An Ignatian Spirit

Avery Dulles’s Theological Journey

To write a biography of Avery Dulles (1918–2008) is to enter the vitriolic conflict over interpretations of the legacy of Vatican II, the current state and future prospects of Catholicism in the United States, and the health of Catholic theology. This conflict moved increasingly to the center of Dulles’s own prodigious output of lectures, articles, and books during the last two decades of his life. His career has been taken by the different sides in the conflict to be emblematic of what is wrong or right about the direction in which the church is moving today.

In Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, 1918–2008 (Paulist Press, $49.95, 736 pp.), Patrick Carey, historical theologian at Marquette University, enters this contested field by presenting Dulles as a “theological diplomat,” someone who learned early in life the art of acting “with tolerance of diverse opinions without sacrificing principle.” This is very much an appreciative work, and Carey admits that his biography necessarily suffers from a lack of critical distance that only the passage of more time can give. He concedes he is “less critical than perhaps other biographers will be.”

This appreciation shows itself in Carey’s fundamental agreement with Dulles’s stance in the conflict of interpretations over contemporary Catholicism, and more perilously (for a biographer) in his acceptance of Dulles’s own narrative self-interpretation. Particularly questionable is Carey’s willingness to take at face value Dulles’s explanations of the shift in theological direction he made in the mid-1970s. Carey uses words that Dulles himself could have written to describe the plot of this biography. Dulles’s “theological journey dealt with change, development, and continuity in the Catholic tradition. In his early theological career, he emphasized development in continuity; later in life, continuity in development. But the two, continuity and development, were always in some kind of dialectical tension and synthesis in his thought.” There is much to be said for Carey’s way of organizing the myriad events and scholarly works in the life of a very public intellectual. Yet it finally fails to capture the complexity of the figure that emerges in the pages of this book.

Charles Avery Dulles was born in 1918 to a wealthy and influential Protestant family, one that understood that its privilege entailed committed and self-sacrificing work on behalf of the commonweal. There were both high-level statesmen and churchmen in Dulles’s family tree. His father, John Foster Dulles, was secretary of state during the Eisenhower administration (as was his grand-uncle under Wilson), and his uncle Allen Dulles was director of the CIA. Avery had by all accounts a happy childhood. He went to the best schools, where he rubbed elbows with the like of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He spent the Depression years at a boarding school in France, where he developed a deep love of medieval art and culture. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had a religious awakening that led him away from the liberal Presbyterianism in which he had been reared and, eventually—to the surprise and dismay of his family (his father, at least)—into the Catholic Church.

As a young man, Dulles was involved in Republican politics. In those formative years he was exposed to and embraced a critique of “liberalism” that would reemerge with greater or lesser force throughout his life. He was also a founder of St. Benedict’s Center, a “cultural and intellectual center” (as Dulles described it) for Harvard students and faculty. Among the other founders were Christopher Huntington and Catherine Goddard Clarke, who were his godparents when he was received into the church. Clarke was particularly important in Dulles’s journey toward Catholicism, as she had originally suggested readings to him when he was seeking to learn more about the faith, and he was very close to her. After Dulles joined the Jesuits the center became infamous under the management of Fr. Leonard Feeney, who was excommunicated for his rigid interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus—“outside the church there is no salvation”—and his anti-Semitism. St. Benedict’s was placed under interdict and Dulles broke off all contact with its members, “including his beloved godmother, Catherine Goddard Clarke.” This is one of several points where Carey could have probed deeper to give us the person behind the theological diplomat.

In the 1930s and ’40s the imminence and then outbreak of global war was often on Dulles’s mind. He was opposed to U.S. intervention because he believed that it could not fulfill the requirements for a just war. Once war was declared, however, he enlisted in the Navy out of the conviction that one had to trust governmental authorities who knew the details of the situation better and therefore could make the right prudential decision. He would later insist that this kind of “hermeneutic of trust” be applied to decisions of the hierarchical magisterium.

A year after Japan’s surrender Dulles joined the Society of Jesus, making front-page headlines in the Boston Globe, Carey writes. He studied at Woodstock College and, after ordination, at the Gregorian University. Like many other theologians of his generation, he was fascinated by the nouvelle théologie and Maurice Blondel’s “dynamic notion of tradition.” Thus began a lifelong project of understanding church doctrines in their historical context without completely relativizing their content. With the encouragement of his Jesuit teacher and mentor at Woodstock, Gustave Weigel, Dulles also read widely in Protestant theology, which was the beginning of a lifelong engagement in ecumenical theology and dialogue.

The years leading up to the Second Vatican Council were turbulent, and the Jesuits at Woodstock, John Courtney Murray in particular, were often at the center of controversy, as were the figures of the nouvelle théologie. A bit puzzlingly, Carey has nothing to say about Dulles’s views on Murray’s silencing by his Jesuit superiors, even though Dulles was studying at Woodstock at the time and later expressed reservations about the utility of such extreme measures. By the time Murray had been vindicated during the Second Vatican Council, Dulles had returned from Rome to teach at Woodstock and was already well on his way to becoming one of the most prominent Catholic theologians in the country. His subsequent career is well known: teaching first at Woodstock, then at the Catholic University of America, and finally at Fordham, serving as a consultor to the U.S. bishops and to the Vatican (on the International Theological Commission), becoming a cardinal in 2001. His career is well known in part because of his phenomenal theological output and in part because he was involved in virtually every battle in U.S. Catholicism during that period. Carey gives us a richly textured account of these involvements.

In Carey’s narrative of Dulles’s life there are two turning points subsequent to Dulles’s conversion and entry into the Society of Jesus: the Second Vatican Council, and a series of events in the mid-1970s that caused Dulles to reevaluate his theological posture. Carey characterizes the period between the council and the mid-’70s as one in which Dulles emphasized development in continuity. Carey evinces no little discomfort with this period. He objects to Dulles’s sharp contrast between the preconciliar and postconciliar church (closed society and open society, respectively), calling it “a caricature.” Moreover, he cannot quite bring himself to acknowledge outright Dulles’s emphasis on what had changed with the council and on the potential for real theological novelty. He calls Dulles’s approach during this period a quasi-hermeneutic of discontinuity, or a quasi-apophatic theology that emphasized the limits of human language when it comes to the mystery of God, and thereby embraced conceptual pluralism in Christian theology. That said, Carey does justice to Dulles’s work as a proponent of theological innovation. This extended to structural innovation, evident from Dulles’s leadership at a meeting of Jesuit seminary educators at Rockhurst College in 1965, at which, in Dulles’s words, “We changed the curriculum [of Jesuit seminaries] in the course of a weekend.” In the late ’60s Dulles even concelebrated a Eucharist with two Lutheran ministers, a clear embarrassment to the cardinal four decades later.

Carey also documents Dulles’s criticisms of what Dulles took to be excesses in the “progressive” and “liberal” wing of theology (with which he identified himself). He balanced praise with criticism in his treatment of the ecclesiologies of Hans Küng and Richard McBrien. While troubled by the process that led to Humanae vitae, and “not convinced by the encyclical’s intrinsic arguments,” he did not join other theologians in public expressions of dissent. As he described this decision later, “my concern was a pastoral one; I was trying to get people to live together in the same church.” Then, as later, he preferred low-level “theological diplomacy” to more bellicose acts of public dissent by theologians or censure by bishops.

In his research and writing he carried on this theological diplomacy by developing a method that identified ideal types (“models”) for approaching a given theological theme, each with strengths and weaknesses, each in need of correction by the others, one or another needing more emphasis in a given time period and set of cultural conditions. He did it in his public lectures and interviews by occupying what he took to be the center of theological and ecclesial conflicts and summoning both extremes toward moderation. (Carey often uses the Ignatian motto of agere contra to describe Dulles’s theological judgments.) Determining precisely where this center lies requires a theological judgment, and Carey (following Dulles himself) often uses another term from Ignatian spirituality to describe this central theological endeavor: “The contemporary theologian’s task, he believed, was ultimately one of spiritual discernment—meaning that the theologian had the responsibility in faith to distinguish the meaning of the biblical and historical tradition and apply it to the needs of the day in order to keep alive the heritage of faith and build up the church in the present.”

Dulles’s “spiritual discernment” changed dramatically in the 1970s. A series of events—including the closing of Woodstock, controversy over the Catholic Theological Society of America–commissioned study Human Sexuality (during Dulles’s tenure as the president of the organization), and the 1976 Call to Action meeting in Detroit (for which he served on the organizing committee, and at which he spoke)—conspired to “modify Dulles’s earlier enthusiasm and optimism about reform and experimentation in American Catholicism.” Modify seems far too tame a word to describe the change that Carey goes on to recount. The critique of liberalism that Dulles had learned in his years at Harvard reemerged with a vengeance in his later writings and speeches on U.S. culture, often elaborated with the same apodictic certainty and lack of nuance that Carey noted (more critically) in Dulles’s earlier depiction of the preconciliar church. Dulles became convinced that American theologians were accommodating the truths of the faith to this culture. He criticized them for this with a harshness not found in earlier criticisms of his colleagues, beginning with acerbic attacks on the theologies of Protestant Langdon Gilkey and Catholic David Tracy (in the interest of full disclosure, I studied with both these theologians, and Tracy was my dissertation adviser). Dulles became increasingly alienated from the CTSA, about which he once repeated with approval Cardinal Bernard Law’s characterization of the group as a “theological wasteland.” While this is interpreted by some as a shift to the right, from the Concilium camp to Communio, Carey argues tenaciously that Dulles remained a progressive. In Carey’s view, before the excesses of the ’70s Dulles had emphasized the possibility (indeed necessity) of development within the continuity of the Catholic tradition. After that period of disorder, Dulles emphasized the importance of maintaining continuity as the inalienable premise for fruitful development.

How well does this analysis work? On the one hand, it is true that there were progressive theologians who advocated more innovation and reform in the ’60s than Dulles did, and conservatives who were more hostile to any development or innovation in the ’80s and ’90s, so in that sense Dulles was always in the center (although by this measure the great majority of theologians could be placed in the center). Dulles did not agree with Hans Küng or Richard McBrien on every issue before his “shift,” and he did not agree with Richard John Neuhaus or even the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on everything afterward. Before and after the mid-’70s he believed that both public dissent on the part of theologians and the censuring of theologians by the magisterium were ill-advised and counterproductive. Thus far, Carey’s “hermeneutic of trust” with regard to Dulles’s description of his own career is helpful.

Yet it is simply disingenuous to state that Dulles “did not side with either the liberals or the conservatives in the Catholic Church” during the last three decades of his life, when the vast preponderance of theological positions he took aligned him more with the latter camp than with the former. There is, moreover, a difference in tone that points toward a deeper shift than Carey can account for with the way he plots Dulles’s life. It is one thing to say that an ecclesiology falls short, lacks nuance, or leaves certain tasks “undone” (as Dulles wrote of McBrien’s ecclesiology in the ’60s), or to criticize Küng for a certain theological arrogance. It is another thing to assert, as Dulles did of Gilkey and Tracy in the mid-’70s, that certain theologies have “latent heresies” in them that come from pervasive features of the larger culture. Such latent heresies, he went on to note, “may be found at work even in the work of those whose explicit beliefs are entirely orthodox”—a remarkably ungenerous way of critiquing a theological position, in part because it is unanswerable. Dulles’s sense of what theological diplomacy entailed shifted as well. In his response to the furor over Humanae vitae in the late ’60s, he sought “to get people to live together in the same church.” Later he would begin speaking of the church as “a little flock, a disciplined community of committed believers who no longer had the support of a homogenous cultural environment.” This is more than striking a different balance between continuity and development; something else is at work.

There are hints of another shift, a change in the way Dulles approached the spiritual discernment required of the theologian. This change can be gleaned from notes that Dulles made at a 1975 symposium in honor of John Courtney Murray commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Declaration on Religious Freedom. In some “unusually personal” reflections, Dulles observed that the world around him (including elements of the church) “had lost interest in the questions I find most important.” He continued, “I feel estranged from a world that does not put meaning and value on the things I consider most important.” Remarks like this, along with others that reflect a growing, Spengleresque pessimism about the future of the West, suggest that Dulles was not just reassessing how to strike the correct balance between development and continuity, but was coming to doubt whether contemporary culture was a viable medium within which to strike such a balance at all. If one were to employ the language of Ignatian spirituality to frame Dulles’s views at that time, one might even say that he found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to engage in the Ignatian spiritual exercise of “seeking and finding God in all things” when it came to American culture and its institutions (including the modern university and its innovative structure of “academic theology”). There is, of course, much in American culture to make such an exercise difficult, yet many other theologians continue to attempt it. The theologies that result, and the ways they try to strike a balance between fidelity to the tradition and work at the tradition’s “growing edge” (to cite a phrase of John Courtney Murray’s that Dulles himself had quoted often with approval), are different as a consequence. Could it be that Dulles’s deeper sense of alienation from the larger culture explains some of the vehemence with which he expressed his disagreements with fellow theologians in the closing decades of his life?

Perhaps this way of judging the case attempts to get closer to the spiritual heart of a theologian than a biographer (and a reviewer) should, although Carey himself consistently makes the case that one cannot understand Dulles without invoking his (Jesuit) spirituality. In any event, whether or not one agrees with Carey’s way of mapping Dulles’s life, or fills in the gaps differently, this book does succeed in providing an “entry point into much that has happened in American and worldwide Catholicism in the sixty years after his reception into the Catholic Church.” Dulles’s life dramatizes how exciting it has been to be an American Catholic, and an American Catholic theologian, over the past four decades. It also dramatizes how very difficult it has become in the current cultural and ecclesial climate to be faithful to the tradition that makes theology possible while also working at its growing edge.


Related: A Model Theologian, by Mark S. Massa
Model of the Church, by (Rev.) Robert P. Imbelli
Fr. Imbelli's letter responding to this article

Published in the 2012-01-13 issue: 

J. Matthew Ashley is associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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