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James Martin, S.J.March 05, 2001

Widely regarded as the dean of American Catholic theologians, Avery Dulles, S.J., was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II at a consistory in Rome on Feb. 21. He is the first U.S. theologian to be named to the College of Cardinals, as well as the first American Jesuit to receive this honor. The son of former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Cardinal Dulles has been teaching theology since he completed his doctoral degree at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1960. From 1960 to 1974 he taught at the Jesuit house of studies at Woodstock College in Maryland, and then began a career at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., which lasted until 1988. Since that year he has been on the faculty at Fordham University in New York, where he is today, at age 82, the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society.

Avery Dulles is perhaps best known for Models of the Church (1974), his highly influential treatment of ecclesiology. But he is also the author of 20 other books and more than 650 articles, many of which have appeared in the pages of America. His career, by all accounts, has been nothing short of remarkable. In this interview, conducted on Feb. 3, Cardinal Dulles discusses his early years as a Catholic, his initial experience of teaching theology, the role of the theologian in a secular culture, the current polarization in the American church, the question of dissent and the place of prayer in his own life.

In A Testimonial to Grace, the story of your conversion, you described your early attraction to philosophy. How did God work to move you from an appreciation of philosophical texts to embracing Catholicism?

The move toward philosophy was for me the presupposition of religious faith. I don’t know that it always has to go that way, but that is the way it went with me.

The first stage was Aristotle convincing me that the mind was a faculty that penetrated reality, so that when one was thinking correctly one was entering more deeply into reality itself. He helped me see that our ideas are not merely subjective but that they reflect the structure of the world and the universe. The so-called metaphysical realism of Aristotle was a first stage for me, and it gave me a confidence in human reason.

The second stage was Plato, who basically said that there was a transcendent order of what is morally right and wrong and that one has an unconditional obligation to do that which is right, even when it seems to be against one’s self-interest. That set me thinking about where that obligation comes from. It seemed to come from something higher than humanity. We don’t impose it on ourselves. And no other human being can impose it on us or exempt us from it. So there is an absolute order to which we are subject. This seemed to imply an absolute Beingand a personal being to whom we are accountable. And this set me thinking that there is a God who is a law-giver and a judge, who knows everything that we do and who will punish or reward us duly. In this way I found a basis in natural theology.

Then after that I read the Gospels, and it seemed to me that they taught all of this, and more. The revelation given in Jesus Christ was a reaffirmation of all these principles I had learned in Greek philosophybut the Gospels added the idea that God was loving and merciful and had redeemed us in Christ, offering us an opportunity to get back on board when we had slipped and fallen overboard. That’s a very brief sketch of what I tried to lay out in greater detail in my Testimonial to Grace.

How did you move from those general Christian beliefs to Catholicism more specifically?

I studied quite a lot of history in connection with my work in early Renaissance studies, which was my special field. But since I had to do the patristic and medieval background for the Renaissance, I had to read something of the Greek Fathers and a good deal of Augustine and the medieval tradition, especially Bernard, Thomas Aquinas and Dante. And, in particular, for my dissertation I worked on the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who had his roots deep in medieval scholasticism. So I got to know the medieval church quite well and was strongly attracted to it, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Also I studied the Reformation and so learned about the Reformers: I read Luther, Calvin and the decrees of the Council of Trent. I found my sympathies were always on the Catholic side and felt that was where I belonged.

Also, I ran into contemporary Catholicism through the books of writers such as Jacques Maritain and étienne Gilson, both of whom enjoyed very high prestige at Harvard when I was studying there. My professors had great esteem for them and I myself found them extremely helpful in applying Christian principles to the modern world in many spheres, from aesthetics all the way to politics and international affairs. I found them full of light.

Finally, I was living in Cambridge, Mass., which at that time, and perhaps still today, is a very Catholic city. The Catholic Church had a hold on its people that no Protestant church seemed to have. The people were attending church services in huge numbers and going to confession, communion, Benediction and Holy Week services and things like that. And I was attracted in many ways to the liturgy, too. So it was a combination of all those factors, without much personal contact with any individual CatholicsI didn’t really have any close friends who were practicing Catholics. It was a kind of a solitary journey, and then I later discovered that others were making the same journey, though I did not realize it at the time.

How did your family respond to your conversion to Catholicism?

I thought that I had prepared them quite well, intimating what I was reading and working on. But it came as something of a shock to them when I wrote to them that I planned to become a Catholic. They said, Well, come down, let’s discuss this matter. So I did. I made a trip from Cambridge to New York and discussed it with my father. I think he saw that I had thought the thing through: that it was not just a rash, momentary infatuation, that it was something for which I had some solid reasons. So finally he said, Well, you’re an adult, you can make your own decisions. They’re not the decisions we think are right, but you are entitled to follow your own judgment in these matters. And I said that for me it was a matter of conscience.

As a Jesuit scholastic, you taught philosophy at Fordham University. What drew you to consider a career in teaching theology?

Like most other things, I did it because I was asked to! When I was in my second or third year of theology studies at Woodstock College, I think it was Father Gustave Weigel who came to me and said, Now don’t respond immediatelyyou will have to think this overbut we of the Woodstock faculty are going to recommend you to the provincial to study theology and teach theology later, probably at Woodstock. But we know you’re assigned to philosophy at the present. So think it over. I said, I don’t have to think it over, I’d be delighted to go into theologyit’s really my first interest anyway. So they did recommend that to the provincial, and the provincial accepted it. Then I knew I was going to be sent to theology studies after I finished my regular degree.

Perhaps the work you are best known for is your book, Models of the Church. If you were writing the book today, how might it be different?

Having recently had a chance to look it over, I would pretty much reaffirm everything in the book. It may reflect slightly the late 60’s and early 70’s, when I did most of my work on that subject. There was a good deal of unsettlement in the church after Vatican II, and we didn’t know just how far the reforms were going to go and how much historical change there would be. So it reflects a kind of openness perhaps to more radical changes than in fact have occurred or that I think should occur. Aside from that, perhaps it reflects a little of the anti-institutionalism of that timealthough not a really radical anti-institutionalism. In my chapter The Church as Institution I do emphasize that the church is and must be an institution. It has an institutional structure that it needs to maintain. But I did insist that the institution is not primary, and I still would affirm that. The institution is for the sake of the spiritual life and for the sake of holiness, and is not an end in itself.

How would you characterize the role of the theologian in today’s very secular society?

The theologian is always trying to see how the tradition of the church can be adapted to speak to contemporary culture. But speaking to the culture does not necessarily mean embracing the dominant presumptions of the culture. These presumptions have to be scrutinized, accepting what is good and rejecting what is bad.

From my own knowledge of church history, I would judge that the principal errors occurred when the church has adapted too much to the culture, reflecting the prevailing values of the culture and tending to obscure the distinctiveness of the Gospel. So the task of the theologian is to be very critical, to use in some cases what St. Ignatius would call agere contra. Where one sees a tendency to move in a certain direction that is contrary to the Gospel, Ignatius would say, move in the opposite direction. Throughout my career I have tended to be critical of what I saw as the principal dangers of the day. Sometimes the danger was to be insufficiently open and to adhere too strongly to past traditions, forms and ways of behaving. The opposite danger confronts us today in thinking that everything is up for grabs. We have to be careful to insist on what is permanently and universally true. That is what I have been trying to accent in my recent work.

Upon being named a cardinal, you stated that you felt that the honor was also one for American theology in general. What would you say characterizes a typically American theology?

It would be hard to summarize, but I think that American theology has done a number of excellent things. Certainly in the fields of positive historical scholarship, like biblical studies, America has made enormous contributions through the work of people like Joseph Fitzmyer and Raymond E. Brown. In systematic theology, we have generally not been as strong, but there have certainly been significant developments.

Some of the American contribution was at Vatican II. Maybe our chief contribution as a country was to put the influence of the bishops from the United States behind the Declaration on Religious Freedom. But we also made a very significant impact in ecumenism, through the work of people like Gustave Weigel. In fact, my two mentors, Gustave Weigel and John Courtney Murray, both of Woodstock, helped to get me interested in the areas of ecumenism and religious freedom. These were two of the areas where American theology has moved ahead. Catholic ecumenism got started first in Europeespecially in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. But we picked it up in the United States, and in some ways it moved more quickly ahead because there was less traditional hostility among the churches. We got along personally with people who were not of our own particular communion. We have very close friends across denominational barriers, and this has facilitated ecumenical agreements that have not come forth as readily in Europe.

Perhaps a third area, besides ecumenism and religious freedom, would be the work on the economy. Our own experience of the free-market system is rather different from the kind of capitalism that was denounced in some 19th-century documents. The so-called Manchester liberalism, for example, was accused of allowing everything to be dictated by desire for profits. What Michael Novak calls the spirit of democratic capitalism has to be taken quite seriously as an element in the development of the economy, as opposed to a kind of welfare state. In some of his documents, John Paul II has reflected that kind of understanding and perhaps was influenced somewhat by the relative success of the American economy.

In what area do you see Catholic theologians in this country most polarized?

The polarization primarily occurs regarding the degree of change that can take place in adaptation to the culture. The more conservative types insist more on the maintenance of the venerable traditions of the churchthose that go back centuries, or even millenniaas being something sacred and immutable. The American mentality, on the other hand, tends to favor the idea that we can change almost anything we want to change. Here you might say there is a question of the sacred and the secular. How many of the traditions are really sacred and inviolable? How many of the them depend upon revelation itself, divine law, divine revelation? And how many of the traditions are things that God has placed in our own hands to adapt as we see fit? The problem, which cuts across the divisions between dogmatic theology, moral theology and liturgical theology, is the main source of polarization in the American church today.

Do you see a way out of this polarization?

First of all, we have to listen to one another and sit down and talk together in a civil spirit. I regret the way in which some go off in a sectarian way within the church and make their own little home in one wing or the other and become either liberal Catholic reformist types or truly adamant conservatives. Then they just tend to shoot across at one another from their trenches. This is not a healthy thing within the church. We have to cultivate the spirit of unity among Catholics and to try to understand one another’s point of view and learn from one another. This would be my hope.

Along those lines, what do you feel is the role of dissent in the church today?

There is a role for dissent, but it’s a marginal role and shouldn’t be the first thing one thinks about.

When we hear the word authority today, it is all too easy to make abuse the first word that comes to our mind. We often think of authority generally as abusive, which is not true, at least not in a church where authority has particular graces and charisms given by God. It should be trusted, generally speaking. To be a Catholic is to trust in the leadership of the pope and bishops.

Now in individual cases, it may be that they say something that we find very hard to accept because of our own earnest convictions. Here we must rethink our own positions in the light of what authority has said and, if possible, try to see the reasons why authority has spoken as it didthe presumption being that they had good reasons to do it. However, it may be that with the best will in the world we cannot really convince ourselves that this is right. And if so, we are inevitably thrown into a position of dissent. But I think we must be modest about it and realize that our own opinion is not necessarily the last word. Maybe somebody is wiser than we are. And maybe the church has a wisdom from which we have to learn. So we shouldn’t constitute ourselves as a kind of alternate magisterium.

I also think it is not appropriate in the church to organize politically against the pope, the bishops or other authorities and to try to bring pressure to bear upon them by, for example, cutting off funds, taking out full-page ads in newspapers or calling press conferences in order to propose an alternate opinion that is one’s ownsaying that this can safely be followed even though the magisterium teaches otherwise. One’s approach should be more through pointing out to authorities reasons why one disagrees and perhaps sharing one’s reasons with fellow theologians, but not making public statements or a public display of one’s own dissenting decision as though one were condemning the church authority.

You feel that public statements like these are counterproductive?

They’re counterproductive, and also not compatible with Christian humility. I really do think that Christ has given the charge of the church to pastors, and it makes it very difficult for them to lead the church if they can say only what people agree with. They have to be able to teach, and that teaching authority has to be respected. And this is part of what it means to be a Christian and a Catholic, as far as I am concerned.

On a more personal note, how does your prayer influence your study of theology?

I think one has to pray about what one thinks as a theologian. It is interesting to me that to be a Doctor of the Church or a Father of the Church one has to have a kind of sanctity. Only saints are made doctors and fathers of the church because they have a close existential affinity with the things of God. And that must be cultivated through an intense life of prayer. The lex orandi is considered to be a source for the lex credendi: the law of prayer establishes the law of belief, according to a famous saying of Prosper of Aquitaine. That goes to some extent for private prayer and certainly goes for the public prayer of the church. So the theologian must participate in the prayer life of the church and be a praying person himself or herself in order to think the thoughts of God, as we theologians try to do. A theologian who does not pray could hardly be a good theologian.

Finally, how do you think that being named a cardinal will change your life?

I really have to see what responsibilities are placed upon me. Considering my age, which is 82, it seems likely that the appointment to the rank of cardinal is largely an honorary one, which recognizes that my achievement has been appreciated by the universal church and by Rome in particular. It might perhaps give a little more authority to the writing I have done. But I don’t know whether I will be particularly involved in new responsibilities, whether I will have to go to Rome for meetings. I guess it remains an open question at this point. I would like to continue to teach and lecture and write as I have in the past decades. So I might be left alone to continue in this kind of work, as some other cardinals who have been theologians have been allowed to do.

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16 years 4 months ago
I read with great interest the interview with Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., by James Martin, S.J. (3/5). I couldn’t help recalling the circumstances when I first heard of the cardinal’s conversion to Catholicism. It was 1953. I was a foreign service officer stationed at the Embassy in Rome when the U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, paid a visit. One of my responsibilities at the time was to assist American Protestant missionaries who encountered difficulties in Italy, usually for proselytizing. Catholicism was the state religion at the time, and local officials, sometimes with clerical encouragement, harassed and hectored some unfortunate enthusiasts.

After I gave my report on the subject, the secretary wondered out loud whether we couldn’t encourage a little more tolerance. He then startled us by stating he had a personal interest, since his son had converted to Catholicism.

How much has changed in 50 years! We have made some progress toward that tolerance Secretary Dulles longed for, but no one back then dreamed his son would receive the church’s high honor, a red hat!

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