Saturday, December 13, 2008

Avery Robert Dulles, SJ 1918-2008

Avery Robert Dulles was a full fledged member of the WASP Establishment. Three family members served as Secretary of State (father John Foster, grand uncle and great grandfather), his uncle Allen, guided European espionage during World War II and later became CIA Director during the beginning of the Cold War. His grandfather Allen Macy Dulles, was a renowned Presbyterian theologian, co-founder of the American Theological Society.

His unlikely conversion to Catholicism detailed in his book “A Testimonial to Grace” mirrored that of Thomas Merton‘s “The Seven Storey Mountain“. He was an agnostic when he entered Harvard in 1936 and immersing himself in the study of philosophy and art failed to dispel his doubts about God until one winter morning in 1939 when he saw a tree in bud: “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 concluded memorably: “That night, for the first time in years, I prayed.”

He became a Catholic in 1940, referring to this event as the best and most important decision of his life. After the war he entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest in 1956. Dulles wrote 27 books and 800 articles, mostly theological works that defended the Catholic Church’s positions on the limits of secularization, papal infallibility, artificial birth control, abortion, women priests, religious celibacy, scientific advances and a host of other issues. Dulles often said that his duty was to honor diversity and dissent but ultimately to articulate the traditions of the church and to preserve Catholic unity. He wrote against excessive secularism and modernization and maintained that the changes brought by the Second Vatican Council should not be misconstrued as a “license” to engage in populist philosophies. “Christianity would dissolve itself if it allowed its revealed content, handed down in tradition, to be replaced by contemporary theories.”

His persistent conservatism, couched always in lucid and reflective prose made him a favorite theologian of Pope John Paul II. In 2001, he was made a Cardinal, even if at age 82 he could no longer participate in the selection of the next Pope. What made the designation largely unprecedented however was at the time of his appointment, he was not even a Bishop.

I greatly respect and admire the life and works of Cardinal Dulles; it is amazing to read his essays that freely reference scholarly thinking ranging from St. Paul to Plato, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, the Cappadocian Fathers, Kierkegaard, Locke, Leibniz, Malebranche, Martin Buber, Fernand Van Steenberghen, Dostoevsky, Maurice Blondel, Max Scheller, Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Jacques Maritain in a single lecture. But with all the erudition and brilliance, one cannot help but ponder if Cardinal Dulles ever truly understood the plight of millions of Catholics in South America, Asia and Africa. Was this the reason why in “The Reshaping of Catholicism” he acknowledged the possibility that the church could fall into serious error and might require reform, that the laity had a right to an active role and that the church needed to respect regional and local differences?

And while he wrote that “a measure of conservatism is inseparable from authentic Christianity”, was the careful choice of the quantifying noun “measure” meant to encourage serious and faithful Catholics to seek other solutions when the existing order was clearly failing to promote justice and uphold human dignity?


azron said...

I think the words, 'a measure' would indicate an opening for other views. Also that the conservative perspective was a foundation from which other opinions were allowed.


pian said...

If what you're suggesting is for the church to admit an error commited with respect to its stand against artificial contraceptives, the church can never commit errors when it comes to MORAL issues. However, someone did quote St. Thomas Aquinas that it's OK to steal on certain occasions. And that's how I would look at artificial contraceptives, that it's OK to use them on the occasion of poverty, when your partner has AIDS or any sexually-transmitted diseases, or when one's pregnancy can result in one's death. The key to always think about is life. Follow your conscience.

Anonymous said...

....practical compromise: steal on certain occasions (and then confess) long as you don't get shot dead in the act.
....the "primacy " of conscience is admitted by the Church...a correct conscience that there's the rub !

pian said...

That is not a compromise so there is nothing to confess. It's understanding the need for the basics to live.

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