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When Avery Cardinal Dulles died on December 12, 2008, the Catholic Church lost its most distinguished American theologian, a man who combined the virtues of scholarly inquiry with faithfulness to Christ and the Church. It is far too soon to evaluate his long-lasting contributions to Christian thought. But a sketch of the themes that dominated his tireless work of discipleship—his faith seeking understanding—is certainly in order.

Avery Dulles was born in 1918 to a family of prominent statesmen. His father, John Foster Dulles, following in the footsteps of previous generations, was secretary of state under President Eisenhower, while his uncle, Allen Dulles, was the first civilian head of the CIA.

The family’s roots in the Presbyterian Church were even deeper—his grandfather, Allen Macy Dulles, was a prominent theologian—so Avery’s unexpected conversion to Catholicism in 1939 caused acute dismay to his patrician relatives, who regarded the Catholic Church as a proletarian, immigrant communion. It was while he was a student at Harvard that the young Dulles became both attracted to classical philosophy and convinced that teleology, “a rule, a law,” was inscribed within existence itself, offering a palpable indication of divine purpose. Such insights, as he related in his 1946 conversion memoir, led him to prayer “for the first time in years’ and, ultimately, to the Catholic faith.

After a brief stint at Harvard Law School, Dulles served in the navy during the Second World War and entered the Society of Jesus in 1946—where he embarked on a life of intense theological research that would continue for the next sixty years. Along the way, he produced twenty-three books and hundreds of scholarly articles. His academic career included teaching at the Jesuits’ Woodstock Seminary from 1960 to 1974, the Catholic University of America from 1974 to 1988, and Fordham University, where, as the McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, he worked for the final twenty years of his life. To acknowledge his long years of service to the Church, John Paul II elevated him to cardinal in 2001, the only professional theologian in the United States ever so honored.

For judging Dulles’ theological achievements, the best place to begin may be the book he published in 2008, Church and Society , a collection of lectures he delivered at Fordham (many of which were originally published in First Things . The essays stand as a living testimony to the breadth and depth of Dulles’ vast theological learning; they are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, proclaiming that tradition now rejuvenated and advanced with grace and élan. Therein resides the approach that suffuses Dulles’ entire oeuvre: his relentless attempt to show how the Church’s faith, ever ancient and ever new, ever creative and ever robust, can illumine the pressing issues of an epoch dominated by rapid societal and cultural change.

Dulles’ theological vision pivots on two unwavering axes. The first is his deeply Catholic imagination that endeavors to take account of every possible position, consolidating widely diverse views into an authentic unity. The second is his commitment to the Second Vatican Council. Always he sought to display the continuity of that momentous event with the rich biblical, doctrinal, and spiritual heritage of the Catholic Church, even while embracing the council’s significant reforms and invigorating theological developments. At Vatican II, Catholicism confronted the innovations of natural science, historical scholarship, and the secular state. Like the council itself, Dulles aspired to remain entirely faithful to the principles embedded within the Christian tradition, while applying those principles creatively and imaginatively to a new world. His theological research was dedicated primarily to the nature of the Church and to the Christian understanding of revelation. But the sweeping scope of those two topics ensured that his writings would touch on virtually every significant area of theological inquiry.

His 1974 study of ecclesiology, Models of the Church, remains Dulles’ best-known work. Translated into many languages and still used as an important text, Models of the Church effectively displayed Dulles’ greatest strengths as a theologian: the sterling clarity of his writing—a legendary Dullesian hallmark—and the amalgamative power of his mind. Always prominent in his thought was the attempt to balance unity and plurality, the one and the many. How could there be a fundamental unity in the Church’s faith while still allowing for a legitimate theological diversity? How could there exist fruitful multiplicity, entirely faithful to the Christian heritage, without degeneration into unruly anarchy? Vatican II itself had sanctioned an authentic diversity in many areas. In a passage of extraordinary significance, from the Decree on Ecumenism , the council declared, “While preserving unity in essentials, let all members of the Church . . . preserve a proper freedom in the various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in the variety of liturgical rites, and even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth.” The decree insists that a proper understanding of plurality will give “richer expression to the authentic catholicity of the Church.”

It was this concern for an admissible diversity within a faithful unity that motivated much of Dulles’ work. How could many images and models be meshed so the beauty of the Church would be properly manifested? How could a variety of positions be understood as complementary rather than as contradictory?

And yet Models of the Church was not without its controversial elements. It was perceived by some, especially in its original edition, as lacking a strong and abiding center, offering discrete models untethered from any stable trunk. The book gave rise to the oft-heard (and endlessly irritating) shibboleth of the 1970s and 1980s, “We’re working from different ecclesiological models,” a maxim lending faux sophistication to what was, at times, simply platitudinous dissent from fundamental Catholic teaching. The cardinal always defended Models of the Church, although he conceded in a 2001 interview in America magazine that it reflected, at least slightly, the ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s and perhaps even displayed a bit of the anti-institutional sentiment prevailing at that time. But whatever its alleged defects, Models of the Church was far from anything like the “ecclesiogenesis” that later became popular in certain quarters of Catholic thought, the notion that the Church needed to be remade ab ovo in every generation.

While resolutely abjuring ecclesiogenesis, Dulles was a spirited partisan of the idea that the Church needed to be revitalized and reinvigorated in every epoch. One significant facet of that regeneration, appealing to him from the beginning to the end of his scholarly career, was ecumenism, the desire for greater Christian unity. The thirst to enflesh more profoundly the “oneness” of the Church motivated a substantial portion of his theological work.

No doubt such interest was provoked both by his Presbyterian background—for Dulles’ involvement with ecumenism goes back to the 1950s—and by the Second Vatican Council’s strong endorsement of this element of ecclesial life. Vatican II’s accent on ecumenism reversed the earlier teaching of Mortalium Animos , a 1928 papal encyclical warning against the progressive movement engineered by “pan-Christians.” The papal letter was legitimately concerned that any tendency toward pan-Christianity, as it was styled, could easily devolve into a limp-wristed ecclesiology, an understanding of the Church stressing those dimensions uniting Christians while blithely ignoring the crucial elements still dividing them, leading inexorably to the thin gruel of a “lowest common denominator” faith.

But Vatican II boldly moved beyond these earlier fears, insisting that an honest and integral ecumenism benefited all Christians. For some time prior to the council, the ecumenical movement had been at the theological edges of the Church. Yves Congar, the great Dominican ecclesiologist, had written a groundbreaking book in 1937, Divided Christendom , which caused an uneasy stir among the Catholic hierarchy. Congar spoke of the gifts of Protestantism in tones that the Catholic ear was unaccustomed to hear. After Congar’s innovative work came several important dialogues with the powerful theology of Karl Barth, among which was the incisive three-volume treatment of the French Jesuit Henri Bouillard. Dulles met with Bouillard in the 1950s, asking him about possible thesis topics in the realm of ecumenical theology. Bouillard’s advice was that, if the Jesuits were giving Dulles a generous ten years to complete the doctorate, then he should certainly write on Karl Barth’s robust dogmatics. If he were limited to five years, then Rudolf Bultmann was his man. But if his superiors were allowing only a niggardly three years, then the work of the young Gerhard Ebeling should occupy his labors. In fact, Dulles decided against investigating a particular theologian, completing a doctoral dissertation at the Gregorian University in 1960 entitled “Protestant Churches and the Prophetic Office.” From that time until his death, Dulles was tirelessly engaged in ecumenical work.

In a significant 1968 volume, Revelation and the Quest for Unity , Dulles argued for a Catholic understanding of sola scriptura , takes welcome note of the accent on tradition found in the groundbreaking Faith and Order report of 1963, and reflected on the contributions of the Orthodox Churches to the ecumenical movement. Later, he would be an enthusiastic participant in the important dialogues between Lutherans and Catholics in the United States. The 1985 statement on justification, “Justification by Faith,” for example, remains a compelling milestone of theological reflection and agreement, one of the crucial documents setting the stage for the 1999 groundbreaking accord between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation established by the “Joint Declaration on Justification.”

Together with Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson, Dulles was also one of the original architects of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the daring enterprise pursuing greater agreement between two groups with seemingly little in common, whether culturally or theologically. Indeed, some thought wedding Athens and Jerusalem child’s play compared to meshing Birmingham and Gotham. From the beginning, however, Dulles’ status as a universally respected theologian of international repute added theological ballast to the dialogues, ensuring that they would be regarded as far more than the convenient political alliance that was sometimes cynically suspected. The steady theological work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together has continued unabated since its beginnings in 1994, achieving significant convergences on issues such as justification, the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and the intense witness to the “culture of life” in the public square. (The forthcoming statement on Mary, the Mother of God, was largely completed just before the cardinal’s death).

Fair to say, the cardinal’s lifelong and unyielding commitment to Christian unity was—and will remain—an inspiration to all of the participants in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Of Cardinal Newman, Dulles once wrote: “In him the convert spoke louder than the ecumenist.” Perhaps we may say that, in Dulles, both convert and ecumenist spoke equally well.

While Models of the Church remained his most widely disseminated volume, Dulles’ most probing and original theological work is likely found in his 1983 Models of Revelation . In this book he examined the relationship between the Word of God as found in the evocative events of Scripture and as crystallized in Christian doctrine—seeking a symbiotic relationship between the pulsating world of revelatory symbolic event and the precise, conceptual realm of definitive doctrinal statement.

Dulles argued that Christian doctrine must always live from the power of symbols (divine signs pregnant with a plenitude of meaning) that express and mediate God’s self-communication. The Church herself is initiated “by symbolic occurrences such as the Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit.” Doctrine must always remain profoundly connected to these evocative events, Dulles insists, which continually sustain and give rise to proper, though necessarily limited, conceptual expression.

One could not hope, for example, to exhaust the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection with a few doctrinal assertions. The extraordinary event of the Resurrection challenges human understanding to plumb the depths of its transcendent and sacred meaning. Christian doctrine, then, if it is to remain life-giving and fruitful, must continually nourish itself at the biblical and symbolic headwaters of the faith. Doctrinal statements manifest objective truth—of that there is no question. At the same time, they are subject to certain historical and cultural limitations. Taken alone, they cannot exhaust the very “symbols” that they strive to interpret and to express.

Theological rationalism—indeed any kind of reasoning divorced from the full range of human experience—never appealed to Dulles, as is evident from his primary theological and philosophical influences. Maurice Blondel and John Henry Newman, in particular, loom large in his oeuvre, associated as they are with attempts to investigate the logic of Christian belief on the basis of the restless heart, the inner spirit, and the creative imagination.

Newman’s fully rounded theory of knowing, which surpassed mere deductive logic, led Dulles to a deep and enduring enthusiasm for the work of the philosopher Michael Polanyi. In his books Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension, Polanyi argued that all knowing possesses a fiduciary and participatory element, reminding us that critical rationality alone cannot account for all that we hold true. Polanyi’s stress on the elements of engagement and commitment in human knowing helped Dulles to defend the claim that our assent to God is not simply a matter of steely logic but depends as well on a congeries of personal convictions that are, in fact, profoundly constitutive of the very nature of thinking.

This predilection for a theological rationality that eschews every hint of rationalism also appears in A History of Apologetics (1971, revised 2005). Dulles was attracted to those apologists, such as Blaise Pascal and Joseph Butler, who had some intuitive grasp of the complex and elusive chain of events that bring men and women to God and to faith. Purely calculative and demonstrative arguments were often ineffective, since they failed to account for the unspoken, tacit dimensions of knowing that inexorably constitute the antecedent disposition of the inquirer. In their stead, Dulles countenanced apologetical overtures that appealed to the full range of human existence: intellect and the imagination, reason and the heart, the objective world and the inner spirit.

Despite Dulles’ significant contributions in the areas of ecclesiology, revelation, and apologetics, one suspects that his enduring theological legacy will always be firmly anchored to the documents of Vatican II—the texts that defined every aspect of his professional career. The meticulous interpretation of the council was a hallmark of his scholarly work: Virtually all of his books were strewn with profligate citations from the defining event of twentieth-century Catholicism. As time passed, Dulles undoubtedly saw his primary theological role as mediating the teaching of this council—its subtle and creatively faithful teaching—to an increasingly wide audience.

Some may think that the careful attention to conciliar texts is a legacy written in a minor key—not a grasping for the speculative stars but a stooping for professorial order. And it is true that Dulles leaves behind no impressive theological method or system as did the great Catholic trio of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, and Karl Rahner. Dulles did not undertake Balthasar’s kind of meditation on how the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty display the glory of the Lord. He did not match Lonergan in isolating the structure of the knowing subject in pursuit of intellectual and spiritual conversion, nor did he argue philosophically, as did Rahner, for the intrinsic link between God and humanity. Dulles’ attention, rather, was searchingly focused on the texts of Vatican II, reading them within the long tradition of the Church, providing a way for the teachings of the great council to be properly received by the Catholic and Christian people.

His careful work was a way of providing firm and steady guidance for Catholicism in a turbulent and tempestuous time. As Benedict XVI has said, the situation of the Church today finds an echo in St. Basil’s comment, made in the wake of the fourth-century Council of Nicea: “The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith.”

Amidst this latter-day “incomprehensible chatter,” Dulles attended to the careful exegesis of Vatican II, looking to the council for direction on difficult and disputed issues. And there exists compelling precedent for just such assiduous attention. One thinks immediately of an instance that intrigued Dulles himself: In the twentieth century, certain Catholic theologians came to recognize that, in their eagerness to uphold the importance of tradition in the face of sixteenth-century attacks, many commentators failed to acknowledge that the Council of Trent itself allowed for a subtle sola scriptura position, for the claim that the Scriptures are materially sufficient for the truths of revelation. Of course, for Catholics, the Church’s understanding of Scripture, illumined by the Holy Spirit, develops throughout the centuries, allowing for greater penetration into the mysterium fidei . But this careful investigation into the actual teaching of the Tridentine decree opened the way for greater dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on the uniquely foundational importance of the Bible.

Just as others had sought to investigate the precise meaning of Trent, so Dulles aspired to remain entirely faithful to the text and context of Vatican II. Of course, Nietzsche unsparingly criticized the mere e?rudit, the one who reads history without personal interest, the learned handyman who is philologically competent but whose works fail to sing and to dance. Of these Nietzsche says with Christ, “Let the dead bury the dead!” But Dulles’ reading of Vatican II is just the opposite of the unengaged e?rudit . The scholarship is unfailingly true, of course, but it is always accomplished within the dramatic, Spirit-led life of the Church. Dulles understands the great council as timely and vigorous precisely because it actuates the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ for new epochs, cultures, and peoples. John XXIII, in his famous speech inaugurating Vatican II on October 11, 1962, spoke of the punctum saliens of the council, its fundamental point, as a “leap forward”—a leap to a greater penetration of the mystery of Christ, to a retrieval of the ancient patrimony of the Church, so that the wisdom of the gospel and the spiritual treasures of Christianity could live again in service to a “new Pentecost.” It was precisely for this essential task that Dulles set his hand to the plow.

Today there is much talk about a hermeneutics of continuity or discontinuity governing the interpretation of Vatican II. As with so much else regarding that great event, here too the discussion is not reducible to easy descriptions. Framing Vatican II in those bald terms, without further modification, is to do justice neither to its subtlety nor to its extraordinary accomplishments. Of course, there can be no doubt that for Dulles the Church of Vatican II is the Church of Nicea, Chalcedon, Trent, and Vatican I. An overarching and fundamental continuity of the Church’s life and thought is taken for granted, even while acknowledging that, in certain areas”such as the conciliar accents on ecumenism and religious freedom”Vatican II clearly surpassed earlier ecclesial teaching. In a 2001 lecture published in First Things , Dulles spoke of “an undeniable, even a dramatic, shift” in official Catholic teaching on religious freedom (while defending the enduring principles at work in the conciliar document Dignitatis Humanae ). He added, in a 2003 essay in America, that he was well aware that the council made “important changes reflecting new biblical studies, the liturgical movement, and the ecumenical movement.”

But Dulles was also deeply concerned about an interpretative approach that appeared to contort the council’s clear and precise teachings: “Because the hermeneutics of discontinuity has prevailed in countries like our own,” he wrote, “the efforts of the Holy See to clarify the documents have regularly been attacked as retrenchments.” Dulles saw those documents in a different light: “I can say only that I find the teaching of Vatican II very solid, carefully nuanced, and sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of our own time and place.”

Theological progress, for Dulles, “always depends upon an acceptance of prior achievements.” In this, the cardinal echoes the thought of Vincent of Lérins, the prescient fifth-century Christian writer who astutely distinguished between two kinds of development: There exists welcome change that is a profectus (or progress in Christian understanding) and an unfortunate change that is, in fact, a permutatio (or adulteration of Christian truth). Some developments, then, are true advances, organically related to the past, even while allowing new understandings to emerge. Other changes are simply corruptions of the Christian faith, distortions that bear no clear relationship to the prior tradition. Dulles’ interpretation of Vatican II reflects this subtle, Vincentian way of thinking. Ecclesial teaching certainly developed at the council, but it was a development that reflected a profound continuity of general principles. As Dulles observed in his fall 2005 McGinley lecture, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI recognize that Vatican II “needs to be understood in conformity with the constant teaching of the Church. The true spirit of the council is to be found in, and not apart from, the letter. When rightly interpreted, the documents of Vatican II can still be a powerful source of renewal for the Church.”

Related to the cardinal’s interpretation of the council is the occasional suggestion that, over the course of time, he mutated from being a progressive, open theologian to a defensive, hidebound conservative, a transformation that (it is sometimes darkly added) resulted in Rome awarding him a cardinal’s biretta. Dulles himself would surely not deny development in his thought. Like John Henry Newman, he regarded development as ineluctably intertwined with human life. As the eminent nineteenth-century theologian famously remarked, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” At the same time, Dulles denied that there had been any radical volte-face in his theological stance. It is likely, rather, that over the course of time he envisioned his task differently. In the earlier part of his career, Dulles sought to incorporate the new wine of Vatican II by indicating those times when the council introduced markedly new accents, and by developing conciliar insights that surpassed prior positions. Later, Dulles conceived of his mission as ensuring that contemporary Catholics understood the profound continuity of Vatican II with the prior patristic, conciliar, and doctrinal tradition, without, of course, excising the council’s authentic developments.

Certainly remaining unchanged throughout his scholarly career was Dulles’ profound esteem for theologians and for the role of theology in the life of the Church. On his reception of the cardinal’s hat in 2001, he announced that he regarded the honor as an acknowledgment of American theology in service to the Church. And reading Dulles’ 2002 book on the great English cardinal John Henry Newman, one sees that the American fully assented to the important role Newman envisaged for theologians. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk , for example, Newman argued that, when the Church offers some significant teaching, theologians immediately begin to contextualize the document, reading it within the long tradition of Christian reflection, thereby disclosing its proper meaning. Such an approach, Newman insisted, is not minimalism but doctrinal moderation consistent with sound faith. Dulles argued similarly. He wrote in A Church to Believe In (1982) that “the notion that theologians have authority is well-founded in the tradition,” and he cautioned against “privatizing or trivializing the work of theologians.” Of essential importance to the cardinal was his belief that, rightly understood, the schola theologorum has a vital role in determining the proper understanding of the Christian faith.

One significant and occasionally controversial element of Dulles’ own theological research was his creative retrieval of Aquinas’ distinction between the magisterium cathedrae pastoralis and the magisterium cathedrae magistralis , between the pastoral teaching chair of bishops and the magisterial teaching chair of theologians. Thomas had stated that theologians have a legitimate magisterial office in the Church, giving rise to the phrase “dual magisterium.” The very term, however, was to become something of a lightning rod. Never did overweening theological pride seem so bloated as when theologians blithely invoked the “dual magisterium.”

Of course, that theologians exercise real magisterial authority proper to their office is beyond question. And this Dulles fully understood and ably defended. He argued that there are two kinds of teaching in the Church, that of the bishops who establish official doctrine and that of the theologians who investigate the faith with the tools of critical scholarship. The crucial issue, of course, is in establishing the proper relationship between these two magisteria. The authority of theologians was never envisioned as an “alternate magisterium” in the sense of a competitor with or antagonist to the episcopal teaching office. The theologian renders service to the Church by investigating and explaining the intelligibility of Christian faith and doctrine, by proposing new perspectives and developments for ecclesial consideration, and, at certain times and always within the profound communion of Christian life, by critiquing the “ordinary” (as opposed to dogmatic) teaching of the Church, even while acknowledging the unique authority of the hierarchical magisterium. This fundamental point is never in doubt either in Dulles’ earlier or later work.

No sketch of the cardinal’s enduring theological contributions can ignore his ardent and eloquent defense of the priesthood at a difficult time in the life of the Catholic Church. The crisis of episcopal misprision and clerical sexual abuse dominated headlines during what Fr. Neuhaus dubbed the “Long Lent” of 2002. The American Catholic bishops, panicked by the extent of the crisis and by the ferocity of attacks against them, adopted the “Dallas Charter” ( Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People ), norms for dealing with priests accused of abuse. Early on, Dulles warned the bishops that the charter’s norms were so harsh and unyielding as to establish an “adversarial relationship” between the episcopacy and presbyterate.

Dulles returned to his concerns in a 2004 article in America magazine. He observed that, four years earlier, the bishops of the United States had published Responsibility and Rehabilitation , a critique of the American criminal-justice system. In that document, the bishops rejected slogans such as “three strikes and you”re out” and cautioned against “one-size-fits-all” solutions. Dulles bluntly noted that, in the Dallas Charter, the bishops “have taken positions at odds with these high principles,” adopting the very viewpoint they had earlier condemned. In their legitimate desire to protect children and to restore confidence, “the bishops opted for an extreme response.” In so doing, they undermined priestly morale and struck a blow against the Church itself as an institution in which justice reigns.

The charter was modified after a Vatican consultation, but Dulles remained deeply skeptical that accused priests were accorded justice. Accusations were deemed credible simply if they were not entirely groundless, the very definition of abuse appeared ambiguous, proper remuneration for accused priests was unresolved, and there were persistent problems with returning priests to public ministry. In a 2005 essay in First Things , Dulles expressed his continuing belief that there are times when priests can not only be forgiven of sin but rehabilitated and, with prudence, returned to public ministry: “Permanent exclusion from priestly ministry is the spiritual equivalent of the death penalty.”

Cardinal Dulles’ original comments have proven to be remarkably prescient and prophetic. As Dulles clearly recognized, a wound in the body of Christ cannot be healed by inflicting another, nor should the chasm between the episcopacy and the presbyterate be allowed to widen. If the image offered by St. Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century is to hold”as it must hold”with presbyters suited to their bishops as strings to a harp, then bishops cannot be regarded by priests as men whose primary and overriding concern (apart from protecting children) is defending their legal and media flanks from further attack.

As he saw immediately that the Dallas Charter distressingly strained both natural justice and Catholic theology, perhaps a sober and thoughtful revision of the norms would be a fitting tribute both to his memory and to his theological acumen.

In his foreword to Cardinal Dulles’ collection of lectures, Church and Society , Fr. Robert Imbelli applies to the cardinal the ancient title vir ecclesiasticus , “man of the Church.” This apt description is given breadth and depth by the Jesuit historian Henri de Lubac, who in The Splendor of the Church wrote: “Such a person will have fallen in love with the beauty of the House of God; the Church will have stolen his heart. She is his spiritual native country, his “mother and his brethren,” and nothing which concerns her will leave him indifferent or detached; he will root himself in her soil, form himself in her likeness and make himself one with her experience. He will feel himself rich with her wealth; he will be aware that through her and her alone he participates in the unshakeableness of God. It will be from her that he learns how to live and from her that he learns how to die.”

Surely those words describe the life of Avery Cardinal Dulles.

Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University.