Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Very Model Of Lucidity

Published in Newsweek on December 13, 2008



There is nothing like Debrett’s Peerage in these United States. If there were, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., who died on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, would surely have been in it.

His great-grandfather, John W. Foster, was President Benjamin Harrison’s secretary of state–a service done for President Wilson by his great-uncle, Robert Lansing, and for President Eisenhower by his father, John Foster Dulles. His uncle, Allen Dulles, was America’s European spymaster during World War II, and his aunt Eleanor (whom many thought the most formidable of the clan) was largely responsible for negotiating the Austrian State Treaty and getting the Red Army out of Vienna in 1955. John Foster Dulles was also the most prominent Protestant layman of the 1940s, serving as chairman of the Federal Council of Churches’ Commission to Study the basis of a “just and durable” peace in the days when that predecessor to the National Council of Churches stood at the apex of the American establishment, alongside the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association.

Foster Dulles’s robust Calvinism didn’t take with young Avery, who would say in later years that he left Choate for Harvard a thoroughgoing skeptic and agnostic. But neither did his agnosticism last. As he recounted in his memoir, A Testimonial to Grace, he was walking along the Charles River on a blustery, early spring day in 1938 when he noticed the veins in a leaf on a blossoming tree; such precision, beauty, and purpose could not, he thought, be an accident. The universe, he imagined, must be governed by “an all-good and omnipotent God.” “That night,” he wrote, “I prayed for the first time in years.”

For the intellectually inquisitive Dulles, however, belief in God opened up another set of questions: such as, where might God’s will and purposes be institutionally embodied? Dulles’s undergraduate years coincided with a renaissance of Roman Catholic intellectual and apologetic life at Harvard; and so it was that, slowly but certainly, this product of the strongest Presbyterian stock in America came to appreciate the depth, subtlety and coherent structure of Catholicism–as well as its capacity to inspire civilizational nobility, which he found manifest in the Middle Ages, a period of which he was very fond. Thus, he entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1940–relishing, as he used to joke years later, the part of the ritual in which the candidate had to abjure and recant his former heresies. After decorated service in the Navy during World War II, Avery Dulles entered the Society of Jesus–then the intellectual elite corps of the Roman Catholic Church–and was ordained a priest in 1956.

His pre-ordination philosophy and theology courses and his graduate studies in Rome, where he received the doctorate in 1960, prepared him for a teaching career at Woodstock College, Catholic University and Fordham. That immersion in the Catholic tradition in full also gave him the conceptual anchor that kept him remarkably steadfast in the intellectual whitewater of the post-Vatican II years. His steadiness, which was complemented by an equally remarkable fairness to those with whom he disagreed, made him a unique figure on the U.S. Catholic theological scene–a reference point for just about every serious Catholic religious thinker, and more than a few Protestants and Jews as well. His lecture style was not particularly scintillating; but his written work–extending over more than two dozen books and 800 scholarly articles–was the very model of lucidity. Pope John Paul II, on the advice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, honored that accomplishment in 2001 with the cardinal’s red hat.

Avery Dulles was a self-consciously ecclesial theologian, who made a deliberate decision to “think with the church.” Some imagined this a form of conservatism; if it was (and such labels really don’t work with theology), it was an evangelical conservatism, an intellectual approach inspired by Christ’s instruction, after the multiplication of loaves ands fishes, to “pick up the fragments, that nothing may be lost.” Dulles explicated ancient truths; he stretched our understanding of them a bit; he probed their implications. But he never sought cheap originality or sound-bite fame.

That modesty of intellectual purpose went hand in hand with a charming modesty of person. One does not often see cardinals of the Holy Roman Church walking across campus in cheap blue windbreakers; the cardinal’s sartorial style would have caused grimaces at Wal-Mart, let alone Brooks Brothers. This was not an affectation, however, nor was it some kind of eccentric noblesse oblige. Avery Dulles took a vow of poverty when he entered the Society of Jesus and he kept it, as he kept his vows of chastity, obedience to superiors, and that special obedience to the pope that St. Ignatius Loyola intended to be the distinguishing hallmark of Jesuit life. Every dime of his royalties went to the Jesuits; as for patching the holes in one’s shoes, well, duct tape would do just fine.

Although John Paul II had long been in the habit of naming elderly Catholic theologians to the cardinalate as an expression of the church’s gratitude for their service, Avery Dulles’s nomination as a cardinal came as a surprise to many–and posed something of a dilemma to him. The night the announcement was made, my wife and I were entertaining friends who were also close to Father Dulles. As dinner began, the phone rang: it was the newly nominated cardinal, who brushed aside my congratulations and asked whether it was possible for him to be dispensed from the requirement in canon law that a cardinal be ordained a bishop; I assured him that a dispensation would be readily given, as it had been for others like him. There was an audible sigh of relief at the other end of the phone. It was all another expression of the man’s humility.

Still, cardinals employ the miter and crozier when they preside liturgically. So on the night of Feb. 23, 2001, Cardinal Avery Dulles processed into the Church of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary near Piazza del Popolo to take possession of his Roman “title,” vested as none of us had ever seen him before. The Discalced Augustinians present were thrilled that their small church had become the titular Roman parish of a new cardinal; others doubtless pondered the neat historical symmetry of Dulles becoming the titular pastor of a church in which one of his heroes, St. Robert Bellarmine, had once preached and taught. But others couldn’t help noticing a different kind of symmetry–in this case, American. Jody Bottum, now editor of First Things, put into words what more than a few of us were thinking: “Now we know what Abraham Lincoln would have looked like in full pontificals.”

In his later years, as Cardinal Dulles suffered greatly from the ravages of post-polio syndrome, his humble, even grateful submission to the will of God became an inspiration to many. (He also kept working, even after his ravaged throat muscles wouldn’t allow him to speak. One friend, on leaving after a visit, said, “Avery, is there anything I can do for you?” The cardinal scratched out on a note pad, “Put some more paper in the printer.”) The nobility here might seem aristocratic in character, given his background; yet I think it was, in fact, specifically Christian.

For his cardinal’s coat of arms, Avery Dulles chose the Latin motto, Scio cui credidi (“I know in whom I have believed”): St. Paul’s simple-yet-profound explanation to his disciple, Timothy, of why he was not concerned about his sufferings or his future. Avery Cardinal Dulles knew in Whom he believed. That made him the man he was, and the theologian he was. That made all the difference in an original American life that spanne
d more than a third of American history.

 -George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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