Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University since 1988, an internationally renowned author and lecturer on theological topics, and the first American to be named a cardinal who was not a bishop, died at the age of 90 on December 12, 2008.
Revered by colleagues and students alike for his work ethic, modesty, gentility and sense of humor, Cardinal Dulles was referred to by fellow theologians as “the grand old man of Catholic theology today in the United States.” Cardinal Dulles began his connection with Fordham in 1951, while still a Jesuit in training, when he was appointed an instructor in philosophy. He left Fordham in 1953 to pursue theological studies in preparation for ordination in 1956. After graduate studies in theology in Europe, he undertook an academic and priestly career that spanned five decades and included professorships at the Jesuit school of theology at Woodstock College, the Catholic University of America, and several visiting posts at the world’s top universities and seminaries. In 1988, when he reached the retirement age of 70 in his post as professor of systematic theology at Catholic University, he returned to Fordham—35 years after he had left—to take up the McGinley Chair. Cardinal Dulles referred to his years in the McGinley Chair as the happiest and most satisfying of his life, pleased with the freedom that the position gave him to teach, to lecture and to assume visiting appointments all over the world.
“A man of prodigious intellect and great holiness, Cardinal Dulles devoted his entire life to the task of advancing the dialogue between faith and reason,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University. “In the process, he enriched both the Church and the Academy with his wisdom and his warmth. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that he was the first American theologian to be named to the College of Cardinals.”
Pope Benedict XVI met privately with Cardinal Dulles at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie), in Yonkers, N.Y., on April 19, 2008, during the Pontiff’s pastoral visit to the United States. The private audience was a recognition of the Cardinal’s intellectual and moral influence as a Jesuit, a theologian and a writer. During the meeting, the Pope blessed Cardinal Dulles, and was presented with a copy of the Cardinal’s book Church and Society: The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007 (Fordham University Press, 2008).
Avery Robert Dulles was born on August 24, 1918, in Auburn, N.Y., the son of Janet Pomeroy Avery and John Foster Dulles, who went on to serve as Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His paternal uncle was Allan Dulles, a founding father of the CIA. His great-grandfather John W. Foster and his grand-uncle Robert Lansing both had served as U.S. Secretaries of State.
The Dulles family raised their son as a Presbyterian. He did his primary schooling in New York City and was educated on the secondary level in Switzerland and at Choate. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College in 1940 with a concentration in history and literature. His senior thesis on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the Renaissance polymath, was published by Harvard University Press as the Phi Beta Kappa Prize Essay of 1940.
As a young man entering Harvard in 1936, Dulles had already abandoned his Presbyterian upbringing and considered himself an agnostic. However, exposure to the works of the great philosophers and to Catholic writers in his later college years led him to convert to Catholicism while a first-year student at Harvard Law School. In 1946, following service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. On account of his father’s high profile and his own uniqueness as an Ivy League-educated convert, Dulles’ priestly ordination in 1956 in the company of fellow Jesuits by Francis Cardinal Spellman (a 1911 Fordham graduate), celebrated in the Fordham University Church on the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, was reported on the front page of The New York Times. After further studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Dulles was awarded a doctorate in sacred theology in 1960.
Dulles once described his decision to convert to Catholicism as reminiscent of the action of “one of those timid swimmers who closes his eyes as he jumps into the roaring sea.” He also declared that, on his entry into the Catholic Church, “I made a venture that appeared foolhardy in the eyes of most of my family and friends. As a vowed religious, I took up a career that would make no sense unless the Catholic faith were true.” In the account of his conversion, A Testimonial To Grace (1946, Sheed and Ward, reissued with an afterword, 1996), he wrote that, “Although I cannot rival the generous dedication of St. Paul and Ignatius of Loyola, I am, like them, content to be employed in the service of Christ and the gospel, whether in sickness or in health, in good repute or ill repute. … I trust that his grace will not fail me, and that I will not fail his grace, in the years to come.”
During his tenure at Fordham, Cardinal Dulles delivered 39 McGinley Chair lectures on theological subjects that were sometimes controversial, including the death penalty, John Paul II and human rights, and church reform. He was considered an American theologian well-versed in ecumenism and a voice for religious freedom, a centrist in Catholic theology. While he applauded the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, he also stressed the need not to undermine Catholic Church polity and the fundamental teachings of earlier popes and councils of the Church. In the last decade of his life he had been seen among his colleagues to have moved to the right, suggesting in 1998 a need for a “countercultural,” more orthodox Church, and calling for “doctrinal firmness” in the face of dissent on such issues as the ordination of women.
On February 21, 2001, Dulles was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Cardinal Dulles was one of three Americans honored that day, and the only one of the three who was not a diocesan bishop. This honor crowned his lifelong work as a Jesuit, a theologian and a writer. Commenting on the experience, Cardinal Dulles said, “I enjoyed it, but that’s not really what counts. I prefer to spend my time reading, thinking, writing, teaching. I’m not particularly made for ceremonies.”
Cardinal Dulles’ work as a theologian saw its high point following the reforms made by Vatican II, when he wrote his most influential work, Models of the Church (Doubleday & Co., 1974). The book takes a look at Catholic ecclesiology through five theological models derived from themes enunciated at Vatican II, in order to offer a deeper understanding of how the various ways of thinking about the Church found in the Scriptures may prove relevant to the modern world.
“There were a few years after Vatican II when the church seemed to be asking people to look at different ideas, but I came to fairly traditional conclusions,” he said in a 2001 interview withFORDHAM magazine. “Vatican II said we had to re-examine what is time-conditioned, but having done that, I think we came back to say the councils were right on.”
Cardinal Dulles’ writings include 24 books and more than 800 articles, essays and reviews on theological topics. The books include Models of Revelation (Doubleday, 1983), The Catholicity of the Church (Clarendon Press, 1985), The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith(Oxford University Press, 1994) and A History of Apologetics (Ignatius Press, 2005). He was the recipient of 38 honorary doctorates, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for his liaison work with the French navy during World War II. He served as an editor and adviser on several religious publications, including The New Oxford Review and Concilium.
Cardinal Dulles served as the president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. He served on the papacy’s International Theological Commission and was also a member of the United States Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue. His other awards include the Cardinal Spellman Award for distinguished achievement in theology, the Boston College Presidential Bicentennial Award, America magazine’s Campion Award, the Cardinal Gibbons Award from the Catholic University of America, the Fordham Founder’s Award (2002) and the Newman Award from Loyola College in Baltimore. He served on the Board of Trustees of Fordham University from 1969 to 1972.
Cardinal Dulles is survived by the children of his eldest brother, John W. F. Dulles, and sister-in-law, Eleanor Dulles; John Foster Dulles II, Edith Dulles Lawlis, Ellen Coelho and Robert Avery Dulles; nieces Janet Hinshaw-Thomas and Lilly Holt, and nephews Foster Hinshaw and David Hinshaw; cousins Allen Jebsen, Joanna Jebsen Cook, Tina Afokpa, Per Jebsen, Dr. Mary Parke Manning, Thomas Manning, Diane Igleheart and Joan Talley; and by godson Andrew Curry. John W. F. Dulles, the Cardinal’s brother, and John Dulles’ wife of 68 years, Eleanor Ritter Dulles, both passed away at ages 95 and 91, respectively, in June 2008, in San Antonio, Texas.