Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 866

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 866


This is the grave of Avery Dulles.

Born in 1918 in Auburn, New York, Dulles grew up at the very elite of American society. His father was John Foster Dulles, his uncle was Allen Dulles, and this family went back into the foreign policy apparatus for generations before that. He had a relatively mild case of polio as a child and recovered, unlike so many others. Of course he had the most elite education possible, going to Choate (among other schools) before enrolling at Harvard in 1936. The family was Presbyterian, but Dulles would convert to Catholicism in 1940 after a period of agnosticism in college. Personally, I’ve never really understood the conversion experience in the modern world. All religion comes up against the obvious question to me–which is why is one better than the other and why is it that the vast majority of religious people believe they are going to Heaven or Hell or whatever afterlife or that they are right based upon the less than compelling reason that they were born into it. Even the convert, I mean, what on earth would make someone think that they had figured it out? It’s really the issue of belief itself I don’t understand. Like math or mint chocolate chip ice cream, I’m never going to understand it, so why bother spending time thinking about it? This includes committed atheism, which is just another religion.

My anti-theology asides aside, Dulles not only converted to Catholicism, but like many the convert, he went all the way. It took him awhile to get to the priesthood. He followed his father’s bidding and went to Harvard Law for awhile and then World War II came. He was a liaison with the French Navy during the war (the Camera Obscura song probably being the more effective force) and was commissioned as a lieutenant.

But when he left the military in 1946. Dulles was committed to the priesthood. He became a Jesuit in 1956, after a long period of study and contemplation. He studied in Germany and Rome and received a doctorate in sacred theology in 1960. At this point, he rose in the Church hierarchy pretty fast. He taught at Woodstock College from 1960-74 and then at Catholic University until 1988, though he was off a lot on visiting professor gigs in Europe and the U.S., ranging from Notre Dame to Leuven University in Belgium (incidentally, my wife, a scholar of religion, had a conference at Leuven a few years ago and I got to go and it was a pretty cool place). His father, despite early on not being real thrilled at his son’s conversion, later found it super helpful as Secretary of State, because he could go to so many Catholic nations and talk about his son the priest. Of course, Dulles and Mike Mansfield and Kennedy really liked Diem leading South Vietnam because he was a Catholic and therefore One of Us–which may in fact not be the best way to run U.S. foreign policy.

The Dulles family were very bright and very well-educated. But they also tended to have a good and evil mentality that led John Foster and Allen to make some very stupid and quite catastrophic decisions. Interestingly, despite become a Catholic convert, Avery Dulles seems to have avoided this family trait. He became known as a moderate in the Church. He opposed the kind of theocratic boundary-policing of the right-wing Catholics in the U.S. and in large parts of the Vatican, basically saying that it was pointless and impossible to win this. He was hardly a liberation theology guy (given his father, it would have been awesome if he was), and he said that critics of church theology should be very careful and only critique the church mildly. So he’s no hero of a liberalized church, which the Catholics desperately need if they are going to remain relevant in American life at least, not to mention western Europe, which is probably already lost. But in the larger scheme of late 20th century Catholicism, there are far worse characters.

Or at least that was true until the Catholic priest sex scandal hit. In 2004, when the Church actually decided to do something about it and create a discipline policy for child raping priests, Dulles was outraged. He wrote, in one of his last major articles, in America, the Jesuit magazine, that the new policy violated the rights of due process priests should receive and that it countered the Catholic doctrine of redemption. I guess by Dulles’ standards no priest should ever be stopped from the whole child raping thing because who knows when they are going to see the errors of their ways and be redeemed in the eyes of God. Ugh.

Dulles was also an intensive scholar, publishing dozens of books and articles, some academic, some more popular. Dulles retried from active teaching in 1988 and went to Fordham as a visiting professor and just to live there. Although Jesuits don’t tend to take higher positions in the church, Pope John Paul II named Dulles a Cardinal in 2001. It was honorific as much as anything, for he was in decline by this point. Cardinals over the age of 80 can’t vote anyway. Later in life, the health effects from his childhood polio became more profound. By the time he tried to give a farewell speech in 2008, he could no longer talk and had lost much of the use of his arms. So a friend had to give the speech instead. Of course, he was also very old by this time, even outside the polio. When Pope Himmler Benedict XVI visited the U.S. in 2008, he paid a visit to the old man. Dulles died near the end of 2008, at the age of 90.

Avery Dulles is buried in Jesuit Cemetery, Auriesville, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other American Catholic leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Junipero Serra is in Carmel, California and James Augustine Healy is in South Portland, Maine. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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