The model of a Catholic teacher: Cardinal Avery Dulles

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., November 28, 2006 (Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. Collection, Fordham University Libraries)

Let me tell you about a Catholic teacher of mine. He was a person who deeply affected my life and the lives of many others who were his students; they in turn affected countless others. My teacher didn’t start out his life as a Catholic, but by the time he taught me more than 50 years ago, he was catholic with a small c—open to all aspects of truth and all ways of knowing—and Catholic with a big C, a faithful son of the church. My teacher was Father Avery Dulles, of the Society of Jesus, later Cardinal Avery Dulles. We who were his students as well as his brother Jesuits more than 50 years ago always called him Avery, and we continued to call him Avery when he became a cardinal. He would have it no other way.

Avery Dulles was born 100 years ago on Aug. 24, the feast of St. Bartholomew, and he was baptized a Christian in the Calvinist Presbyterian tradition he had inherited from his parents. We Jesuits used to remind him that he was born on the 346th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenot Calvinists in 1572, the work of Catherine de’ Medici. She had scheduled the massacre to celebrate her daughter’s marriage to the man who eventually became Henry IV of France, a former Calvinist.

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Cardinal Avery Dulles was catholic with a small c—open to all aspects of truth and all ways of knowing—and Catholic with a big C, a faithful son of the church.

The Dulles family, descended from Scots Presbyterians named Douglas, settled around Limerick in Ireland in the aftermath of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and came to what is now the United States in the 18th century. As a family, they contributed a great deal to the service of the United States, providing it with three secretaries of state. The third of these was Avery’s father, John Foster Dulles. Avery’s uncle, Allen Dulles, headed the Central Intelligence Agency from 1952 until 1961, and his fabled aunt, the economist Eleanor Lansing Dulles, managed the American aid program after World War II that rehabilitated West Berlin and West Germany.

Avery finished his secondary education at The Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., in 1936. When I saw the film “Dead Poets Society” with Avery, he reminisced afterwards about Choate and one particular teacher of poetry there in his student years, Dudley Fitts, a relatively young man who taught at Choate from 1926 to 1941. Fitts instilled in his students a love of literature that deeply marked Avery’s imagination ever after. By the time he finished Choate in 1936, however, Avery considered himself an atheist—or at least an agnostic.

Although his father went to Princeton, Avery attended Harvard and later characterized his freshman year there as wild and chaotic. He was nearly expelled because of an incident in which he and two of his friends commandeered a cab left with the motor running and keys in the ignition outside a diner near Harvard Square. Avery and his friends were arrested in Boston shortly thereafter, and they spent the weekend in jail. His fellow cab thieves, insouciant freshmen, were expelled from Harvard; but Avery, who was doing well academically, got off with a stern warning.

Admired by colleagues, Catholic and Protestant, theologically liberal and theologically conservative alike, Avery Dulles was widely revered for his fairness and his ability to learn from the thought of others.

The Twitch Upon the Thread

Chastened by this experience, Avery made better use of his Choate background as a sophomore, choosing to major in Renaissance history and literature. Struck by the cogency of much of the medieval scholastic philosophy he studied as background for understanding Renaissance humanism, Avery faced up to the question of God only in the middle of his third year as an undergraduate. One February afternoon in 1939, as he wrote some years later, he took a break from his studies in the Widener Library to walk along the banks of the Charles River:

I was irresistibly prompted to go out in the open air…. As I wandered aimlessly, something prompted me to look contemplatively at a young tree. On its frail, supple branches were young buds…. While my eye rested on them, 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…. That night, for the first time in years, I prayed.

A little over a year and a half later, Avery completed his journey from Choate faithlessness through a junior-year Deistic awakening to Catholicism. He was received into the Catholic Church during his first semester at Harvard Law School.

Two experiences of Avery’s senior year at Harvard College can give us some insight into the scholar and the human being Avery eventually became.

His senior honors thesis focused on the 15th-century Italian humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an intellectual whose interests ranged widely over the areas of philosophy, theology, the natural sciences and even Kabbalah. Harvard published it as the Phi Beta Kappa Essay for 1940. The title was prophetic for Avery’s later career as a reconciler of differing theological points of view: Princeps Concordiae [Prince of Concord]: Pico della Mirandola and the Scholastic Tradition.

In another development during his last years at Harvard, Avery joined with another undergraduate, Langdon Gilkey, to lead an organization opposed to the entry of the United States into Europe’s War, as they then characterized the Second World War, which had erupted in September 1939. In the late 1960s, nearly 30 years later, Gilkey (by then a distinguished theologian at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago) came to give a lecture at Woodstock College in Maryland, where Avery was teaching. Avery introduced him, remarking that both he and Gilkey had come to regret their participation in that Harvard antiwar movement—Gilkey as a Japanese prisoner of war in the Shantung Compound in China and Avery as an officer in the U.S. Navy on the Mediterranean front. Both had learned that their youthful opinions needed reconsideration.

From Sailor to Soldier of Christ

Just before his duties in the Mediterranean were ending, Avery contracted poliomyelitis while stationed at the navy base in Naples. He had hoped to enter the Society of Jesus after the navy but was afraid that his affliction would prevent this. On returning to the United States, Avery arranged, after a period of hospitalization and physical rehabilitation in Washington, to become an outpatient at the medical center connected with the Boston Navy Yard so that he would not have to make his application to the Jesuits from a hospital address.

Avery finally started his new life as a Jesuit novice on Aug. 14, 1946, at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After two years of novitiate, three years of philosophical studies at Woodstock College in Maryland, two years of teaching undergraduate philosophy at Fordham College at Rose Hill in the Bronx, and his first three years of theological studies, again at Woodstock, Avery was ordained a priest in the Fordham University church on June 16, 1956. He finished his theology studies at Woodstock a year later and went for a final year of Jesuit spiritual formation in West Germany in 1957-58.

Two years of graduate work at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University followed, preparing him to start his career teaching theology, a task he fulfilled for 14 years at Woodstock (1960-74), for 14 years at The Catholic University of America (1974-88) and for 20 more years at Fordham University as the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society (1988-2008). Through all those years, not unlike Pico della Mirandola, the Princeps Concordiae, Avery worked within Catholic circles and also ecumenically to reconcile opposing ideas and work out new syntheses, especially of theological thought.

Avery was the author of 23 books. His most important theological writings—Models of the Church (1974, expanded edition 1986), Models of Revelation (1983) and The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (1994)—synthesized many theological viewpoints and sought to find multiple convergences. Admired by colleagues, Catholic and Protestant, theologically liberal and theologically conservative alike, he was widely revered for his fairness and his ability to learn from the thought of others.

Avery had no special techniques as a teacher in a classroom. He simply stood at the podium and talked. To be frank, he sometimes droned, occasionally writing a word or two on the blackboard. His only gestures were made with his left hand, pulling at a non-existent beard or gesturing downwards in the general direction of hell. Somehow I found it mesmerizing. He had so much to say, so many thoughts to provoke. Dulles introduced us not only to fundamental theology in the Catholic tradition but also to such challenges to Christian faith as the writings of Sigmund Freud, Mircea Eliade and Arnold Toynbee.

In the concluding synthesis of The Assurance of Things Hoped For, Avery summed up his ideas on faith in several theses. He began with the phenomenon of faith as “a constant feature of human cognition and existence,” a theme much developed in the work of the European polymath Michael Polanyi, whose ideas on “the fiduciary component in human knowledge,” evident in all scientific discoveries, deeply affected Avery’s theological development.

Avery, however, went much further to develop what the Catholic tradition means by faith as a theological virtue: “Faith...is a self-surrender to God as he reveals himself.” In an earlier work, The Survival of Dogma (1971), he had developed this theme at great length, describing faith as a combination of deep conviction, firm commitment and trust. Not only a Catholic but an Anglican, a Lutheran or a Calvinist could recognize what Avery was describing—and, I dare say, a Jew or a Muslim as well. The Princeps Concordiae was drawing us all together.

A Merry Prankster

Avery’s thousands of students, Jesuits and others, remember him for the clarity of what he taught and wrote as a theologian and teacher. But he was more than that. The prankster who once had collaborated in commandeering a cab in his freshman year at Harvard still maintained deep within his Presbyterian bones a somewhat more Catholic tendency to elaborate jokes.

One anecdote: Just a week before my ordination in 1968, America published an article of mine entitled “Why I Want to Be a Priest.” Alas, an error crept into the article between its birth on my typewriter and its appearance in the magazine. I had enjoyed my years studying at Woodstock College and had written in the original draft of the article that “I do not feel cheated by the largely seminary education I have received, though I have to admit that the seminaries I have lived in were academically a cut above the average.” Alas, the not in the first part of that sentence dropped out.

I quickly wrote a note to the editors of America asking them to correct the error in a forthcoming issue, which they did. I also asked them to send a letter to the rector and the faculty of Woodstock pointing out the misprint, which they also did. The letter was posted on the bulletin board at Woodstock just before the date of my ordination.

Avery arrived in New York to concelebrate the ordination mass at Fordham University with a gift for me, a book of articles he had just published on ecclesiology and ecumenism, which I had proofread. The inscription was vintage Dulles: “To Pat Ryan, S.J., on the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood and as a memento of his seminary education. Avery Dulles, S.J., June 13, 1968.”

Cardinal Avery Dulles, 2008: “If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity.”

In his 39th and final McGinley lecture at Fordham University (April 1, 2008), Avery—reduced to silence by the secondary effects of polio that recurred in his last years of life—still managed to compose some of his most moving words, even if they had to be read for him: “As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytic and mute persons in the gospels…. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity.” Avery died on Dec. 12, 2008, three and a half months after his 90th birthday.

We who were his students over many years remember Avery as a teacher not at all unlike Chaucer’s Good Clerk of Oxenford: “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.” For his learning and teaching we remember him on the centenary of his birth. 

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Tom Massaro
1 year 11 months ago

Many thanks to Father Pat Ryan for sharing with America's readers his appreciation for the many contributions of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. on the august occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. So many of us (even Jesuits!) in subsequent generations of the theologically-minded would not otherwise have access to the splendid and inspiring details of his life and his remarkable journey of faith. What we do tend to know is the synthesis of vital aspects of Christian faith represented in the many momentous works he authored. This account allows Avery Dulles to be more fully a mentor, albeit in a second-hand way, to our own growth in faith. We owed Patrick Ryan a great debt of gratitude for this invaluable service.

wheels happy
1 year 11 months ago

The article you have shared here is very awesome. I really like and appreciate your work. The points you have mentioned in this article are useful. I must try to follow these points and also share others.
- happy wheels

Bruce Snowden
1 year 11 months ago

I was privileged to attend three of Cardinal Dulles’s lectures at Fordham University, including his last. I treasure two letters he sent to me, speaking of his book on the Priesthood and about my self-generated outreach of prayer for priests called, “Remember a Priest Prayerfully,” circulated in the Archdiocese of New York. RAPP as the outreach was called in acronym, endeavored to encourage parents with their children to pray daily for a priest by name and when possible to let the priest know.

When Cardinal Dulles returned to the Homeland, called Heaven by many, I posted a brief thank-you memorial in AMERICA using some lines from an oldtime song. which I repeat here, respectfully, "He (Cardinal Dulles) made the night brighter wherever he would go, He was the Old Lamp Lighter of long, long, ago." Your Eminence, we love you, asking your prayers that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Karen Silver
1 year 11 months ago

Avery Dulles taught me at Fordham, too. One of the best lessons was this takly, skinny beanpole walking around in a beret and being available to any student who wanted to talk. On 9/11, he led students to the church and talked about Pearl Harbor. He was humble and he was wonderful. He didn't act the "me prelate"role the way Cardinal Egan did. I wish the American episcopate was more lik e him.

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