The National Catholic Review

Twentieth-century Catholicism has been marked by seismic cultural, theological and demographic shifts, opening the Catholic community to a new understanding of its 2,000-year heritage and a new capacity for bringing its venerable traditions to bear on an ever evolving world. For the astute observer of religion, American Catholicism is a particularly fascinating phenomenon in this global process. There is no better window into this laboratory than the career and contribution of Avery Dulles, S.J. (1918-2008). This book provides a masterful theological overview. It is an encyclopedic and relatively accessible study of the intellectual corpus, critical reflection and dialogue, churchmanship and spiritual development of a personality who reflected and helped define the last seven decades of the U.S. pilgrimage among Catholics and their conversation partners worldwide.

Patrick W. Carey, a professor of theology at Marquette University and past president of the American Catholic Historical Society, has read not only the writings of his subject but also commentaries and critiques by others. He has also explored Dulles’s correspondence, both pastoral and theological, his pre-Catholic writing as a young man, his family heritage and personal interchanges that formed his journey over the years.

Dulles’s life provides an interesting story in itself: scion of a patrician Presbyterian family, engaged with Republican politics intimately as an undergraduate, exposed to the ecumenical movement and deeply committed to debate on politics and society before his entry into the Catholic Church and his enlistment in the Second World War, and ever committed to a wider intellectual conversation, even after his specialization in theology.

But the author rightly integrates the fascinating journey of this engaging personality with his intellectual pilgrimage, the role of his Jesuit formation providing an Ignatian base to his theological development and his dogged commitment to healing the fissures in the church and promoting ecumenism.

The story begins with Avery Dulles’s nurture in a prestigious family. His father, John Foster Dulles, would become secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration. The author traces his Harvard and Navy years, his entry into the Catholic Church and formation as a Jesuit. Then came studies at Woodstock, Md., and Rome on the eve of the Second Vatican Council and a maturing intellectual perspective in the wake of the theological developments stimulated by the council. His dissertation on an ecumenical theme was finished before the conciliar texts were finalized.

Dulles’s career is probably most remembered for his contributions to the theology of the church and his service to the leadership of the church as an interpreter of the council and of official positions of the magisterium. His legacy also includes attempts, which continued until his death, to mediate amid the polarizations that arose in the 1960s and 1970s.

As Carey points out, however, the themes closest to Dulles’s theological center of interest are revelation, faith and the development of doctrine.

The core of the book traces Dulles’s intellectual development, publications, church service and debates as he evolves from the council years to the end of his life as a cardinal. He never ceases to change, to contribute to the intellectual depth and clarity of ecumenical and Catholic discussions and to both support the official positions of the leadership and advocate for freedom of theological debate. His engagement in the theology of the church, evangelization, apologetics, ecumenism and social commentary all build on his understanding of human knowing, which was influenced by John Henry Newman, Henri de Lubac, the scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi and a host of others.

In time, his evaluation of scholars of the stature of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthazar changed. He also weighed in on the debates on interpreting the council, its continuities and discontinuities with the Catholic tradition.

His willingness to serve the church on many levels made him an inevitable flashpoint for almost every controversy in the late 20th and early 21st-century Catholic Church in America. He continued to receive hate mail from right-wing critics until the end of his life, and many progressive Catholic thinkers detected a shift in his work after 1975, when polemical passages began to appear on occasion in his usually gentlemanly and deferential dialogue.

It was his claim, however, that he continued a steady course, attempting to keep a loyal attention both to the council and the vagaries of a developing magisterium, on the one hand, and American Catholic culture on the other. That he was drawn into dialogue with the prestigious jurists Antonin Scalia and John Noonan on contentious ethical issues demonstrates his fearlessness, respect and evenhandedness.

In fact, considering how prolific a writer he was and how fully engaged a churchman, it would be hard to imagine that any thinking person could agree—or disagree—with all of his positions. His legacy, as Carey notes, will be for history to judge. But the author has skillfully gathered so much of Dulles’s corpus, it will be difficult to affix a label on him from only one stage in his career or one segment of his work.

For readers committed to understanding recent decades of American history, post-conciliar Catholicism or the reception of Vatican II by Catholics and others, Carey’s book is indispensable. For historical and theological research it is a gold mine. And for the serious reader of Ignatian or contemporary ecumenical Christian spirituality, it provides rich, evangelical nourishment. Without doubt, it leaves the theological community and the institutional leadership in the church a rich array of unresolved challenges as well as of resources for the 21st century.

Jeffrey Gros, F.S.C., is Distinguished Professor of Ecumenical and Historical Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary.