Drew Christiansen on Avery Dulles

By Drew Christiansen
America Magazine

December 13, 2008

[See also Dulles' America interview. For Dulles' criticism of the Dallas charter and norms, mentioned in this blog entry, see his Rights of Accused. America has posted an archive of essays by Dulle.]

(A version of this post will appear in the Jan. 5 version of the magazine.)

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S. J. died December 12, 2008, after a long illness. A prolific author, Cardinal Dulles’s most influential work was perhaps Models of the Church (1974). After teaching at Woodstock College, a Jesuit seminary, from 1960 to 1974, he taught at The Catholic University of America until 1988, and from that time until last spring held the Laurence J. McGinley Chair of Religion and Society at Fordham University. He offered his final lecture in that position on April 1 last year (See “A Life in Theology,” Am., 21 Apr. 08). He was also a founding fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Scion of one of the pre-eminent Protestant families in the United States, he related the experiences that led to his entrance into the Catholic Church in Testimonial to Grace (1946). “The most important thing about my career, of many years,” he wrote in his last McGinley lecture, “I feel sure, is the discovery of the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the Lord Jesus himself.”


Commenting on his “conversion” to Catholicism, he noted in a 2001 America interview that after being led to theism through his reading of philosophy and to Christianity through reading the Gospels, his attraction to Catholicism came from three sources: reading renaissance thought, the vitality of the Neo-Thomist revival led in the 1940s by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, and the Catholic life of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he then lived. “I was attracted in many ways to the liturgy, too,” he told America . “So it was a combination of all those factors–I didn’t really have any close friends who were practicing Catholics.” He added, “It was a kind of solitary journey, but later I discovered that others were making the same journey . . .” In October, 1946, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Saint Andrew on Hudson, Poughkeepsie, New York, and was ordained a priest in 1956. In 2001, in recognition of his service to the church and to theology, Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal. .

Born in Auburn, New York, August 24, 1918, he was the son of John Foster Dulles and Janet Pomeroy Avery Dulles. His Father was an active Presbyterian layman and a prominent member of the Federal Council of Churches, the predecessor to the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA. Cardinal Dulles attended The Choate School and Harvard College, graduating with an A.B. in 1940, and then Harvard Law School.

During World War II, young Mr. Dulles served in the U. S. Navy (1942-46), working primarily as a liaison with the Free French Navy. Reminiscing about his tour of duty, he wryly related a critical mistake he had made as officer of the watch. On anti-submarine patrol in the Caribbean, his ship detected what appeared to be a German U-boat and commenced firing. It continued firing for a couple of hours. When dawn broke, Ensign Dulles realized they had been bombarding a coral reef. Soon after, he was re-assigned to liaison work.


Father Dulles’s early theological career focused on fundamental theology and ecclesiology, and the latter remained a topic of reflection for the rest of his life. Of his 26 books, 13 treated aspects of ecclesiology (the theology of the church). He was best known for his typological writings, Models of the Church (1974) and Models of Revelation (1983), which presented an array of interpretative schemes for understanding the mysteries of faith. Pressed for his preferred model of the church, he devised an additional model “The Community of Disciples” (A Church to Believe In: The Community of Disciples and the Dynamics of Freedom, 1983).

Speaking of the institutional church to which he gave special attention in many writings, he commented in the 2001 America interview,”the institution is for the sake of the spiritual life, for the sake of holiness, and is not an end in itself.”

Some of Cardinal Dulles’s more original work came with his employment of Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of personal knowledge to the faith experience in works such as The Survival of Dogma (1971). There he employed Polanyi’s distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge to explore the relation between faith and doctrine. Tradition played a key role in his theology as it did in Polanyi’s philosophy of science.

The first inkling of his turn to social questions came with his signing of the Hartford Declaration, at the request of his friend Richard John Neuhaus, in 1975. These interests led in 1988 to his appointment to the McGinley Chair. His last book Church and Society appeared in 2008.

A member of the International Theological Commission (1992-1997), he also served as a consultor to the Vatican Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Believers and the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Much of his theological career was devoted to ecumenism. He was a member of the Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogue, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and consultor on ecumenism to the international theological journal Concilium. In the Lutheran dialogue, he was a significant contributor to “Peter in the New Testament” and “Mary in the New Testament” and an influence on “Mary and the Saints.”

I do not particularly strive for originality,” Cardinal Dulles wrote looking back on his career. “Very few new idea, I suspect, are true. If I conceived a theological idea that had never occurred to anyone in the past, I would have every reason to think myself mistaken.” For that reason, he believed tradition was essential to theological development. “Developments of doctrine,” he observed, “always involve a certain continuity; a reversal of course is not development.”

Regarded in his latter years as a theological and political conservative, he continued to take independent positions both as a consultant and a non-voting member of the U.S. bishops’ conference. He strongly backed proposals for “lay ecclesial ministry”, for example, and was critical of the bishops’ Dallas charter on clergy sex abuse for the unfairness of its Draconian measures toward possible offenders.

Community Life

In 1970 after Woodstock College moved from the Maryland countryside to New York City, Father Dulles joined a small community with several Jesuit scholastics and younger faculty. Raised in a household with servants and having lived in his life in institutions (the Navy and the Jesuits), small community was his first experience of domesticity. He learned to sew–he had to be taught several times–to shop, and to cook. His favorite entree: Shake and Bake chicken.

Father Dulles’s gaunt, Lincolnesque figure was eminently subject to loving caricature by community members. The poet John L’Heureux once compared him to a deer soldered together from wire coat-hangers and hung with headlights. Ken Ireland, a one-time scholastic who lived for a time in the small Jesuit community at 102nd St., painted a colorful acrylic mural of Alice in Wonderland on the kitchen wall, with the community members and their neighbors as the fantasy’s characters. Avery Dulles was depicted as the Mad Hatter. A photo of the Wonderland mural hung until the time of his death in his room at the Jesuit infirmary.

Final Passion

Cardinal Dulles died after a long, disabling illness. In the last months, he could neither stand nor eat, neither speak nor write. Though he had written his last McGinley lecture last spring himself, it had to be delivered for him. The closing lines of that lecture confessed his acceptance of “suffering and diminishment” as “normal ingredients of life, especially in old age.” They conclude:

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 skilled 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 his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Amen. R.I.P.

Drew Christiansen, SJ


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