Remembering Avery Dulles, SJ

Published January 28, 2009

It was my privilege to count the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, as a friend, and to do so for almost a quarter of a century. Truth to tell, though, I had “known” Avery long before I met him; I had begun reading him when two of his books, Apologetics and the Biblical Christ and Models of the Church, had been assigned in my sophomore college theology classes, back in the (gasp!) first Nixon Administration. When we first met in Washington, somewhere around 1985,  Avery’s reputation as Catholic America’s unique theological reference point was well-established; what was immediately evident about the man himself was his unaffected naturalness, his preternatural calm, and his good humor.

From the mid-Seventies on, Avery had been a sign of contradiction within an ever-more-left-leaning U.S. Catholic theological establishment. He was one of the Catholic signatories of the 1975 “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” an ecumenical challenge to then-dominant revisionist and secularizing tendencies in academic theology. Dubbed the “Hartford Heresies” by its enemies, the Appeal in fact marked one of the points at which Catholic theology in America began to reground itself in the Church’s ancient and ongoing tradition, rather than imagining that theology (and everything else, for that matter), had started all over again with the Second Vatican Council.

Taking a leadership role wasn’t a particularly pleasant task for Avery, a private man who relished serious argument but had no taste for polemics. Yet he acceded to the wishes of his peers and served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America during one of its most difficult periods. A CTSA-commissioned study on sexual morality couldn’t bring itself to condemn bestiality; Church authorities were (rightly) aghast; the experience of defending orthodoxy while leading the society through the ecclesiastical donnybrook that followed doubtless reinforced Avery’s longstanding dislike of the spotlight.

He never made a point of his lineage, although his great-grandfather, his great-uncle, and his father had all served as Secretary of State. Yet as his father’s reputation came under fire from historians stewed in the juices of the Sixties, Avery remained a man of deep, if usually understated, filial piety. In a 1994 lecture, “John Foster Dulles: His Religious and Philosophical Heritage,” Avery met the fashionable liberal critique of Foster Dulles and his alleged marriage of hyper-Calvinism to American chauvinism in the calm, scholarly spirit with which he handled theological controversy. His conclusion was both just and loving: “At a distance of a generation or two, I think we may judge that my father made the kind of contribution to which he felt called – that of a Christian layman concerned with developing a world order consonant with Christ and the gospel. [Thus] he was able to make a coherent and, to me, convincing case that a nation cannot be enduringly strong and prosperous without adherence to strong spiritual and moral principles.”

My favorite Dulles memory, however, involves a black-and-white photo, not a lecture or a book. In it, Avery, his lanky torso clad only in a t-shirt, is standing at the bar of New York’s Union League Club, having just performed a modest striptease for an ecumenical and interreligious group of theologians.

It was, in a sense, my fault: in a fit of whimsy, I had had t-shirts made from the cover of my book, Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy, for which Avery had kindly provided a glowing front-cover blurb. One of the shirts went to Father Dulles, with a note explaining that this would make him the best-dressed theologian at Fordham. Some weeks later, at a meeting organized by Richard John Neuhaus (then still a Lutheran), Avery caused consternation in the Union League Club bar by taking off his suit jacket (itself a grave offense in the very proper ULC) before starting to peel off his shirt. “He’s had a stroke,” people thought. “Somebody call 911!”

But there was no stroke. Father Dulles just wanted to show off his new t-shirt. The photo of Avery and his wicked, crooked grin, surrounded by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish theologians cracking up, is one I shall cherish ad multos annos.

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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