Tuesday, December 15, 2015



I’ve often thought that old theologians are like old generals who don’t really die but somehow disappear. The expression of course, I think, comes from General MacArthur but I may be wrong, but, if not, I never understood what he meant. I have long been an admirer of the work Avery Dulles accomplished in the realm of theology here in our own country. He was a thoughtful and careful scholar in his many books, articles and other publications over the course of four score and ten years. He certainly was the dean of Catholic theologians here in the United States. The fact that Pope John Paul II named him a Cardinal was a tribute to Avery himself but, as he himself said, a tribute to the necessary but often hidden work of those who do the work of theology in the Church, who see their vocations as theologians as ecclesial vocations.

In this column, my interest in not to write about Dulles’ theological works but to talk about his conversion to the Catholic, faith which took place when he was a student at Harvard University. He thought of himself as an unbeliever, an atheist, when he began to study at Harvard, unlike his father John Foster Dulles, who was a leading lay voice of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. John Foster Dulles, you may remember, was Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. Several others in the Dulles’ family also served as Secretary of State in the United States which takes us back in history. After his conversion, Avery wrote his first book entitled “Testimonial to Grace”. Not every convert comes into the Church the same way. Dulles’ conversion was very much the result of an intellectual experience. I mention it at this time because it centers on several basic experiences in the world of philosophy and theology. The following observations come from America Magazine, March 5, 2001, which I have in my files, an interview that Father James Martin conducted with Father Dulles when he was made a Cardinal. He was asked the question – How did God work to move you from an appreciation of philosophical texts to embracing Catholicism? This is what he said:

“The move toward philosophy was for me the presupposition of religious faith. I don’t know that it always has to go that way, but that is the way it went with me.

The first stage was Aristotle convincing me that the mind was a faculty that penetrated reality, so that when one was thinking correctly one was entering more deeply into reality itself. He helped me see that our ideas are not merely subjective but that they reflect the structure of the world and the universe. The so-called metaphysical realism of Aristotle was a first stage for me, and it gave me a confidence in human reason.

The second stage was Plato, who basically said that there was a transcendent order of what is morally right and wrong and that one has an unconditional obligation to do that which is right, even when it seems to be against one’s self-interest. That set me thinking about where that obligation comes from. It seemed to come from something higher than humanity. We don’t impose it on ourselves. And no other human being can impose it on us or exempt us from it. So there is an absolute order to which we are subject. This seemed to imply an absolute Being—and a personal being to whom we are accountable. And this set me thinking that there is a God who is a law-giver and a judge, who knows everything that we do and who will punish or reward us duly. In this way I found a basis in natural theology.

Then after that I read the Gospels, and it seemed to me that they taught all of this, and more. The revelation given in Jesus Christ was a reaffirmation of all these principles I had learned in Greek philosophy—but the Gospels added the idea that God was loving and merciful and had redeemed us in Christ, offering us an opportunity to get back on board when we had slipped and fallen overboard. That’s a very brief sketch of what I tried to lay out in greater detail in my Testimonial to Grace.”

He was then asked the question – How did you move from those general Christian beliefs to Catholicism more specifically? This is how he replied:

“I studied quite a lot of history in connection with my work in early Renaissance studies, which was my special field. But since I had to do the patristic and medieval background for the Renaissance, I had to read something of the Greek Fathers and a good deal of Augustine and the medieval tradition, especially Bernard, Thomas Aquinas and Dante. And, in particular, for my dissertation I worked on the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who had his roots deep in medieval scholasticism. So I got to know the medieval church quite well and was strongly attracted to it, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Also I studied the Reformation and so learned about the Reformers: I read Luther, Calvin and the decrees of the Council of Trent. I found my sympathies were always on the Catholic side and felt that was where I belonged.

Also, I ran into contemporary Catholicism through the books of writers such as Jacques Maritain and √Čtienne Gilson, both of whom enjoyed very high prestige at Harvard when I was studying there. My professors had great esteem for them and I myself found them extremely helpful in applying Christian principles to the modern world in many spheres, from aesthetics all the way to politics and international affairs. I found them full of light.

Finally, I was living in Cambridge, Mass., which at that time, and perhaps still today, is a very Catholic city. The Catholic Church had a hold on its people that no Protestant church seemed to have. The people were attending church services in huge numbers and going to confession, communion, Benediction and Holy Week services and things like that. And I was attracted in many ways to the liturgy, too. So it was a combination of all those factors, without much personal contact with any individual Catholics—I didn’t really have any close friends who were practicing Catholics. It was a kind of a solitary journey, and then I later discovered that others were making the same journey, though I did not realize it at the time.”

It’s interesting to think, in light of all the above, about the number of folks walking up and down beside the Charles River, not to mention all sorts of millions in the big cities of the world, who know nothing about the Good News of Christ the Savior. Why are we surprised that people do not understand our faith or are hostile to what we Catholics stand for? What these folks need, so we say, is evangelization – that is, hearing the Good News about Jesus and then comes the task of catechesis as folks learn to understand the Good News. A question – What is our role in all this?



In the liturgical calendar, January 1 has had many titles: it is the Octave Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, and the Feast of the Lord’s Circumcision. Since Vatican II the liturgy has retrieved a venerable title for January 1 which celebrates Our Lady’s divine maternity. Thus the feast day that used to be more Christological is now seemingly a Marian feast under the title of Mary – Mother of God.

In recent decades, beginning with the threats of the Cold War, January 1 has also been observed as World Peace Day. The initiation of World Peace Day was taken by Pope Paul VI and continued every year during the long reign of John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI continued this important tradition with the 2006 World Day of Peace message, under the title – “In Truth, Peace”. Speaking for himself Pope Benedict wrote as follows: “This, my first message for the World Day of Peace, is meant to follow in the path of my predecessor. With it I wish to reiterate the steadfast resolve of the Holy See to continue serving the cause of peace. The very name Benedict, which I chose on the day of my election to the Chair of Peter, is a sign of my personal commitment to peace. In taking this name, I wanted to evoke St. Benedict, a patron saint of Europe who, through the monastic movement, inspired the civilization of peace. I also wanted to evoke the memory of Pope Benedict XV who condemned World War I as ‘useless slaughter’ and worked diligently for the universal acknowledgement of the lofty demand of peace.” Pope Benedict’s 2007 World Day of Peace message was masterful. It bore the title “The Human Person, the Heart of Peace”. It made luminously clear the truth that we cannot leave the work of peace and justice to political figures only or to the so-called experts. If it is true that the heart of peace is found potentially within the human person, each of us, especially at the Eucharist, must say – “Then peace must begin with me”. As the Holy Father wrote – “A fundamental element of building peace is the recognition of the essential equality of human persons springing from their common transcendental dignity. Peace is based on the rights of all.” The Pope’s 2008 message was entitled – “The Human Family, A Community of Peace”. As is obvious in our individualistic and hedonistic society, which is so hostile to the institution of family and the institution of marriage and the non-transferable role of the family in human society, the role of the family for world peace is essential.

We come now in the past reflection to the Holy Father’s 2009 World Day of Peace message. It is entitled – “Fighting Poverty to Build Peace”. The text reads as follows: “Once again, as the new year begins, I want to extend good wishes for peace to people everywhere. With this Message I would like to propose a reflection on the theme: Fighting Poverty to Build Peace. Back in 1993, my venerable Predecessor Pope John Paul II, in his Message for the World Day of Peace that year, drew attention to the negative repercussions for peace when entire populations live in poverty. Poverty is often a contributory factor or a compounding element in conflicts, including armed ones. In turn, these conflicts fuel further tragic situations of poverty. ‘Our world’, he wrote, ‘shows increasing evidence of another grave threat to peace: many individuals and indeed whole peoples are living today in conditions of extreme poverty. The gap between rich and poor has become more marked, even in the most economically developed nations. This is a problem which the conscience of humanity cannot ignore, since the conditions in which a great number of people are living are an insult to their innate dignity and as a result are a threat to the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community’

In this context, fighting poverty requires attentive consideration of the complex phenomenon of globalization. This is important from a methodological standpoint, because it suggests drawing upon the fruits of economic and sociological research into the many different aspects of poverty. Yet the reference to globalization should also alert us to the spiritual and moral implications of the question, urging us, in our dealings with the poor, to set out from the clear recognition that we all share in a single divine plan: we are called to form one family in which all – individuals, peoples and nations – model their behavior according to the principles of fraternity and responsibility.

This perspective requires an understanding of poverty that is wide-ranging and well articulated. If it were a question of material poverty alone, then the social sciences, which enable us to measure phenomena on the basis of mainly quantitative data, would be sufficient to illustrate its principal characteristics. Yet we know that other, non-material forms of poverty exist which are not the direct and automatic consequence of material deprivation. For example, in advanced wealthy societies, there is evidence of marginalization, as well as affective, moral and spiritual poverty, seen in people whose interior lives are disoriented and who experience various forms of malaise despite their economic prosperity. On the one hand, I have in mind what is known as ‘moral underdevelopment’, and on the other hand the negative consequences of ‘superdevelopment’. Nor can I forget that, in so-called ‘poor’ societies, economic growth is often hampered by cultural impediments which lead to inefficient use of available resources. It remains true, however, that every form of externally imposed poverty has at its root a lack of respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person. When man is not considered within the total context of his vocation, and when the demands of a true ‘human ecology’ are not respected, the cruel forces of poverty are unleashed, as is evident in certain specific areas of the world today.” All these words of Benedict XVI certainly can be most helpful as we learn the lesson he’s teaching us, i.e., in order to build peace, we must fight poverty.