One Establishment Meets Another

Avery Dulles's long journey to the Catholic cardinalate

Illustration by Stan Fellows

"Ecce sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo," the choir sang: "Behold the great priest who in his day has pleased the Lord."

It was very much a Roman afternoon, softer and warmer than even the Italians expected for February. And it was very much a Roman place: Gesù e Maria, a high-Baroque church designed by Carlo Rainaldi for the Augustinians in 1670, out along the Via del Corso toward the old city gate, a block below the Piazza del Popolo. Into that ornate riot of Roman taste—where gold-gowned priests and mitered bishops bowed beneath the bronze and marble, the gilded crucifixes and glowing frescoes—walked Avery Dulles, the great priest, as tall and thin as a split rail, with a face of sharp-cornered granite. He looked as much the opposite of Baroque Rome as it is possible to imagine. He looked like stern New England, deep in winter.

He looked like what he is: eighty-two years old and the end of a long line of American Presbyterians; the last heir of the old northeastern American establishment, incongruously turned Jesuit priest and dressed in the scarlet cassock, sash, and mozzetta of a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. The ceremony at which Dulles took possession of Gesù e Maria, his titular church, was held on February 23, the third day of celebrations in Rome for Cardinal Dulles—the first American theologian ever raised to the cardinalate.

In January, when Pope John Paul II announced the latest elevations, three Americans were on the list. The first two, Edward Egan and Theodore McCarrick, the recently named archbishops of New York and Washington, were no surprise. How could the head of a major American archdiocese not become a cardinal these days? Besides, Egan and McCarrick are Irish, like most of the Church hierarchy in the United States. One can read in their faces the history of American Catholicism—primarily a tale of Irish immigration, struggle, and rise to wealth and power, with the Italians and now the Hispanics in supporting roles.

In Avery Cardinal Dulles's face one can read the history of the other world—the world from which those Irishmen long felt excluded. It wasn't simply money and status that the Dulleses possessed (though, Lord knows, they had enough). Their primary gift was assurance. Behind them, like perpetual graces, stood Princeton and Harvard, weekends on sailboats, grand tours, a house out on Long Island, a summer place upstate, the Navy, the foreign service. Avery Dulles's great-grandfather, John Watson Foster, was President Benjamin Harrison's Secretary of State. His great-uncle, Robert Lansing, was Woodrow Wilson's. His father, John Foster Dulles, was Dwight Eisenhower's. His uncle, Allen Dulles, headed the CIA from 1953 to 1961. His aunt, Eleanor Dulles, wielded influence as a State Department officer and a Washington hostess.

And behind that modern establishment stood earlier American establishments: the long line of New England intellectuals who discovered transcendentalism in the pages of Emerson, the longer line of Protestant ministers who preached Calvinism from the Second Book of Kings. Avery's grandfather, Allen Macy Dulles, had been a Presbyterian pastor and a co-founder of the American Theological Society. John Foster Dulles—coming to believe that only the Gospels and international organization could preserve world order—gained wide notice as an expert on international affairs by chairing a 1941 peace commission for the Federal Council of Churches.

Still, Avery Dulles described himself as an agnostic when he arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate, in 1936. The subsequent decade was a time of prominent Catholic conversions, particularly intellectual and literary ones. Thomas Merton gave the classic account of those days in The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), the tale of his progress from Columbia University to a Trappist monastery. But even for his generation, Dulles's conversion was curiously intellectual. It began when he decided that Catholic philosophy provided a more complete account of the world than others did. Acceptance of the philosophy compelled acceptance of the theology, which in turn compelled acceptance of the faith—except, of course, that intellectually accepting faith isn't the same as actually having faith.

But then, in 1939, "on one grey February afternoon ... in Widener Library," Dulles wrote in his conversion memoir, A Testimonial to Grace (1946),

I was irresistibly prompted to go out into the open air ... The slush of melting snow formed a deep mud along the banks of the River Charles, which I followed down toward Boston ... As I wandered aimlessly, something impelled me to look contemplatively at a young tree. On its frail, supple branches were young buds ... While my eye rested on them, 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 ... That night, for the first time in years, I prayed.

By the fall of 1940, in his first year at Harvard Law School, Dulles was ready to tell his family of his faith and to be received into the Catholic Church. After a tour in the Navy, during which he won the Croix de Guerre for liaison work with the French navy, he returned to Boston in 1946 and joined the Society of Jesus to become a priest.

Over the course of his career Father Dulles, S.J., would write hundreds of theological articles and more than twenty books, mostly in defense of the Second Vatican Council—the work for which the Pope has now rewarded him. The most influential is Models of the Church (1974), an attempt to identify diverse understandings of the Christian Church and to define a method of theology that can—under the rubric of "models"—seek harmony among hotly disputed positions.

Dulles's most revealing book, however, may be his first, Princeps Concordiae: Pico della Mirandola and the Scholastic Tradition, published by Harvard University Press in 1941, when Dulles was twenty-two. Pico, a brilliant fifteenth-century Italian philosopher who died at age thirty-one, is typically an undergraduate's hero. Like Dulles himself (like nearly all precocious young men), Pico seemed to have intellectual conviction before actual faith. "He was not very diligent in the observation of external ceremonies," his nephew dryly noted. But for his attempt to roll everything from Aristotelian logic to Egyptian astrology into a unified Christian humanism, he was known by his contemporaries as the "prince of concord."

And concord has never been far from Dulles's mind since. Explaining the liberalism of Vatican II to an old generation that had experienced only the unified, pre-conciliar Church, he became a leader for liberal Catholics in the 1970s. Explaining the conservatism of Vatican II to a new generation that had experienced only the fragmented, post-conciliar Church, he became something of a leader for conservative Catholics in the 1990s. But always it was the centrality of the council that he set himself to explain.

Indeed, his objection to radical theology is, finally, that the people who practice it wreck theology. There is no idea so wild that it cannot be assigned a place in Dulles's system of theological models. But radicals—of both the revisionist left and the revisionist right—refuse to be accommodated in this way. They don't want to be in the Church; they want to be the Church. And that, as Dulles observes, is what makes them so "uncivil." The intellectual roiling of the Catholic Church after Vatican II made for Avery Dulles a world far different from that of his fathers: different in class, different in faith, different in ideas. But once again a Dulles was there to see that the center held.

At the Vatican consistory, the outdoor ceremony held on February 21 to create the latest set of cardinals, Avery Dulles was the last to kneel before the Pope. After placing his square, brimless red hat, called a biretta, atop the skullcap known as a zucchetto, he stood up—and then, realizing he hadn't shared the traditional kiss with the Pope, he bent down in his tall, awkward, American way and accidentally dropped his biretta in John Paul II's lap.

At that moment the Roman crowd fell in love with the least Roman of the new cardinals. Dulles led Italian newscasts that evening and was cheered at mass in St. Peter's Square the next day. At a dinner in his honor he joked that he hadn't let his red hat go to his head. Everywhere he went, Romans lined up to kiss his ring.

Mostly he seemed to be having fun, as if he were launched on a great adventure—as great an adventure, maybe, as a family member has had since 1953, when his father became Secretary of State and practiced his dangerous brinkmanship in the great crusade of the Cold War. Or maybe since 1946, when his aunt Eleanor, wheeling and dealing in occupied Austria, fed the starving people of Vienna by trading the famous Lippizaner stallions to the U.S. Cavalry for trainloads of food. Or maybe since 1942, when the Nazis' seizure of Vichy France left his uncle Allen cut off in Switzerland, with nothing but $1 million and perhaps the greatest spy network ever built.

Or maybe since all the way back in 1939, when a young man in Widener Library put down his philosophy book and walked out to look at the trees along the Charles.