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Cardinal Dulles was a quintessentially American thinker

My friend Avery Dulles was given the red hat late in life. But he continued to repair his shoes with tape and accept criticism with humility

A quarter of a century of friendship with Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, who died 10 years ago this month, left me with many happy memories. Two of them involve his investiture as a cardinal in February 2001 and bring his accomplishment as a theologian into focus.

On the evening of February 23, Cardinal Dulles celebrated Mass while taking possession of his Roman “title”, Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. It was a typically deft John Paul II touch to give the new American cardinal the church where one of Dulles’s heroes, Robert Bellarmine, had preached during the Counter-Reformation as his titular pastorate.

What was most striking about the Mass, however, was Cardinal Dulles’s appearance. I think all of his friends were a bit stunned seeing him for the first time wearing the mitre and carrying the crozier appropriate to his new dignities. Then the author Joseph Bottum captured the moment perfectly in a stage whisper: “Now we know what Abraham Lincoln would have looked like in full pontificals.”

Two days earlier, after receiving the red hat at a public consistory in St Peter’s Square, Cardinal Dulles met admirers at a reception in the cortile of the North American College. Feeling the effects of the post-polio syndrome that would eventually take his life, the cardinal asked for a chair so he could sit while greeting well-wishers. As I watched, I was struck by the remarkable resemblance between the American Jesuit and another of his heroes, John Henry Newman, as painted by Emmeline Deane in the National Portrait Gallery.

Lincoln and Newman help us understand some important things about Avery Dulles, theologian.

Like the 16th president, Dulles was quintessentially American, and not only because he descended from a distinguished American family. He was a distinctively American thinker in that, while he appreciated the renaissance in speculative theology that had taken place in Catholicism throughout the 20th century, his own theological work was quite concrete, shaped more by the life of the Church than by attempts to cope with the legacy of Immanuel Kant. Moreover, he had a singular capacity to “translate” speculative theology into crisp, readable American English. No one needed a graduate degree to think with Avery Dulles; you only had to be willing to work through an argument with an author who valued the clarity that comes from the indicative. That literary craftsmanship continued to the end. In his last days, when an old friend, Fr Robert Imbelli, asked the cardinal if there was anything he could do for him, Dulles pecked out on the keyboard with which he communicated after post-polio took away his voice: “Put some more paper into the printer.”

The Newmanesque quality of Dulles’s theology is summed up in one word: “churchmanship”. Like the great Oratorian, Dulles was an ecclesial theologian who was determined to think with the Church while developing Catholicism’s self-understanding. And while Cardinal Dulles did not suffer from the intra-ecclesiastical wars as Newman did, the American did endure the sotto voce deprecations of fellow theologians who thought him too cautious and insufficiently critical of John Paul II’s leadership – in a word, too “ecclesial”. It was a tacit criticism that Dulles bore with equanimity and grace, for he was convinced that theology is not religious studies and that theology’s proper function is to work inside the Church for the sake of its evangelical mission. The notion advanced by some post-conciliar theologians, that their guild constitutes a parallel magisterium, did not make much sense to Dulles.

That did not make him a sycophant, unlike those theologians today (curiously located on the Catholic left) who display an uncritical ultramontanism that would make Henry Edward Manning, William G Ward and Alfredo Ottaviani blush. Dulles was an extremely able interpreter of the magisterium of John Paul II, for example. But when he thought John Paul hadn’t been persuasive – as on the question of capital punishment – he said so, although he raised questions in an entirely respectful manner.

Dulles was also intelligent enough, and modest enough, to accept criticism of his own work, even of his most famous book, Models of the Church – criticism to which he responded with an essay that helped set the theological table for the new evangelisation by defining discipleship as the bottom line of any ecclesial “model”.

On this 10th anniversary, many of us will remember Dulles first and foremost as a lovable human being, a true gentleman who nonetheless took his vow of poverty seriously and repaired his shoes with duct tape.

Shortly after the cardinal’s return from the 2001 consistory, one of his colleagues, Fr Joseph Lienhard, SJ, who hadn’t been able to come to Rome, wrote me a note: “Thanks for sending the mementoes of Avery’s elevation … He looks great in a faded navy windbreaker and a pectoral cross.” There is an image to savour: the image of a genuine, and genuinely American, churchman.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the author of 25 books, including Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St John Paul II