Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.
By John Janaro (’85)
The distinguished American Catholic theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008) entered the Church while a student at Harvard. Indeed, Cardinal Dulles liked to say that “Harvard made him a Catholic.” That sounds ironic, perhaps, but he wished to convey how his years spent at America’s oldest college were the context-in space and time-for his decisive encounter with Jesus Christ and his Church.
Avery Dulles came from a long line of Presbyterians (including his famous father, the diplomat John Foster Dulles), but his family also encouraged him to broaden his mind and sensibilities from an early age. His mother brought him to Europe and introduced him to late-medieval and early Renaissance art (which would later form part of his undergraduate studies in history at Harvard). He was an excellent student at elite private schools, where he became precociously erudite but also intellectually skeptical. When he entered Harvard, he was an avowed agnostic who hoped to live a meaningful life by realizing his aesthetic ambitions. He remained fascinated nevertheless with the faith-inspired art of the early European renaissance.
In an essay, “A Testimonial to Grace,” written not long after his conversion, Avery Dulles tells the story of the (mostly solitary) intellectual and moral discoveries, inspirations, and decisions that brought him to the Catholic Church by the end of his senior year. It was reading Aristotle and Plato that stripped him of his intellectual and moral subjectivism and opened up for him the world of realism and the transcendence of the good. Then, one early spring day, walking along the banks of the Charles River, he gazed at the small buds on a tree and was struck by a compelling intuition that the whole universe was filled with intelligence and purpose and that there must be a personal, transcendent Being who guided all things. That night, for the first time since childhood, he prayed the Our Father.
Thus Avery began a religious search. His Christian background pointed to the Gospels and Protestant churches as reference points. While the Gospels deeply impressed him with Jesus’ uncompromising claim of divinity, the churches he attended seemed preoccupied with an inadequate, vaguely moral, merely human Jesus of their own imagining. Nor was Harvard any help. Avery’s attention to the truth he found ”on his own” while studying there led him to acknowledge and desire God. But Harvard’s curriculum could take him no further. Cambridge, Massachusetts, however, had what its university lacked. By 1940, this town founded by Puritans had long been repopulated with Irish and Italian immigrants, who brought with them their Catholic churches and their supernaturally focused devotion to the whole truth about Christ. Initially wary because of the prevalent anti-Catholic prejudice, Avery could not ignore the vitality of Catholic commitment and worship, and he soon began to attend Mass. He also saw that the faith of the immigrants was the same as the faith that formed the European artistic tradition and enabled Christian philosophy to go beyond the thought of Plato and Aristotle.
Avery Dulles’ journey could no longer remain solitary. He had no close Catholic friends and had never met a Catholic priest before, so he didn’t know what he needed to do to become a Catholic. But he found the courage to enter a Catholic bookstore and ask for help. The bookstore arranged for him to meet the priest who would instruct him and receive him into the Church.