Current Comment

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.

Final Passion

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.

Amen. R.I.P.

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Bruce Snowden
10 years 2 months ago
Scrolling through the various articles in January 5, 2009 issue of America, I read with aching heart and watery eyes, the account of Cardinal Dulles's final days. I learned that in those final days of disabling illness, His Eminence could neither stand, eat, speak or write, a probability which he had earlier called, "a period of weakness" and which he accepted ahead of time lovingly in the name of Jesus. Cardinal Dulles became as helpless as Jesus on the Cross who could not lift his hand to swat-away pesky flies that had settled on his nose, or move a leg to relieve that positional cramping that hanging on the Cross must have caused The Cardinal and Jesus became one in suffering! Recently I sent the following tribute honoring Cardinal Dulles's memory to a Catholic newspaper but have no way of knowing if it will be accepted. Having read "Current Comment" addressing the Cardinal's life and last days, I feel moved to offer the same tribute on this page, so allow me to do so. Cardinal Dulles went to the Lord on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12, 2008. Castillian roses fell at the Bishop's feet when St. Juan Diego opened his tilma, revealing the image of Our Lady of Gudalupe. When Cardinal Dulles opened his "tilma" of Catholic scholarship through his teaching, preaching,writing and his personal life, "roses" of truth fell upon the Church, permeating not only the Church but all society as well. And on Cardinal Dulles's "tilma" of Catholic Faith the image of Jesus was clearly seen! With a friend I often attended his Lawrence McGinley Lectures at Fordham University, always a Faith-expanding and intellectually stimulating experience. Once I sent him a simple essay I had written on "The Efficacy Of The Priestly Blessing" asking for evaluation and he took time to respond at length, calling my humble lines "edifying and defensible." He had time for everyone! The song, "The Old Lamp Lighter" pretty well sums up his life at least for me, "He made the night a little brighter wherever he would go, the Old Lamp Lighter of long, long, ago!" Cardinal Avery Dulles was and will continue to be the Church's "Lamp Lighter!" Your Eminence, pray for us!
Bruce Snowden
10 years 2 months ago
Dear Online Editor, Once again my submission was successfully posted but my name stayed behind. Don't know why this happens and apopogize for the problem. I'm sending this with my name attached to this note in case my name stays behind again in the designated spot. Thanks! Bruce Snowden
10 years 2 months ago
It's a great summary of his life. In 1957-1958 at the Ateneo de Manila (Philippines), we used his textbook on moral philosophy in our senior year. It was an excellent example of clear thinking written in uncluttered English. I had wanted to keep that book for my personal library. However, in those days, the Jesuits had it simply rented out for the year so that successor students could also use it.
10 years 2 months ago
While I never personally met Cardinal Dulles, I feel I got to know him in the past 20 years through his many published essays in America and First Things. He was a clear presenter of truth in his writing, and I'm sure future Catholic generations will come to appreciate his work.
10 years 2 months ago
Thank you for a lovely tribute to a great man of God. It is only in recent years, as a theology student myself, that I have grown to love and appreciate Cardinal Dulles. His example is one to be emulated in all aspects of life, particularly his humility and openness of thought. Regardless of whether one always agrees with his position or not, his deep respect for all people is legendary. May he rest in the peace of the God he so loved. We ask his continued prayers for his beloved church; may those of us left behind to continue his work continue to show the same deep respect for each other and for all we encounter in our daily lives.
10 years 2 months ago
Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., brought the joy of Christ and the wisdom of our Church to everyone. The reverence and illumination exemplified in both his writings and teachings have enriched our lives as Catholics. With his intensity of knowledge about our faith, Cardinal Dulles will continue to be cherished as a 20th century leader and foremost scholar.


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