Cardinal-designate Dulles Tells of Conversion to Catholicism

It Begin in the Books

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

NEW YORK, FEB. 11, 2001 ( In an interview with today edition of The New York Times Magazine, Cardinal-designate Avery Dulles, a theologian and professor based at Fordham University, spoke about his conversion to the Catholic Church.

Q: Your name is deeply rooted in the American WASP establishment. Your grandfather was a liberal Presbyterian theologian. Your father, John Foster Dulles, was one of the architects of the postwar world. Your uncle, Allen Dulles, was the head of the CIA. And yet here you are, a Catholic cardinal. Was your family religious at home?

Father Dulles: My family had been very church-committed, but then we got a country house out on Long Island, and the church practice fell off. My father found his religion rather irrelevant to his life. He didn´t have any particular connection to a church.

Q: But that changed?

Father Dulles: Around 1937, my father was asked to take part in a League of Nations conference in Paris. It got absolutely nowhere. He was disgusted with the nationalism of all the representatives there. But then he went to a meeting in Oxford and found the atmosphere completely different.

He concluded that it was Christianity that made the difference, and he began to be very interested in using the churches as a means, if you like, to overcome this nationalism and promote world peace.

Q: So how did your interest in religious things, and Catholicism in particular, begin?

Father Dulles: It was books. In college, I worked on medieval authors, on Aquinas, Dante, etc. They made me a road map.

Q: When was the first time you felt more than an intellectual interest in it? That you felt something larger?

Father Dulles: I was at Harvard Law School, reading at the library, and I got rather tired, so I went out for a walk. And during it, looking at nature, I guess, I began to sense that there was this purpose to it, a governing purpose. It was a matter of becoming aware of this reality behind everything that existed. That evening when I got back to my room, I think I prayed for the first time. I began looking around for churches.

We did have at Cambridge a very strong Catholic community, blue-collar people, ethnically Irish. They hung on to their faith very strongly. Masses were full on Sundays.

Q: And you liked that?

Father Dulles: Well, at Mass or at Sunday-evening devotions, they were all singing hymns of Thomas Aquinas in Latin. I said, This is the church for me. I didn´t know anything about them except they were singing hymns that I loved and cherished.

Q: So your conversion was not a rejection of past religious convictions.

Father Dulles: No. There was nothing there really to reject in that sense. I asked someone — at a bookstore — how one went about becoming a Catholic. He said I had to find a priest to instruct me. I said I had never met a priest. It was true.

Q: How did you tell your parents about your decision? «Mom, Dad, there´s something I think you should know about me …»?

Father Dulles: I wrote a letter, and I phoned them. Then I went home, and we talked.

Q: Was your father alarmed?

Father Dulles: Well, he was concerned. He did not have a very good opinion of Catholicism at that time.

Q: Did he wonder what he had done wrong?

Father Dulles: Perhaps. He was embarrassed; he had to explain it to his friends. But we always shared these things, and he was very reasonable.

Q: And you? You´re raised in a family of agnostic Protestants, and then one day you realize you´re a devout Catholic. A Jesuit, no less! Wasn´t it jarring? What about marriage and celibacy?

Father Dulles: Oh, I probably would have gotten married. I had women friends and dated some. But I don´t think I ever had a relationship that was definitely moving toward marriage. I guess I had gotten used to the single life.

Q: Are there any ways in which your very unusual background shows through in your new adopted culture?

Father Dulles: I guess I look at things without getting too excited. And I was helped by my internationalism, by having traveled.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation