Cardinal Avery Dulles, Theologian, Is Dead at 90
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN [New York Times]
Cardinal Avery Dulles, a scion of diplomats and Presbyterians who converted
to Roman Catholicism, rose to pre-eminence in Catholic theology and became
the only American theologian ever appointed to the College of Cardinals,
died today died Friday morning, December 12, 2008, at Fordham University in
the Bronx, New York. He was 90. His death, at the Jesuit infirmary at the
university, was confirmed by the New York Province of the Society of Jesus
in Manhattan, New York.
Cardinal Dulles, a professor of religion at Fordham University for the last
20 years, was a prolific author and lecturer and an elder statesman of
Catholic theology in America. He was also the son of John Foster Dulles, the
secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the nephew of
Allen Dulles, who guided European espionage during World War II and later
directed the Central Intelligence Agency.
A conservative theologian in an era of liturgical reforms and rising
secularism, Cardinal Dulles wrote 27 books and 800 articles, mostly on
theology; advised the Vatican and America’s bishops, and staunchly defended
the pope and his church against demands for change on abortion, artificial
birth control, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and other issues.
His task as a theologian, the Cardinal often said, was to honor diversity
and dissent but ultimately to articulate the traditions of the church and to
preserve Catholic unity.
When Pope John Paul II designated dozens of new cardinals in early 2001,
there were three from the United States. Archbishops Edward M. Egan of New
York and Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington were unsurprising choices; it
is common for heads of archdioceses to be given red hats. But the selection
of Father Dulles was extraordinary. Although his was an influential voice in
American Catholicism, he was not even a bishop, let alone an archbishop.
The appointment was widely seen as a reward for his loyalty to the pope, but
also an acknowledgment of his work in keeping lines of communication open
between the Vatican and Catholic dissenters in America. Cardinal Dulles
considered it an honorary appointment. He was 82, two years past the age of
voting with other cardinals in electing a new pope.
His investiture with 43 other scarlet-robed cardinals in Rome, Italy, on
February 21, 2001, almost came unstuck. The last to step up to the pope’s
golden throne to receive his biretta, the red silk hat of office, Cardinal
Dulles approached with his cane, knelt and was accoutered. But as he
embraced the pope, his biretta fell to the ground: a humbling at the great
moment, he recalled wryly.
He carried the cane because of a recurrence of polio contracted while
serving in the Navy in World War II. The polio had left him unable to walk
for a time, but the symptoms had disappeared. They reappeared about a decade
ago, affecting his leg muscles, and became progressively worse. About a year
ago, his arms and throat were affected, leaving him unable to speak. Thus,
his farewell address at Fordham last April was delivered by the university’s
former president, the Rev. Joseph O’Hare.
Cardinal Dulles was typically self-deprecating, and soft-spoken, a bit
awkward: a lanky, 6-foot 2-inch beanpole with a high forehead, a shock of
dark hair going gray and a gaunt face with sharp features. Abraham Lincoln
without the beard came to mind.
His spiritual passage to Catholicism was like a fable. A young scholar with
a searching mind, he stirred from his establishment Presbyterian family to
face questions of faith and dogma. By the time he entered Harvard in 1936,
he was an agnostic.
In his second book, “A Testimonial to Grace,” a 1946 account of his
conversion, Cardinal Dulles said his doubts about God on entering Harvard
were not diminished by his studies of medieval art, philosophy and theology.
But on a gray February day in 1939, strolling along the Charles River in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, he saw a tree in bud and experienced a profound
“The thought came to me suddenly, with all the strength and novelty of a
revelation, that these little buds in their innocence and meekness followed
a rule, a law of which I as yet knew nothing,” he wrote. “That night, for
the first time in years, I prayed.”
His conversion in 1940, the year he graduated from Harvard, shocked his
family and friends, he said, but he called it the best and most important
decision of his life.
He joined the Jesuits and went on to a career as a major Catholic thinker
that spanned five decades.
His tenure coincided with broad shifts in theological ideas as well as
sweeping changes brought on by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
These provided new understandings of how the church, after centuries of
isolation from modern thought and even hostility to it, should relate to
other faiths and to religious liberty in an age when the church was gaining
millions of new followers in diverse cultures.
Cardinal Dulles devoted much of his scholarship to interpretations of the
Vatican Council’s changes, which he said had been mistaken by some
theologians as a license to push in democratic directions. The church, he
counseled, should guard its sacred teachings against secularism and
“Christianity,” he said in a 1994 speech, “would dissolve itself if it
allowed its revealed content, handed down in tradition, to be replaced by
Theological and academic colleagues, including many who disagreed with him,
said Cardinal Dulles had set high standards of intellectual integrity,
fairness in judgments and lucidity in lectures, essays and books. They said
his was often a voice of mediation between the church and American Catholics
who challenged church teachings.
In “The Reshaping of Catholicism” (Harper & Row, 1988), he wrote that the
Vatican Council had acknowledged the possibility that the church could fall
into serious error and might require reform, that the laity had a right to
an active role and that the church needed to respect regional and local
differences. But he also emphasized that “a measure of conservatism is
inseparable from authentic Christianity.”
Avery Robert Dulles was born in Auburn, New York, on August 24, 1918, the
son of John Foster and Janet Pomeroy Avery Dulles. His family was steeped in
public service. Besides his father, who was secretary of state from 1953 to
1959, and uncle, who directed the C.I.A. from 1953 to 1961, his
great-grandfather, John Watson Foster, was secretary of state under
President Benjamin Harrison, and a great-uncle, Robert Lansing, held the
post under President Woodrow Wilson. Avery’s grandfather, Allen Macy Dulles,
was a Presbyterian theologian and co-founder of the American Theological
Avery Dulles attended primary schools in New York City, New York, and
private secondary schools in Switzerland and New England, but had no strict
He attended Harvard Law School for a year and a half before joining the
Naval Reserve as a World War II intelligence officer. In 1946, he joined the
Society of Jesus, began training for the priesthood and was ordained in 1956
by Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York.
He took a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1960,
taught at Woodstock College in Maryland from 1960 to 1974 and at the
Catholic University of America in Washington DC from 1974 to 1988, then
joined the faculty at Fordham as the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of
Religion and Society.
Cardinal Dulles served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of
America in 1975-76 and of the American Theological Society in 1978-79. His
books include “Models of the Church,” (Doubleday, 1974), a theological
best-seller that appeared in many languages; “A Church to Believe In:
Discipleship and the Dynamics of Freedom,” (Crossroad, 1982) on American
Catholic theological concerns, and “The Splendor of Faith: The Theological
vision of Pope John Paul II,” (Crossroads, 1999).
The cardinal is survived by eight nieces and nephews. His brother, John
Watson Foster Dulles, an author and professor, died in San Antonio, Texas,
on June 23, 2008, and a sister, Lillias Pomeroy Dulles Hinshaw, died in
1987. Cardinal Dulles remained an active voice in the church into the new
century, responding when the church confronted sexual abuse scandals
involving hundreds of priests in the United States. After the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a national policy barring from
ministerial duties any priest who had ever sexually abused a minor, Cardinal
Dulles said the policy ignored priests’ rights of due process.
“In their effort to protect children, to restore public confidence in the
church as an institution and to protect the church from liability suits, the
bishops opted for an extreme response,” he said. He noted that the policy
imposed a “one-size-fits-all” punishment, even if an offense was decades old
and had not been repeated. “Such action seems to reflect an attitude of
vindictiveness to which the church should not yield.”