A time to remember Cardinal Avery Dulles


Aug. 24, 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., who was born during the First World War in upstate New York. His father, great-grandfather and great-uncle were former Secretaries of State for this country, his uncle founded the CIA, and he was a classmate of John F. Kennedy. But despite Cardinal Dulles’ service in the U.S. Navy, where his heroism resulted in his receiving the Croix de Guerre from the French, his life’s contribution and primary allegiance were undoubtedly in service to the church and explication of its teachings, more than to any political State.

Marking the centenary of the birth of this remarkable man — the only American theologian ever to be recognized with the cardinalatial red hat — an event was held on Sept. 24 at Fordham University in New York City, his academic and personal home for multiple stages of his life, where I had the privilege to work for him for five years. I was delighted and humbled to be invited to speak, along with many prominent theologians from around the world who were indelibly stamped by his contributions, whether directly as his students, colleagues and friends, or via his massive corpus of writings.

The list was a veritable “who’s who” of Catholic voices from the last half-century. I opened my remarks by claiming that I was sincerely touched to be included as the last of the cardinal’s doctoral students, both in terms of chronology and undoubtedly of status and influence in that room. The program included such noted luminaries as Elizabeth Johnson (whose life and career intersected with his for decades from graduate studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington through extended terms together as colleagues there and at Fordham), Patrick Carey, Mary Catherine Hilkert, Joseph Lienhard, Agnes Brazal, Yvon Elenga, Mick McCarthy, David Gibson, Matt Malone, Peter Phan, Patrick Ryan, Christine Firer Hinze and Joseph Komonchak.

Chief among those granting a privileged window into the cardinal’s life, work and final illness was Sister Anne-Marie Kirmse, the figure most associated with assisting the cardinal for the bulk of her professional career and caring for him in his infirmity.

In a gesture of the significance of the moment, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sent a letter marking the conference’s importance and remembering with fondness his personal meeting with Cardinal Dulles during his apostolic visit to the United States.

Preliminary discussions were held about gathering and expanding on the presentations to publish as an edited volume. I feel this would be a welcome addition to our discipline, as many of the contributions sat at the crucial intersection of retrospective and prospective analyses. That is to say, they marked and reflected on his groundbreaking work in its proper historical context, and then often applied it to contemporary problems or situations where he could have likely never have explicitly anticipated the conversation developing.

But in his most famous work, “Models of the Church,” Cardinal Dulles makes clear that “the future forms of the church lie beyond our power to foresee, except that we may be sure that they will be different from the forms of yesterday and today….”

“Will static traditionalism have the last word? Or will churchmen [sic] of prophetic vision arise to lead the People of God resolutely into the future? … In a healthy community of faith the production of new myths and symbols goes on apace. The ecclesiologists of the future will no doubt devise new models for thinking about the church. But what is new in Christianity always grows out of the past and has its roots in Scripture and Tradition.”

While obviously being careful to distinguish with precision from the deposit of faith, the traditions (small “t”) which Cardinal  Dulles helped to proffer, unpack and understand anew, where he straddled boundaries of intellectual tribalism like few others, continue to mold the contemporary church and society at large.

This is true even in completely unexpected and non-theological ways. For instance, based on what he once joked to me, I still find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable whenever I have a layover in D.C., and use “that other airport.”

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.