Cardinal Avery Dulles

Article excerpt

Jesuit priest and theologian Catholic theologian

Avery Dulles' appointment as cardinal in 2001 was typical of Pope John Paul II: it was a wildcard choice. Dulles did not toil in the Vatican bureaucracy, nor was he the head of a major archdiocese in a national capital. Indeed, he was one of only a handful of priests to be named cardinal in recent times. He was also a Jesuit: the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus enjoin its members to avoid striving for higher posts and to accept them only when insisted on by superiors.

So Dulles became the last of 44 candidates to line up in front of Pope John Paul. As he rose after receiving the blessing and embraced the pontiff, his red biretta fell off. It was, the new cardinal told his friends, a salutary humbling.

Even more unusual were his origins: his family, influential rather than vastly wealthy, had a long-established Presbyterian commitment to public service. His father, John Foster Dulles, had headed the US State Department (as the third family member to hold the post) and his uncle, Allen Dulles, had been a director of the CIA. His grandfather had been a Presbyterian minister and theologian.

Though professing to be an agnostic as he grew up in elite private schools in New York, Switzerland and New England, Dulles rocked his family when he converted to Catholicism in 1940, while a student at Harvard Law School. "The more I examined, the more I was impressed with the consistency and sublimity of Catholic doctrine," he later recalled.

Dulles's family was not impressed. The Catholic Church may have been the largest single religious body in the United States, but it was a church of working-class immigrants from Europe: Ireland, Poland, Italy, Lithuania and Germany. The family of descendants from Puritan migrants wondered how an intellectual young man could be attracted to finding truth in such a backward form of Christianity.

Dulles's intellectual conversion had turned into a praying faith beside the Charles River in Boston one winter's day, when he contemplated a tree that he determined was following "a rule, a law of which I as yet knew nothing". His short memoir of his conversion - mainly written while at sea during the Second World War - was published in 1946 as A Testimonial to Grace.

But the family was in for a further shock. In August 1946 - after graduation from Harvard in 1940, a year and a half at Harvard Law School, wartime service in the United States Navy in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean (for which France awarded him a Croix de Guerre), and recovery from polio which he had contracted in Naples - Dulles joined the Jesuits.

Ten years later, in June 1956, Dulles was ordained priest by Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York at the then Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx. His Secretary of State father, his mother, Spellman and he posed for the camera, smiling, on the church steps. By that time Dulles had already begun the study, teaching and writing that would be his legacy. From 1951 to 1960 he studied at the Jesuit seminary in Woodstock near Baltimore and at Munster in West Germany and gained a doctorate at the Gregorian University in Rome.

Dulles taught at the Woodstock seminary from 1960 until its closure in 1974, and then at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. …