Avery Dulles: Disciple of Jesus
Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., died on Dec. 12, 2008, after a long illness. Among Cardinal Dulles’s many publications, perhaps the most influential was Models of the Church (1974). He taught at Woodstock College and The Catholic University of America, and until last spring he held the Laurence J. McGinley Chair of Religion and Society at Fordham University. “The most important thing about my career of many years,” he wrote in his last McGinley lecture, “I feel sure, is the discovery of the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the Lord Jesus himself” (see “A Life in Theology,” Am., 4/21/08).
Commenting on his “conversion” to Catholicism, he noted that after being led to theism through his reading of philosophy and to Christianity through reading the Gospels, his attraction to Catholicism came from three sources: reading Renaissance thought, the vitality of the Neo-Thomist revival and the Catholic life of Cambridge, Mass., where he then lived. “I was attracted in many ways to the liturgy, too,” he told America in 2001. “It was a kind of solitary journey, but later I discovered that others were making the same journey....” In October 1946 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Saint-Andrew-on-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and was ordained a priest in 1956. In 2001, in recognition of Father Dulles’s service to the church and to theology, Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal.
Cardinal Dulles’s early theological career focused on fundamental theology and ecclesiology. Of his 27 books, 13 treated aspects of ecclesiology (the theology of the church). He was best known for his typological writings, Models of the Church (1974) and Models of Revelation (1982), which in place of univocal definitions presented an array of interpretative schemes for understanding the mysteries of faith. Pressed for his preferred model of the church, he devised an additional model, “community of disciples” (A Church to Believe In, 1983). “The institution,” he commented in an interview with America in 2001, “is for the sake of the spiritual life, for the sake of holiness, and is not an end in itself.”
Some of Cardinal Dulles’s more original work came with his application of Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of personal knowledge to the faith experience in works such as The Survival of Dogma (1971). There he used Polanyi’s distinction between tacit and focal (explicit) knowledge to explore the relation between faith and doctrine. Tradition played a key role in his theology, as it did in Polanyi’s philosophy of science. The first inkling of his turn to social questions came with his signing in 1975 of the Hartford Declaration, which warned of 13 modern heresies, at the request of his friend Richard John Neuhaus.
Much of his theological career was also devoted to ecumenism. He was a member of the Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogue, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and consultor on ecumenism to the international theological journal Concilium. In the Lutheran dialogue, he made significant contributions to Peter in the New Testament and Mary in the New Testament and influenced Mary and the Saints.
“I do not particularly strive for originality,” Cardinal Dulles wrote, looking back on his career. “Very few new ideas, I suspect, are true. If I conceived a theological idea that had never occurred to anyone in the past, I would have every reason to think myself mistaken.”
Regarded in his latter years as a theological and political conservative, he continued to take independent positions both as a consultant and a nonvoting member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He strongly backed the bishops’ recognition of lay ecclesial ministers, for example, and criticized the bishops’ Dallas Charter regarding sexual abuse by Catholic clergy for what he considered the unfairness of its draconian measures toward possible offenders.
Cardinal Dulles died after a long, disabling illness. In his last months, he could neither stand nor eat, neither speak nor write. Though he had written his final McGinley lecture last spring himself, it had to be delivered for him. The closing lines of that lecture confessed his acceptance of “suffering and diminishment” as “normal ingredients of life, especially in old age.” He concluded:
As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skilled care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know his power can be made perfect in infirmity. Blessed be the name of the Lord.