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 Étienne 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?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Father Connelly - As one person who casually suggested a blog to you on my way out of Mass one day, one person of many I think, thank you so much for this interesting story of conversion with its sound philosophical basis. I have enjoyed so many of your essays here, but have not stopped by to express my appreciation as yet.

    My insight about God's relationship with us has to do with a series of happy coincidences throughout my life which sort of tell me Someone up there cares for us. I recite them to others and hope they catch on too. So often they involve removing a prejudice I may have had about someone, to achieve a fuller understanding of our relationship. I may discover a political opposite is actually a relative of mine (and fairly close) or that some situation I worried about for years has been resolved by good people whom I might have opposed. I wish our political life would take all of this into consideration. Having been born in Washington DC (actually Bethesda), I feel this quality needs to be brought out in the fierce rivalry (which so often seems to be sham wrestling, but which unfortunately causes people to polarize as enemies who embrace the posturing as though it is real).

    Anyway, Cardinal Dulles showed something interesting about the road "up" from Calvinism and his rejection of it in temporary atheism. In so doing, he probably improved the Church as well. Nice to know his atheism was just a "phase" and probably like getting rid of some overly tight clothing in favor of much better tailored garments.