I knew the reputation of Avery Dulles, SJ, long before I entered that classroom at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., back in the early 1980s when I was in seminary. I knew he was considered, even then, the dean of Catholic theologians in the United States, author of scholarly essays and books too numerous to name, peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council and the son of a prominent New York Presbyterian family whose father was John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower and whose uncle was Allen Dulles, director of the CIA. I knew he had been a convert to Catholicism during his years at Harvard University after having declared himself an agnostic in his first year there.
The intellectual stature of the man was intimidating, but once someone encountered him personally, one found the gentle, humble soul of a sincere Christian. He had a mischievous sense of humor which was evident to anyone who noticed him driving a beat up old car around campus with a small bumper sticker promoting the local airport, “Fly Dulles” (named after his father). Once, while a passenger in that car, we were speaking about liberation theology and he said:
“Sitting in that very seat you are in right now was (mentioning the name of a prominent liberation theologian). When he asked why I drove such an old clunker, he became rather uncomfortable when I told him it was a gift from my uncle Allen. He looked for wiretaps the rest of the trip.”
Even though some referred to him as “Dull Dulles,” I found that being in class with him was an exhilarating experience. It was akin to witnessing a train slowly leaving the station. Initially the student (this student!) would feel satisfied that the material was clear and comprehensible. Point would begin to build upon point, stretching the mind. And just at that precise moment when it all became too complex and difficult to follow, Fr. Dulles would take it up just one more notch, and then … the class bell would ring.
In 2001, I was honored to attend the consistory in Rome at which Fr. Dulles was elevated by Pope John Paul II to being a Prince of the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles. He was the first American theologian to be given that title without being made a bishop first. I could not help but think, on that brilliant day, that the mischievous aspect of his personality came out as the pope went to place the red hat on his head. Always an awkward man, tall and lanky, the hat immediately fell off the new cardinal’s head back into the lap of the pope. I am sure I could hear a knowing laugh go up from the crowd gathered in the Piazza from his students who know him well.
Avery Dulles was a mentor who first introduced me to the work of philosopher Michael Polyani and deepened my appreciation for John Henry Cardinal Newman, that great 19th figure who struck me as very much like Dulles himself. Fr. Dulles was tall, a theologian, a convert to Catholicism, was not a bishop before he became a Cardinal, and he even resembled Newman in a way.
Fr. Dulles was was a model of authentic ecumenical encounter, and was an enthusiastic participant in the Kuyper Leo XIII conference that Acton co-sponsored in Grand Rapids with Calvin Theological Seminary College in 1998. He also spoke at a number of Acton Institute conferences and seminars over the years. On a more personal note, I shall never forget how Fr. Dulles honored me by concelebrating my First Mass in Brooklyn.
I shall miss his wise council and sense of humor. Although the Church on earth has lost a loyal and humble son, it is my hope that the Church in heaven has gained a true prince indeed.
Some links to Fr. Dulles’ work at Acton:
Truth as the Ground of Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II. Acton monograph available from the Acton Bookshoppe
Acton Audio: Truth as the Ground of Freedom
Centesimus Annus and the Renewal of Culture. Journal of Markets & Morality
Religious Freedom and Pluralism. Journal of Markets & Morality
The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II. Review by Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D. Journal of Markets & Morality
Enjoying and Making Use of a Responsible Freedom. Religion & Liberty
God’s Gift of Freedom Must be Used to Choose the Good. Religion & Liberty