One Who Prayed

Avery Dulles kept his theological balance by spending so much time on his knees.

Blessed John Henry Newman, who denied that he was, properly speaking, a theologian, observed that “to write theology is like dancing on the tight rope some hundred feet from the ground. It is hard to keep from falling, and the fall is great…. The questions are so subtle, the distinctions so fine, and critical, jealous eyes so many.” Patrick W. Carey’s magnificent new biography of the first American to be created a cardinal in honor of his contributions to theological discourse gives us a very full picture of a truly high-wire theological performer. In drawing this portrait Carey also gives us something more.           

According to an old maxim, the theologian is defined as “one who prays.” For those who did not know him personally, Carey depicts Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ not just as a giant of intellect and a man who knew about God, but also as someone who desired more than anything to know God and his will. “Theology,” Carey writes, “was not just an academic enterprise for him; it was a personal, faithful, and creative search to understand the revelation of God in Christ, Dulles’ own conversion to Christ, and his commitment to the Catholic Church.” Thus this book, full of fine theological distinctions, subtle questions, and the reactions of jealous, critical eyes—which, though very lucid, may be tough-going for non-theologian readers—is also about Dulles the man, spending his lunches and evenings as a Jesuit scholastic meeting with undergraduates to discuss Christian discipleship; devoting several hours daily to responding personally to requests from scholars and non-scholars alike for spiritual and theological guidance; and hobbled by post-polio syndrome and age, walking through Vatican City to kneel in prayer over the body of John Paul II. He kept his balance on the high-wire largely because he spent so much time on his knees.     

Of course no one could have predicted it. Though Dulles had theologian ancestors, they were Protestants like his grandfather, Allen Macy Dulles, president of (Presbyterian) Auburn Theological Seminary and a prominent voice in early 20th-century liberal Protestantism. Looming much larger in the family tree were the political figures. His father, John Foster Dulles, served as secretary of state for Dwight Eisenhower, just as Dulles’ great-grandfather and great-uncle had done under Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson, respectively. Uncle Allen Dulles was the first director of the CIA. And young Avery, who had worked for the New York district attorney as well as for future presidential candidate Thomas Dewey during his summer breaks from Harvard College and then Harvard Law School, looked as if he might have the same career path.  But Avery’s conversion to Catholicism altered things.

Despite his Presbyterian heritage, young Avery had gradually slipped away from religious faith.  The excellent education he received at an elite prep school, as well as two years in a Swiss boarding school, had given him a taste for intellectual life and culture. Not many high school seniors then or since spent their days “wrestling with the relationship between individuality and tradition in art, as three of his essays from that year indicate.” But the intellectual culture of the 1930s was more about the progress of science and humanity than about supernatural religion and obedience. Young Avery entered Harvard College in 1937 as a theological agnostic at best.

At Harvard, Avery was forced to engage the philosophical and religious foundations of the Western high culture he so loved. Like others before and after, it was philosophy, “especially his sophomore-year examinations of Aristotle, Plato, and some of the scholastics, that put him on the road to Catholicism.” His senior thesis, on the scholastic background of Renaissance thinker Pico della Mirandola, not only won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize and subsequent publication by Harvard University Press, it set the definitive direction of his mind: “I found myself bitten by the theological bug. My supreme interest would never again be anything but theology.” But, to the dismay of his parents, it was Catholic theology, practiced in the Catholic Church. Years later, at his installation as cardinal, a cousin recalled overhearing her father lamenting with Avery’s parents that the “best and the brightest of the family’s next generation” had thrown his life away by becoming a Catholic. “And, of course they were right,” concluded the cousin. “He did throw that life away. He threw it away for God.”

While Dulles had continued the study of law after his conversion, he had focused his energy in helping found a center for lay spirituality in Boston called the St. Benedict Center. Following America’s entrance into World War II, however, any family tensions over his conversion faded into the background for the time being. Dulles entered the Navy and, because of his proficiency in several languages, served as an intelligence officer on US and Free French ships. After contracting and being treated for polio, he was forced to resign. But due to the nature of his work, Navy life had allowed much time for further theological study and prayer; by the time of his illness he had penned a conversion story, A Testimonial to Grace, published by Sheed and Ward in 1946. Instrumental in helping him both bring the book to press and discern his vocation as a Jesuit was the charismatic Leonard Feeney, SJ, who had become the guiding light of the St. Benedict Center in Dulles’ absence. This was before Father Feeney had developed his restrictive understanding of the doctrine “no salvation outside the Church,” which was corrected by the Holy Office in 1949, and before his rejection of his Jesuit superiors’ orders resulted in his excommunication. (Feeney later was reconciled to the Church, but Dulles had no contact with him after his excommunication, though he did write a moving reflection on the man after his death.)

Dulles’ career as a Jesuit was marked by publicity from the beginning because of his famous Protestant politician father. His Jesuit superiors, moreover, dabbled in occasional politicking, as when the Democratic candidate for US senator from New York spread malicious rumors that John Foster Dulles, running as a Republican, had ostracized his son for becoming Catholic; young Avery was promptly dispatched to the family home for lunch and publicity photos.

John Foster lost that race, but was secretary of state by the time Avery was ordained, and the New York Times carried a front-page story about the ordination. (Today, highlight reels of the ordination can be viewed on YouTube.) But Avery was also famous in Catholic circles because of his conversion story, his apostolic work, and his obvious academic brilliance. While teaching philosophy as a Jesuit scholastic (seminarian), Dulles not only moderated various student groups and met with students over lunches, but formed a Catholic Evidence Guild to help them develop as Catholic apologists. All this was added to his teaching, prolific book reviewing, and co-authorship of an introductory philosophy textbook with two colleagues. Dulles thought he would be sent to do a doctorate in philosophy, but after his theology studies the legendary Jesuit theologian Gustave Weigel convinced Dulles’ superiors to send him to Rome for theology.

Dulles’ studies at the Gregorian University were preceded by his “tertianship,” a kind of second novitiate for Jesuits after their initial theological studies. Dulles spent 10 months in Germany making retreats and attending ecumenical conferences in Europe. His dissertation, accordingly, was on the topic of the presence of “vestiges of the Church” outside of the Roman communion. Dulles was in Rome during the preparations for the Second Vatican Council, but by the time it began he was teaching theology to Jesuits at Woodstock College in Maryland.

Dulles once observed that a barrier to attempting a biography of him was that his “life does not have that much of the dramatic about it, nor would I wish it to. I am pleased to be no more important than my work, rather than a celebrity.” This is only partially true, since Dulles’ theological work commenced with Vatican II and was tied up with the dramatic fights over the meaning of that council for the life of the Church. But readers should be aware that large portions of this book are dedicated to the subtle questions and fine distinctions that made up Dulles’ distinct theological perspective. Carey wants to show that Dulles was, as the subtitle indicates, a model theologian—not only a man famous for his use of theological models, but a “theological diplomat,” “the prince of theological harmony,” “an Evangelical Catholic preacher,” and occasionally “a prophet.” 

Carey often likens Dulles to Newman, whose “modern sense of historicity” made him “open to the conditioned nature of human consciousness and to the relative value of all theological linguistic constructions” without being a doctrinal relativist. Dulles thus faced fire from all sides because

he accepted theological pluralism and the possibilities of legitimate dissent in the church, and he counseled churchmen to exercise patience and tolerance in the church of Christ for those who were unable in the present to accept the fullness of Catholic doctrine and discipline—and this without forfeiting the church’s hard or difficult doctrines. When he counseled tolerance, he was accused of relativism. When he advocated the fullness of Catholic doctrine he was accused of intransigence and a return to pre-Vatican II closed-mindedness.

Carey is not, however, uncritical and acknowledges, as Dulles himself did, that in the late 1960s and early 1970s Dulles—though accurately labeled a “moderate progressive”—sometimes exaggerated the problems of the pre-conciliar period and overemphasized the subjective side of faith in books like The Survival of Dogma (1971). Dulles’ own distinctive method of assembling models (particularly of the Church) and trying to combine them sometimes led, albeit unintentionally, to a kind of relativism. Theologian Father Joseph Komonchak wrote to Dulles complaining that many readers of Models of the Church (1974) would dismiss any correction by saying that they simply had a “different model” of the Church. Carey is clear that under Dulles’ leadership the 1966 “Rockhurst meeting” to reorganize Catholic college and seminary theology unintentionally led to the balkanization and incoherence of theological education that has lasted to this day. Further, some of his suggestions on the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue commission, such as removing the anathemas attached to some of the Marian dogmas, were retracted later in his career and acknowledged as mistaken. Dulles even embarrassedly admitted to Carey to “concelebrating” at a Eucharistic liturgy with the Lutherans Wolfhart Pannenberg and Carl Braaten at an ecumenical conference in 1969.

But truly bad decisions were few. Carey also shows that even in the midst of his most “radical” period Dulles attempted to retain balance, as when he responded to certain critics that though the Christian faith was more than its dogmas and dogmatic formulations, it was “not an empty sack that can equally well be filled by anything God chooses to say.” Further, his defense of a legitimate right to dissent from “non-infallible official teachings” was very restricted. Dulles insisted legitimate dissent be “rare, reluctant, and respectful” and he always opposed the use of public media as a pressure tool in theological dispute. Even though initially unsure whether Humanae Vitae’s judgment about contraception was infallible, he never signed any petitions or protested its teachings.

Starting in the mid-1970s Dulles became more convinced that dissent was becoming “too frequent, too sweeping, and too strident” and began to switch gears. Carey titles one chapter “A Chastened Progressivism, 1974-1988.” Dulles’ emphasis on “development in continuity” switched to an emphasis on “continuity in development,” and during his years at Catholic University of America (1974-88) and as the McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University (1988-2008) he criticized the major Catholic theological associations for their relentless attacks on the bishops and the pope. Some saw this as a “lurch to the right,” though Dulles claimed—and Carey documents—that his principles remained the same from one period to the next.

Carey occasionally overemphasizes Dulles’ theological independence, but it is clear from his narrative that two keys to Dulles’ changing emphases and judgments were the lessening of his reliance on the theology of Karl Rahner and the renewal of his use of Thomas Aquinas, somewhat absent from his work during the 1970s. What marked Dulles’ mature years was fidelity to, and ability to use, the entire tradition of the Church in his work. If he did not found a school exactly, he left this legacy for younger orthodox theologians.

This ability to see the entire tradition made his writing attractive for me as a young Calvinist Evangelical. After being received into the Church I attended Fordham for graduate theology in part because he was there. I discovered he really did know the tradition by heart, and held old-fashioned standards: he recommended I publish both papers I wrote for him, but did not give them A’s.

My favorite memories of him are not from class, where he was a dull lecturer, but from private conversations, where his sharp wit came out; from a weekly benediction and adoration hour, which he (unlike some younger Jesuits) would generally spend kneeling; and from seeing him on campus striding around with his overcoat and black beret, cane and briefcase in either hand. One Thanksgiving Day a friend and I encountered then-Father Dulles going to his office as usual. I teased him about never ceasing to work, and he responded—with that wide-eyed look of his—that he did usually “take off Easter Sunday and Christmas morning.”

I saw him last at a 2005 conference. Afterward, at the airport, a colleague and I were angered that the cardinal, whose leg brace set off the alarm, would be searched. The 87-year-old prince of the Church simply stood, arms outstretched for inspection, meekly enduring this cruciform humiliation, put himself together, and began to walk to his gate. As he prepared to leave he looked at us. 

I’m sure he smiled.


Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, 1918–2008
By Patrick W. Carey
Paulist Press, 2010
Hardback, 710 pages; $49.95

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About David Paul Deavel 27 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available from Notre Dame Press.