A conservative theologian in an era of liturgical reforms and rising secularism, Cardinal Dulles wrote 27 books and 800 articles, mostly on theology; advised the Vatican and America’s bishops, and staunchly defended the pope and his church against demands for change on abortion, artificial birth control, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and other issues.
His task as a theologian, the Cardinal often said, was to honor diversity and dissent but ultimately to articulate the traditions of the church and to preserve Catholic unity.
When Pope John Paul II designated dozens of new cardinals in early 2001, there were three from the United States. Archbishops Edward M. Egan of New York and Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington were unsurprising choices; it is common for heads of archdioceses to be given red hats. But the selection of Father Dulles was extraordinary. Although his was an influential voice in American Catholicism, he was not even a bishop, let alone an archbishop.
The appointment was widely seen as a reward for his loyalty to the pope, but also an acknowledgment of his work in keeping lines of communication open between the Vatican and Catholic dissenters in America. Cardinal Dulles considered it an honorary appointment. He was 82, two years past the age of voting with other cardinals in electing a new pope.
His investiture with 43 other scarlet-robed cardinals in Rome on Feb. 21, 2001, almost came unstuck. The last to step up to the pope’s golden throne to receive his biretta, the red silk hat of office, Cardinal Dulles approached with his cane, knelt and was accoutered. But as he embraced the pope, his biretta fell to the ground: a humbling at the great moment, he recalled wryly.
He carried the cane because of a recurrence of polio contracted while serving in the Navy in World War II. The polio had left him unable to walk for a time, but the symptoms had disappeared. They reappeared about a decade ago, affecting his leg muscles, and became progressively worse. About a year ago, his arms and throat were affected, leaving him unable to speak. Thus, his farewell address at Fordham last April was delivered by the university’s former president, the Rev. Joseph O’Hare.
Cardinal Dulles was typically self-deprecating, and soft-spoken, a bit awkward: a lanky, 6-foot 2-inch beanpole with a high forehead, a shock of dark hair going gray and a gaunt face with sharp features. Abraham Lincoln without the beard came to mind.
His spiritual passage to Catholicism was like a fable. A young scholar with a searching mind, he stirred from his establishment Presbyterian family to face questions of faith and dogma. By the time he entered Harvard in 1936, he was an agnostic.
In his second book, “A Testimonial to Grace,” a 1946 account of his conversion, Cardinal Dulles said his doubts about God on entering Harvard were not diminished by his studies of medieval art, philosophy and theology. But on a gray February day in 1939, strolling along the Charles River in Cambridge, he saw a tree in bud and experienced a profound moment.
“The thought came to me suddenly, with all the strength and novelty of a revelation, that these little buds in their innocence and meekness followed a rule, a law of which I as yet knew nothing,” he wrote. “That night, for the first time in years, I prayed.”
His conversion in 1940, the year he graduated from Harvard, shocked his family and friends, he said, but he called it the best and most important decision of his life.
He joined the Jesuits and went on to a career as a major Catholic thinker that spanned five decades.
His tenure coincided with broad shifts in theological ideas as well as sweeping changes brought on by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. These provided new understandings of how the church, after centuries of isolation from modern thought and even hostility to it, should relate to other faiths and to religious liberty in an age when the church was gaining millions of new followers in diverse cultures.
Cardinal Dulles devoted much of his scholarship to interpretations of the Vatican Council’s changes, which he said had been mistaken by some theologians as a license to push in democratic directions. The church, he counseled, should guard its sacred teachings against secularism and modernization.
“Christianity,” he said in a 1994 speech, “would dissolve itself if it allowed its revealed content, handed down in tradition, to be replaced by contemporary theories.”
Theological and academic colleagues, including many who disagreed with him, said Cardinal Dulles had set high standards of intellectual integrity, fairness in judgments and lucidity in lectures, essays and books. They said his was often a voice of mediation between the church and American Catholics who challenged church teachings.
Avery Robert Dulles was born in Auburn, N.Y., on Aug. 24, 1918, the son of John Foster and Janet Pomeroy Avery Dulles. His family was steeped in public service. Besides his father, who was secretary of state from 1953 to 1959, and uncle, who directed the C.I.A. from 1953 to 1961, his great-grandfather, John Watson Foster, was secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison, and a great-uncle, Robert Lansing, held the post under President Woodrow Wilson. Avery’s grandfather, Allen Macy Dulles, was a Presbyterian theologian and co-founder of the American Theological Society.
Avery Dulles attended primary schools in New York City and private secondary schools in Switzerland and New England, but had no strict Presbyterian upbringing.
He attended Harvard Law School for a year and a half before joining the Naval Reserve as a World War II intelligence officer. In 1946, he joined the Society of Jesus, began training for the priesthood and was ordained in 1956 by Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York.
He took a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1960, taught at Woodstock College in Maryland from 1960 to 1974 and at the Catholic University of America in Washington from 1974 to 1988, then joined the faculty at Fordham as the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society.
Cardinal Dulles served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1975-76 and of the American Theological Society in 1978-79. His books include “Models of the Church,” (Doubleday, 1974), a theological best-seller that appeared in many languages; “A Church to Believe In: Discipleship and the Dynamics of Freedom,” (Crossroad, 1982) on American Catholic theological concerns, and “The Splendor of Faith: The Theological vision of Pope John Paul II,” (Crossroads, 1999).
The cardinal is survived by eight nieces and nephews. His brother, John Watson Foster Dulles, an author and professor, died in San Antonio on June 23, and a sister, Lillias Pomeroy Dulles Hinshaw, died in 1987. Cardinal Dulles remained an active voice in the church into the new century, responding when the church confronted sexual abuse scandals involving hundreds of priests in the United States. After the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a national policy barring from ministerial duties any priest who had ever sexually abused a minor, Cardinal Dulles said the policy ignored priests’ rights of due process.
“In their effort to protect children, to restore public confidence in the church as an institution and to protect the church from liability suits, the bishops opted for an extreme response,” he said. He noted that the policy imposed a “one-size-fits-all” punishment, even if an offense was decades old and had not been repeated. “Such action seems to reflect an attitude of vindictiveness to which the church should not yield.”