Avery Dulles was one of the most influential American Catholic theologians of the post-Vatican II era. Son of a prominent establishment family (his father, John Foster Dulles, served as secretary of state), his conversion to Catholicism was followed a few years later by his decision to enter the Society of Jesus. While his own theological training as a Jesuit occurred principally under the aegis of the then dominant neo-scholastic orientation, his philosophical training was rather pluralist for the time and his theological formation included the “new” historical analysis of biblical material along with the influence of his theological mentor Gustav Weigel. Even though he himself did not participate in the workings of the Second Vatican Council, his personal background and advanced Jesuit formation served to allow him to become an early advocate of progressive features of the council, particularly its ecumenical overtures and its embracing of historically nuanced retrieval of the Catholic tradition.
This was already manifested in his early work, Apologetics and the Biblical Christ (1963). My own undergraduate education was being influenced by the historical-critical study of biblical texts, but the leading exponents of such work in my studies were Protestant scholars. To find an up and coming Catholic theologian carefully defending the use of historical methods in biblical analysis for interpreting doctrinal matters, such as the nature of Christ and the resurrection, was very encouraging as I began to study theology. Later his Survival of Dogma (1971) proposed a way of understanding foundational issues concerning the role of faith and the kind of rationality that functioned in theological discourse that proved very helpful in my own early reflections on fundamental theology. That he used insights from the thought of Michael Polanyi, whose theory of knowledge was key to my own theological development, made his reflections even more attractive to me. And then in his Models of the Church (1974) his careful delineation of five “models” for understanding the church, including their respective strengths and weaknesses, leading him to affirm that all were valuable and worth considering but that the “sacramental” model was most valuable for this time in the history of the Catholic Church still shapes my own understanding of the nature of the church.
What happened beginning from the late 1970s to Dulles’ orientation was, at least for those of us like me not personally familiar with his life, disconcerting: he began to pull back dramatically from his more open acceptance of the historical reading of theological claims and to veer dramatically toward a more stable understanding of doctrinal teaching anchored in the authority of the magisterium, particularly papal authority. His critique of David Tracy’s early work as grounded too much in secular criteria rather than Christian revelation was problematic, particularly when he suggested it advocated latent heresy. His participation in what became known as the Hartford Appeal had the surface appearance of a wholesale rejection of progressive developments in theology. This tendency continued up to the late 1990s with his intemperate questioning of the catholicity of at least some members of the Catholic Theological Society of America. How might such apparently disjointed perspectives be meaningfully understood as emanating from the same thinker?
Patrick Carey’s comprehensive biography of Avery Dulles, which provides a sympathetic account of the course of his religious and intellectual development, offers an intelligent way of dealing with this matter. His presentation is well documented from Dulles’ published works, unpublished manuscripts, as well as his personal correspondence, supplemented by Carey’s own interviews with Dulles himself and with many who knew Dulles, ranging from family members to colleagues and former students. Generally, Carey accepts Dulles’ own characterization of his position as a consistently “moderating” or mediating stance. Whether one accepts Carey’s hermeneutic or not, his careful portrayal of main features of Dulles’ life should provide any diligent inquirer with an ability to offer informed judgments about the permutations in Dulles’ theology.
One clue to understanding the deeper contours of Dulles’ development may be found in some distinctive peculiarities leading to his conversion to Catholicism. Dulles enjoyed a privileged social, economic, and educational upbringing sustained by a caring family animated by a conventional commitment to the Presbyterian Church. By the time Dulles attended Harvard College, however, he had become, at least for all practical purposes, an atheist who sought out deeper meaning as an intellectual aesthete. In this searching context, he encountered faculty who introduced him to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the art and architecture of medieval and renaissance Catholicism. He began socializing with likeminded individuals in the Cambridge area who found in this revived, medieval intellectual heritage a spiritual home in the midst of the dominant secular culture of the day. Eventually they formed the St. Benedict Center which continued to explore the Catholic faith in this devotedly probing way. Dulles was attracted to a romantic, idealized version of the Catholic tradition that a small group, almost sectarian in character, sustained. The church to which Dulles was converted, as Carey wryly notes, was significantly – even if not substantially – different from the one in which his Harvard classmate, John F. Kennedy was reared.
Another clue emerges when Carey explores the way Dulles tries to provide an account of his (newly emergent) critical attitude toward liberal theologians in the late 1970s. Dulles believed that our explicit, in this case theological, formulations were sustained by tacit cultural assumptions. He began around this time to fear that such theologians were unknowingly, because tacitly, committing themselves to secular assumptions or ideals that were antithetical to a robust acceptance of the transcendent orientation of theological discourse. Such a judgment was clearly indebted to his appropriation of Polanyian insights that all our thought unfolds out of anterior cultural commitments. From around this time Dulles come to believe that he was maintaining a “mediating” position and that it was those he characterized as liberal theologians who had strayed from the moderate use of contemporary insights to the detriment of theological understanding. This conviction allowed Dulles to interpret his work as continuous with his earlier positions. And Carey convincingly shows that even toward the end of his life, Dulles continued to affirm the importance of moderation in theological judgments with an openness to new circumstances, all the while challenging much of progressive theology as failing to adhere to a sufficiently “catholic” center. This, of course, coalesced with an interpretation that the Vatican began to promote for the council itself and for which he was honored toward the end of his life by being named a cardinal. Whether he was applying such a Polanyian insight appropriately to the larger secular culture of the twentieth century is debatable, however (consider the recent work of Charles Taylor, for instance).
As these examples illustrate, anyone interested in understanding the development of the theology of Avery Dulles would be well served by reading this sympathetic biography. Carey is rather thorough in providing references to the material that support Dulles’ belief that he had remained constant in the overall direction of his theology. A testimony to Carey’s scholarly integrity can be appreciated by the fact that this same material can be interpreted differently, an interpretation I would favor. Nonetheless, however one decides on the tenor of Dulles’ theological career, we are all indebted to Patrick Carey for providing us with this marvelous study upon which we can construct such assessments.