academic, political, ethnic, or whatever.” Nor should they allow academic pressure to be innovative to take precedence over their basic Catholic duty to be faithful to Catholicism.
Indeed, Father Dulles himself seems increasingly to locate theology within a worshiping and praying community rather than the academy. He argued to the CTSA: “A theological proposal that weakens the life of worship or that draws people away from the path of holiness will be for that very reason theologically suspect.” We should not confuse the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful), which has always been held to have theological value, with mere public opinion, he said, especially in a time like ours when few are taught how to “think with the Church,” and many take their cues from non-Christian influences.
Father Dulles is convinced that the metaphysical barriers that Kant and his followers erected to our knowing anything about the transcendent remain the most formidable philosophical and theological impediments to a better future for Catholicism. Yet the Avery Dulles to whom I spoke recently believes (like his younger self) that most people so passionately desire to know a reality beyond themselves that they will not long endure being told that they can know nothing of their heart’s desire—however prestigious the thinker making the claim. The very forms of thought that assume the impossibility of truth are stirring up a counterreaction these days: “The motives of those joining the Catholic Church in the 1990s are strikingly similar to my own motives in 1940,” he said.
Prince of the Church
The best introduction to the later Avery Dulles is his The New World of Faith, published last year by Our Sunday Visitor Press. In this book, Father Dulles presents a kind of summa, touching on nearly every important element of contemporary Catholic belief, and showing how the wealth of Catholic tradition can be integrated with the forward-looking faith that the new millennium will require. “The world disclosed to faith is immense,” he writes. It opens up vistas that extend beyond the world of sense and into a realm not reached by telescopes and astronomical instruments, how-ever powerful…. Its population includes the living and the dead, saints and angels, and even, at its summit, the divine persons…. We cannot even sketch it, still less enter it, unless we receive and accept God’s loving revelation.”
The young WASP patrician who began his pilgrimage toward that new world more than 60 years ago is now a prince of the Church. In our new millennium, in which the papacy of John Paul II has pointed to a more authentic and balanced reading of Vatican II that both preserves Catholic tradition and energizes it toward the future, Avery Dulles is a central figure. If he went through periods of uncertainty during the heady days that followed Vatican II, he has overcome them the way a real Catholic does—by faithful engagement with Peter. The Church in the United States will continue to benefit from his struggles toward truth. And we can hope that those struggles, like the efforts of the current pope, are still far from over.