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Cardinal Avery Dulles, who left a prominent Protestant pedigree to become one of the nation’s most distinguished theologians and a prince of the Catholic Church, died Friday (Dec. 12) at the age of 90.
Dulles, who was one of the oldest men to be named a cardinal, at age 82, by Pope John Paul II in 2001, died at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in New York, where he held the Laurence J. McGinley Chair since 1988.
When he was named a cardinal, he was the oldest of the 44 clerics elevated to the College of Cardinals, and the only one who walked up the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica with a cane. He was also the first U.S. Jesuit — and the first American theologian who was not already a bishop– to be honored with a cardinal’s red hat.
He was too old to vote in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, but was nonetheless an active member of the U.S. hierarchy, including serving as part of the U.S. delegation of cardinals that was summoned to the Vatican in 2002 to grapple with the growing clergy sex abuse scandal.
With Dulles’ death, the U.S. church now has 16 American cardinals.
“He was absolutely beloved by his brother Jesuits; admired by scholars, students and readers; and esteemed by the Vatican,” said the Rev. James Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America. “His piercing intellect, lucid style and deep faith made him a reader’s writer and a believer’s theologian.”
Dulles’ father, John Foster Dulles, was secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration. Two other family members were appointed to the same post: John W. Foster, in 1892, and Robert Lansing, in 1915. His uncle, Allen Dulles, was Eisenhower’s CIA director, and a great uncle, the Rev. Allen Macy Dulles, was a noted Presbyterian theologian.
He became interested in Catholicism through his studies of art, philosophy, theology and medieval literature at Harvard, and became a Catholic after his graduation in 1940.
He enrolled in Harvard Law School but left to serve in the Navy during World War II in 1942. After his discharge as a lieutenant in 1946, he became a Jesuit and was ordained a priest in 1956 by New York’s legendary Cardinal Francis Spellman.
In a 2001 interview with Martin in America, Dulles said his conversion came as a surprise to his Protestant family, and he was summoned to New York by his father to discuss his plans.
`’I think he saw that I had thought the thing through: that it was not just a rash, momentary infatuation, that it was something for which I had some solid reasons,” Dulles told the magazine. “So finally he said, `Well, you’re an adult, you can make your own decisions. They’re not the decisions we think are right, but you are entitled to follow your own judgment in these matters.”‘
His best-known theological work, “Models of the Church,” held that the church is a mystery that cannot be defined in conceptual terms, but must be approached through combinations of diverse analogies.
Written in the heady days after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Dulles’ book tried to envision a future for the church in light of the council’s emphasis on the laity.
The church, he said in 2001, “has an institutional structure that it needs to maintain. But I did insist that the institution is not primary, and I still would affirm that. The institution is for the sake of the spiritual life and for the sake of holiness, and is not an end in itself.”
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a fellow convert who edits the New York-based journal First Things, said Dulles “combined learning, intellectual intensity, and fidelity in a lifelong devotion to the church that will place generations of Christian thinkers in his everlasting debt.”
Dulles was widely respected across the theological spectrum but worked against polarization within the church, especially in the United States, where he said liberal and conservative Catholics tended to retreat and “shoot across at one another from their trenches.” He also was skeptical of public campaigns against the hierarchy on any number of issues.
“I really do think that Christ has given the charge of the church to pastors, and it makes it very difficult for them to lead the church if they can say only what people agree with,” he said in the 2001 interview. “They have to be able to teach, and that teaching authority has to be respected. And this is part of what it means to be a Christian and a Catholic, as far as I am concerned.”
By KEVIN ECKSTROM
c. 2008 Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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