Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

R.I.P.: Avery Cardinal Dulles (1918-2008)

One of the most honored of U.S. Catholic theologians, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., died yesterday (12 December 2008) in the Bronx, NY at the age of 90.  Dulles came from a famous American family. Dulles International Airport (Washington, D.C.) is named for his father, John Foster Dulles, who was President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State. (His uncle, Allen Welsh Dulles, was Eisenhower’s Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Both Cardinal Dulles’ great grandfather, John W. Foster, and his great-uncle, Robert Lansing, also served as Secretaries of State.  (For non-U.S. readers: The U.S. Secretary of State is roughly equivalent to what most parliamentary democracies refer to as “Foreign Minister.” In both cases, said persons are the top diplomat, the voice of the government’s foreign policy.)

Raised a Presbyterian, young Avery Dulles soon became an agnostic.  He converted to Catholicism in 1940, became a Jesuit priest in 1956 (i.e., he was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus, the order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and, in my experience, the order which serves as the intellectual shock troops of the academic side of Catholicism–but Jesuits are also missionaries and often on the forefront of work justice and peace, too.).  He became a theologian and was elevated to Cardinal in 2001, becoming the only American to date admitted to the College of Cardinals.  (There were other anomalies:  Jesuits usually refuse elevation in the church hierarchy and Dulles is the only Cardinal in modern times who was not also a bishop!)

Dulles was a conservative (but not rightwing) theologian in an age of rising secularism, liturgical, ethical, and doctrinal revision.  He was also, however, an ecumenist.  Further, although many viewed Dulles as a defender of Catholic orthodoxy, he saw himself as a mediator, explaining liberal Catholics to conservatives and vice versa.

Dulles taught for two decades at New York’s Fordham University and died in Fordham’s infirmary. He was considered the dean of American Catholic theologians–nearly every Catholic thinker of any stripe had to interact with his work.

I am no Catholic–merely a displaced (Ana)Baptist (with one foot in the left end of the evangelical spectrum and one foot in the more conservative end of American liberal theology) who has taught at 2 Catholic universities alongside wonderful Catholic colleagues.  In many areas, I am far more comfortable with the more progressive wing of the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus.  But I would be a fool not to recognize the value of Dulles’ contributions not only to the Roman Catholic Church, but also to the church catholic, the universal Body of Christ.  His Models of Revelation and Models of the Church are excellent typologies that helped me find my own views in relation to others.  His book The Craft of Theology(1992) has been one of the influences on my own theological method (insofar as I can be said to have one).

His obituary in the New York Times is here.  For more information visit Dulles’ homepage at Fordham University.

Well done, good and faithful servant of the One Servant.  Rest in Peace.


December 13, 2008 - Posted by | Obituaries, theology

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