Robert Seton, grandson of Elizabeth Ann Seton, had an expansive sense of his proper position in the scheme of things. In 1861, after two years at Rome’s North American College, he talked Pius IX into letting him enter the Pontifical Academy for Noble Ecclesiastics on the grounds that, although the United States didn’t have a Catholic aristocracy (or any other aristocracy, for that matter), if it did, he would surely be its fine flower. Later in life, as a titular archbishop, he was a fanatic stickler for ecclesiastical punctilio, refusing to celebrate Mass if the ribbons in the Missal weren’t properly ironed.
On Ascension Thursday (not to be confused with Ascension Thursday Sunday), a man with a far greater claim to being American aristocracy marked his sixtieth anniversary as a Jesuit and his fiftieth anniversary as a priest. Three generations of his family had given America a Secretary of State; in 1956, when he was ordained, the Jesuit’s father (who was arguably the country’s most prominent Protestant layman) held that office, while his uncle (who had directed U.S. clandestine operations against Hitler from a perch in neutral Switzerland) ran the Central Intelligence Agency. But the Jesuit in question, Avery Cardinal Dulles, is the polar opposite of Archbishop Robert Seton in self-presentation and affect. Go to Fordham these days, and you’re likely to find the son of John Foster Dulles, the nephew of Allen Dulles, and America’s first theologian-cardinal striding across campus in a battered blue windbreaker that he probably acquired in the Eisenhower Administration, wearing shoes that he repairs by inserting masking tape in the inner soles.
In his remarks at the dinner following his Golden Jubilee Mass, Cardinal Dulles noted that, in his dozens of books, “you’d look hard to find something original.” Which shouldn’t be a surprise, he continued, because “everything has a history,” including every theological question. Avery Cardinal Dulles has dedicated his life as a theologian to exploring the ancient, medieval, and modern history of great questions — and then presenting his discoveries in a luminously clear prose that is a model (no pun intended) of theological and literary craftsmanship. This summer, Cardinal Dulles will celebrate his 88th birthday; those of us who know and esteem him will happily say, in the language he loves, ad multos annos, gloriosque annos, vivas — which, at the risk of offending certain members of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, I venture to translate as “May you live many years, and glorious years.”
The next day, another distinguished American priest celebrated his 70th birthday with friends (including Cardinal Dulles). Father Richard John Neuhaus really would be engaging in false modesty if he claimed that there was nothing original in his voluminous writings. This is, after all, the man who introduced the phrase “the public square” into our national vocabulary; who taught the President of the United States to speak of an America in which “every child is welcomed in life and protected in law;” the most original theologian of the American experiment since John Courtney Murray, S.J.; the man who has done more than anyone else to advance the new ecumenism of “evangelicals and Catholic together.”
No, there is genuine originality in Father Neuhaus’s work, as there is always insight in his commentary on events cultural, political, and ecclesiastical. But the originality and insight are grounded in Christian orthodoxy, which he first preached as a Lutheran pastor (and the son of a formidable Lutheran pastor, known to his clerical colleagues in the Ottawa Valley as “Pope Neuhaus”). In helping launch the 1975 “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” Richard Neuhaus threw down the gauntlet to a kind of theologizing in which the idolatry of the present dominates. And it was no accident that he was joined in that challenge to the tyranny of the new by Father Avery Dulles, S.J., who believed then, and believes now, that every important question has a history.
That common conviction is one reason why these two great New Yorkers have so many important things to say to today.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.