Avery Cardinal Dulles (1918-2008)

Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that "God is in the details" fit the moral architecture of Avery Dulles. While his physical architecture was likened to Lincoln, the man was discerned in the details: from his conversion to the Faith when noticing the first spring blossom on a tree, to his intimate regard for all ranks of people, never wasting on professorial dialectic time that could better be spent discussing cookies with a rectory cook. That is not to say that he deified details himself: He could be vague about matters not touching life and death, and he was known to confuse his washing machine with the dishwasher.
My first contact with the Dulles family was with a dead one: My father held John Foster Dulles in high regard, and we visited his fresh grave in Arlington. I had no idea that there was a son who, to the confusion of the Presbyterian family, had been ordained a priest three years earlier. Not only a priest, but a Jesuit — very unlike his grandfather, who had been a liberal clergyman who dismissed the Virgin Birth and accepted divorce. The family claimed two secretaries of state before Avery’s own father, along with a Civil War general. Uncle Allen directed the CIA, and Aunt Eleanor was in the charge of the Berlin desk at the State Department. His mother did not take very seriously the family’s claim to direct descent from Charlemagne, naming her poodle Pepi in honor of Charlemagne’s father, Pepin.
His literature of 23 books and about 800 essays exercised the critical faculties of disparate theological camps, but they all add up in sum: "Sentire cum ecclesia." As the Church is the Body of Christ, he took its pulse, confident that something stronger than the gates of hell is not to be measured by pressure systolic and diastolic. When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, it was as if Cardinal Dulles had conjured something wonderful with the Holy Spirit, for Joseph Ratzinger’s "hermeneutic of continuity" was his own ballast against sophistry and pedantry alike. One example was his polite perplexity when a prudential opinion about capital punishment appeared in the new Catechism. Dulles feared that the impression of an abolitionist position against capital punishment, as with just war theory, even motivated by "wise and good" pastoral instincts, would seriously confuse the meaning of intrinsic evil. He predicted that, when the heat of the cultural day cools, the traditional doctrines on these matters will be appreciated better. A close friend of mine who shared quarters with the cardinal at Catholic University watched Dulles, not given to demonstrative piety, praying the rosary up and down the corridor before and after he wrote.
One day, a brief remark that I made about a favorite hymn we had both grown up with, albeit from two different sides of the same heretical coin, moved him to write a fine letter, which in turn moved me to write a book on the history of many hymns we had long known. The only help I ever gave him was to stop a Christmas tree with real candles from falling on him. After that I claimed to have saved his life, or at least to have saved him from being burned somewhat less than Jesuits of the Tudor period.
Polio, contracted while in the Navy during the Second World War, came back with a vengeance in later years, crippling a leg that he dragged in a heavy brace and robbing his voice, whose customary flatness in lectures notoriously contradicted the music of his mind. His speechless patience could be heroic when I, uncharacteristically, had to do all the talking. Muteness became rhetorical elegance when the pope received him at the Dunwoodie seminary. That blatantly providential encounter prefigured "the two faces of death" — dolorous and triumphant — of which Edward Cardinal Egan eloquently spoke at the funeral, recalling words of his friend’s last lecture: "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 skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ."
He promised to dedicate a shrine to Newman in my church, if our mutual hero were beatified. Almost coincident with Cardinal Dulles’s death came a strong report that Newman’s beatification was imminent. Perhaps they both now cast their red hats upon the Crystal Sea. Dulles dropped his biretta when Pope John Paul II put it on his head. What "Punch" said of Newman needs little effort of transposition to the Jesuit of Fordham: "’Tis the great and good head that will honor the hat, not the hat that will honor the head."

The Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviour in New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available from Crossroads Publishing.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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