Twentieth Century Theology

The Testimony of Grace, by Cardinal Dulles

Less known in Europe, Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008) is the most important theologian of the United States in the 20th century, with contributions in Fundamental Theology, Apologetics and Ecclesiology.

Juan Luis Lorda-August 6, 2020-Reading time: 7 minutes

Avery Dulles converted to Catholicism in 1940. And partly for the better understanding (and encouragement) of his family and friends, he told the story in a small book: A testimony of grace (A testimonial to Grace, 1946). But he aspired to more: "I trust it will be of interest to others [...] in their task, as it has been mine, of defining their stance towards systems of thought - such as skepticism, materialism and liberalism - which [...] completely dominate our secular universities and, consequently, the tone of our intellectual life." (Foreword 1946).

An extraordinary testimony

In the foreword to the 50th anniversary commemorative edition (1996), he recalls: "I composed A testimony of grace on board the cruise ship PhiladelphiaI had just finished a mission as a liaison officer with the French navy in the early fall of 1944. I had just finished a mission as a liaison officer with the French Navy. [...] To escape the boredom of involuntary idleness, I took up the typewriter. I had long wanted to fix, if only for myself, the mental processes that led me to join the Catholic Church, in the fall of 1940, when I was a first-year law student at Harvard.".

This short book (translated into Spanish in 1963, and other languages) is not to be missed. It recalls other itineraries such as that of C. S. Lewis (Captivated by joy) or Manuel García Morente (The extraordinary event). And it has two parts. In the first, he describes the thought process that led him to accept the existence of God (who could be none other than the Christian). And in the second, to open himself to God's grace and faith.

When reading it, one must constantly remember that the author is a 28-year-old university student and sailor. For it manifests a surprising maturity of philosophical and Christian thought. In fact, it is very useful as material for reflection for Apologetics or Fundamental Theology, which would later become the main line of his theological teaching.

When it was republished fifty years later, the publisher asked him to add a third part to tell the story of the subsequent evolution of his ideas: Reflections on a Theological Journey (Reflections on a theological itinerary). And this is a brief and lucid vision of what has happened in the Church and theology in the last 60 years, with the Second Vatican Council at the center. It is truly illuminating because it is a qualified and insightful witness.

Origins and evolution

Avery Dulles belonged to a family with a long Republican tradition on both sides. His father, John Foster Dulles, would become Secretary of State (the Washington airport is dedicated to him). And his uncle, Allen, director of the CIA. Both with General Eisenhower. By tradition they were Presbyterians, closely identified with the American cultural and social elite.

He started Humanities at Harvard College (before going to law school). And he recalls that the first year he was quite focused on drinking, and on the verge of being expelled from the university (like some of his friends). He felt agnostic, influenced by a mixture of materialistic (evolutionary) thinking in his worldview, and social and cultural liberalism, with a faith in progress, and a moral relativism (outside of strict questions of justice). And, therefore, he felt that Christianity was simply outdated. He also had vague and youthful aesthetic aspirations about life, impossible to square with that materialistic and pragmatic base.

The next course was completely different. He became passionate about the study of Plato and Aristotle. And their doctrines completely changed his mental framework, gave a meaningful foundation to his aspirations and led him to recognize the order of the universe, metaphysical and moral. And, in the end, as a support for it, God. It is very well narrated. The process would last more than a year, until one day in 1940 he got down on his knees and recited the Lord's Prayer in pieces, as he remembered it.

Towards faith

The study of Plato and Aristotle brought him closer to Catholicism because it led him to the work of Gilson and, above all, of Maritain, who seemed to him a very complete author, having dealt with many philosophical fields (metaphysics, logic, aesthetics) and having a Christian political thought. He admired the cohesion of the Christian vision of the universe and the human being, and the social doctrine. He confesses that Maritain helped him a lot in his conversion.

He was also helped by the vibrant preaching of Bishop Fulton Sheen. He says that his enthusiastic style could not convince the cold Protestant critics, but he was moved by his Christian authenticity, something he found lacking in the Protestant communities through which he had circulated in search of a reference point for his faith. He did not find in them any doctrine that seemed to them important or even sustainable and that had an impact on life: they did not go beyond advice that today we would call self-help.

In this second part, the other two great questions of classical apologetics appear, after the existence of God: the figure of Jesus Christ, as Messiah, Savior and Son of God; and the authenticity of the Church. He understood the necessity of the Church in order to possess and live the faith, and was concerned to identify the true Church among the various Christian communities present in the United States, studying seriously (at the age of 21) the subject of the notes of the Church.

Theological itinerary

After four years in the army (1942-1946), he entered the Society of Jesus. The third part of the book recounts his formative journey and his experience as a theologian in the midst of the changes in the Church and the times. To a large extent, his theological formation would take place at Woodstock College (1951-1957), to which he would remain closely linked. He received his doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome (1958-1960), returning to Woodstock as a professor (1960-1974).

First, he taught Apologetics, revelation and biblical inspiration. From the beginning he warned that a historical method of dealing with the Bible is insufficient, because it is first of all a testimony of faith, addressed to people of faith.

He connected decisively with the great theologians of the twentieth century, especially with De Lubac and Congar. And he was interested in ecumenism, particularly the relationship with Protestants. Two Jesuit professors from Woodstock, John Courtney Murray and Gustave Weigel, to whom he was very close, were periti during the conciliar period. And he shared his experience with them.

He followed the ups and downs of the Woodstock Theological Center, moved to New York and then to Washington. There he was a professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America (1974-1988). And finally, now emeritus, he held the McGinley Chair of Religion and Society at Fordham, with lecture series.

He published 23 books, some of them well known and translated into other languages. Often based on cycles of conferences and centered mainly on themes of Fundamental Theology, Ecclesiology and ecumenism. "The fields of revelation, faith, ecclesiology and ecumenism have never ceased to fascinate me."he confessed at the end of his theological itinerary. He also published several hundred articles on these topics in specialized magazines.

He had a very solid scholastic formation, because he had been very interested in medieval authors and had read a lot. For this reason, his History of apologetics (1971, with Spanish translation) has a consistent medieval part.

The mood of theologian Dulles

By nature he was a moderate person, and by intellectual style he liked to add rather than confront, seeking the reason that each side had. This corresponds very well with his sense of apologetics and is reflected in all his work, and in his major works, such as Church Models (1974) y Disclosure models (1983), and in The catholicity of the Church (1983), which he considers his most representative work in ecclesiology. He presents the different ways of understanding the themes with the intention of giving each one its value and attempting approximations. In the end, the mystery of the Church, and also revelation, precisely because they are mysteries, remain above conceptual schemes, and no conceptualization exhausts the mystery.

Partly because of character, partly because of his research, he was very sensitive to the arguments of theology having the consistency that corresponds to them, without giving them neither more nor less value, and he was able to put himself in the minds of others and welcome the value of each position.

Possessing the best of modern theology, he felt no incompatibility with the old. That would make him a difficult character to classify in the controversies of the time and allowed him to play a moderating role in American theology, with a growing prestige. For years, he was elected to the steering committee of the American Catholic Theological Society (which is the largest in the world) (1970-1976), becoming president, and the same in the American Theological Society (1971-1979). He served on a myriad of episcopal and editorial committees and councils. He was elected to the International Theological Commission (1992-1997).

In the post-conciliar period

But like De Lubac, Daniélou or Ratzinger, having decidedly joined the best theological conquests, he was concerned about the drifts. He says that since the death of Weigel in 1964, who had been his intellectual mentor, the other professor who had been an expert at the Council, Murray, asked him to work on the correct interpretation of the doctrine and spirit of the Council for the American world,  "task which I gladly undertook for more than a decade. It seemed to me necessary to show why the changes introduced by the Council were justified, and at the same time to warn against the tendency to carry the spirit of the Council far beyond the letter, and to present Catholic life and dogma as if they were undergoing perpetual reinvention.".

And he explains: "At the end of the 1960s, trying to make force in favor of the new directives of Vatican II, I may have tended to exaggerate the novelty of the conciliar doctrine and the inadequacy of the previous centuries. But since 1970, when the Catholic left became more strident, and young Catholics no longer knew or ignored the heritage of the previous centuries, I found it necessary to put more emphasis on continuity with the past. As is often the case, the mistake was to fixate on partial or transitory elements instead of seeing the picture as a whole. No segment of history or cultural perspective can be taken as if it embodied the totality of Catholic truth or as if it were the standard by which all other ages and cultures must be judged.".

Last years

In this context, he lived with great joy and determined support the pontificate of John Paul II, and later, although he was already very old, that of Benedict XVI. Dulles was a clear defender of John Paul II before the critical American circles. He wrote a great deal about him and some excellent articles in the magazine First Thingswhere he collaborated in the last few years, have been gathered in The Splendor of Faith. The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (1999). In 2001, at the proposal of Cardinal Ratzinger, he was created a cardinal, together with Leo Scheffzyck.

Throughout this time, he lavished himself in works to discern the situation: The resilient Church (1977); establishing principles: A Church to Believe In. Discipleship and The Dymamics of Freedom (1982); Presenting the Christian faith better: The Assurance of Things Hoped For. A Theology of Christian Faith (1994), which is intended to be a theological presentation of the renewed Christian tradition; and to explain the role of theology in the Church: The Craft oft Theology (1992, in Spanish The office of Theology).

In April 2008, in his last public lecture at Fordham, already on a trolley and unable to read it himself, he portrayed himself thus: "I see myself as a moderate trying to make peace between schools of thought. But while doing so, I insist on logical consistency. And unlike certain relativists of our time, I am repelled by mixtures of contradictions.".

You can find quite a lot of documentation about him online, mainly at, or his articles in the pages of the journal First Things.

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