U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president Cardinal Francis George and Catholic commentator George Weigel have both written statements eulogizing Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, following the American theologian’s death on Friday. Cardinal George called him “a great theologian and a totally dedicated servant of the Church” while Weigel recalled the late cardinal’s humility and modesty.
"His wise counsel will be missed; his personal witness to the pursuit of holiness of life as a priest, a Jesuit and a Cardinal of the Church will be remembered and will encourage the Church to remain ever faithful to her Lord and his mission,” Cardinal George said in a Friday statement.
George Weigel, writing in Newsweek, recounted some details of Dulles’ life and faith.
Born on August 24, 1918, Cardinal Dulles was a part of a family with a long history of government service. His father, great-uncle, and great-grandfather all held the office of U.S. Secretary of State. According to Weigel, Dulles’ father John Foster Dulles was “the most prominent Protestant layman of the 1940s” and a chairman of the Federal Council of Churches' Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Endurable Peace.
However, the young Avery Dulles arrived at Harvard University as a “thoroughgoing” skeptic and agnostic. Then on a windy spring day in 1938, Dulles was walking along the Charles River when he noticed the veins in a leaf on a blossoming tree.
“Such precision, beauty, and purpose could not, he thought, be an accident,” Weigel said.
Dulles realized the universe must be governed by an all-good and omnipotent God. "That night," he later recounted, "I prayed for the first time in years."
Having come to appreciate, in Weigel’s words, the “depth, subtlety and coherent structure” of Catholicism, he entered the Church in 1940. After serving in the Navy, he joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest in 1956.
He would go on to serve as a professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America and later was a professor of religion and society at Fordham University.
His rigorous academic formation made him an intellectual leader in U.S. Catholicism and in the United States as a whole.
“His steadiness, which was complemented by an equally remarkable fairness to those with whom he disagreed, made him a unique figure on the U.S. Catholic theological scene--a reference point for just about every serious Catholic religious thinker, and more than a few Protestants and Jews as well,” Weigel wrote in Newsweek.
Weigel called Dulles a “self-consciously ecclesial theologian” who deliberately “thought with the Church.”
Dulles produced more than two dozen books and 800 scholarly articles. In 2001 Pope John Paul II, reportedly acting on the advice of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, elevated him to the cardinalate.
Weigel recounted Father Dulles’ reaction to being named a cardinal, saying the Jesuit priest’s first action was to inquire whether he could be dispensed from canonical law requiring that a cardinal be ordained a bishop.
“I assured him that a dispensation would be readily given, as it had been for others like him. There was an audible sigh of relief at the other end of the phone. It was all another expression of the man's humility.”
Dulles chose as his cardinal’s motto St. Paul’s words “Scio cui credidi,” meaning "I know in whom I have believed.”
“He never sought cheap originality or sound-bite fame,” Weigel continued, praising Dulles’ “modesty of intellectual purpose” which accompanied his “charming modesty of person.”
“One does not often see cardinals of the Holy Roman Church walking across campus in cheap blue windbreakers; the cardinal's sartorial style would have caused grimaces at Walmart, let alone Brooks Brothers,” Weigel wrote in Newsweek.
Father James Massa, executive director of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB and a student of Cardinal Dulles, also praised his life.
"For a generation of priests, scholars and faithful, Cardinal Avery Dulles has been a reliable and faithful interpreter of the Second Vatican Council. A number of his books have become classics in theological education, such as Models of the Church," he said in a USCCB press release. "In some ways, his life bears comparison with another great cardinal-theologian, John Henry Newman, on whose birthday, 200 years later, Avery Dulles was created a cardinal of the Catholic Church."
During his visit to the U.S. in April, Pope Benedict XVI met with Cardinal Dulles in a private audience.
In his USCCB statement, Cardinal George’s memorial remarks concluded:
"I am deeply saddened at the loss of a personal friend,” Cardinal George said. “But I rejoice in the hope that now he sees clearly what he explored so well in his studies on revelation, on grace and on the nature of the Church and the papal office. May he rest in peace."