He Broke Ranks With His Powerful Family’s Politics, Religion : Father Avery Dulles Remains Diplomatic Amid Catholic Debate
For Father Avery R. Dulles, it has been an improbable career.
Born into a family of diplomats, he might have followed in the career footsteps of his father, the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Or he might have taken after his uncle, the late Allen Dulles, who directed the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950s.
Instead, Father Dulles broke with both the professional and religious background of his Presbyterian family. An agnostic by the time he entered college, he eventually chose the Catholic priesthood and later became a widely respected theologian in his church. This month, at the age of 70, Dulles is retiring as professor of theology at Catholic University in Washington.
Yet his presence on the American church scene is unlikely to diminish, as shown by the close attention being paid to his just-released book, “The Reshaping of Catholicism” (Harper & Row).
Maintain Middle Ground
In the often polarized atmosphere of debate within American Catholicism these days, Dulles is known as the theologian who has been able to maintain a middle course. His ability to find some common ground on theological arguments is illustrated by the list of those praising his latest book. They range from New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor--widely regarded as one of Pope John Paul II’s guardians of orthodoxy in the United States--to Father Richard McBrien, a theologian who has been chided by bishops for his liberal views.
When Dulles speaks, for instance, on the volatile issue of theological dissent (which has wracked his own university), it becomes clear why he has earned a middle-of-the-road reputation in American Catholicism. “I don’t think they should crack down,” he said of the Vatican’s disciplining of dissident theologians. “They can’t control everything. And it’s counterproductive.”
At the same time, he said theologians should publicly criticize church teachings only in extraordinary circumstances, and then only “modestly.” This has been more or less the approach taken by Dulles in the widely publicized case of Father Charles Curran, a fellow Catholic University theologian who has been under disciplinary action by Rome for his relatively liberal views on such issues as birth control, abortion and homosexuality.
Dulles sat on a faculty review committee that defied the Vatican by recommending against removal of Curran, whose case is still pending. But to the disappointment of some of his colleagues, Dulles has declined to take a visible role in defense of the liberal theologian.
That he would be playing any role at all in American religion is something that could hardly have been foreseen during his days as an undergraduate student at Harvard University. At the time, Avery Dulles considered himself an agnostic, having been what he described as only a “nominal Presbyterian” while growing up in New York City.
Drawn to Christianity
But it was at secular Harvard that young Dulles found himself drawn to Christianity while reading Plato, Aristotle and other great philosophers. “They convinced me that materialism was not the answer, that there was such a thing as virtue and that there were moral standards that were objective and could be known,” said Dulles, a tall, thin man with a quiet, shy manner.
Fascination with Catholic thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas led the young student to begin frequenting a small, Catholic-run bookstore in Cambridge.
“Finally, when I got ready, I went up to the manager of the bookstore and asked her, ‘How do I get into your church?’ ” he recalled in an interview here. Dulles was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1940. And, after a few semesters of law school and a stint in the U.S. Navy, he entered the Society of Jesus--the Jesuits--in 1946.
To John Foster Dulles, all this was disconcerting. “He was not enthusiastic,” the priest recalled of his father’s attitude in an understated tone. “I think he had been brought up with a certain amount of anti-Catholic prejudice.”
But the elder Dulles eventually warmed up to the idea of having a Catholic son. When John Foster Dulles became the architect of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War era of the 1950s, the statesman actually found his son’s priesthood “rather helpful,” Avery Dulles recalled.
“When he met with Catholic foreign ministers, chancellors and premiers, he would mention that he had a son who was a priest,” said Father Dulles. “They would be impressed by that. It created a common bond.”
The late secretary of state himself was no stranger to the religious scene. The son of a Presbyterian minister, John Foster Dulles headed the Federal Council of Churches’ wartime Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, which supported the establishment of the United Nations.
John Foster Dulles is also remembered by historians as having later pursued his anti-communist policies with a moral rigidity reflective of his strict Calvinist upbringing.
But the younger Dulles, who said he always remained close to his father, described this popular characterization as inaccurate and unfair. “He was actually very friendly, tolerant and outgoing--extremely flexible, almost pragmatic,” said the theologian, who has a reputation as a moderate in his political as well as religious views.
Today, the priest’s small but comfortable apartment on the Catholic University campus offers a glimpse of his family pride. There is a photograph of Pope Pius XII greeting his father in Rome. On top of a bookcase containing several dozen selections written or 1701079412of Allen Dulles. Avery’s great-grandfather, John Watson Foster, was secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison. His great uncle, Robert Lansing, held that office under President Woodrow Wilson.
Mission Is the Church
“I’ve never felt any desire to go into government,” said Dulles, who will begin retirement as a visiting professor at Fordham University in his native New York City. His mission has been and will remain the Catholic Church, an institution now beset with disputes over faith and doctrine.
“I just don’t think it is proper for Christians to be constantly at each other’s throats,” he said. “The church can easily tear itself apart, as it already has in Holland and France. I don’t want to see that happen here.”