A Recollection of Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
By Burt Solomon, FCRH '54
In its December 12, 2008, obituary of Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., The New York Times described the cardinal as “a scion of diplomats and Presbyterians,” the descendent of statesmen, a product of “private schools in Switzerland and New England” and of Harvard.
|Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. (1918-2008), began his connection with Fordham in 1951, while still a Jesuit in training, when he was appointed an instructor in philosophy.|
By contrast, I am the offspring of Jewish refugees from Romania and Poland (on Russian passports), a product of Bronx public schools and of Fordham.
Yet, over a span of more than 50 years, I came to regard Cardinal Dulles as my friend.
It began on a fall day in 1952, when I walked into a classroom in Keating Hall on Fordham University’s Bronx campus (it was not then designated as the Rose Hill campus). It was the first day of junior-year philosophy, beginning with Logic, to be followed in subsequent quarters by Epistemology, Cosmology and Natural Theology. Our professor was a tall, gaunt black-robed scholastic (he had not yet been ordained a priest) we called Mr. Dulles.
To put the story in context, it needs to be said that I was something of an indifferent student. My grades were good; my effort was halfhearted. And, in public schools I had learned to “play” my instructors.
Several days into class, exploring Plato and platonic ideas, Mr. Dulles gave us our first assignment. It was a paper analyzing the function of revealed religion and of the positive sciences to explain God, man and world and to furnish rules for human conduct. For revealed religion we were to use the teachings of Jesus.
As I was leaving, Mr. Dulles asked me to remain behind. When my classmates were gone, he asked if there was any reason I would prefer not to write on the assigned topic. And, he added, he would not ask the reason.
In my best Bronx operator style, I replied, it was OK; I would do whatever assignment my classmates were doing. It did not go unnoticed that he was the first and only faculty member to extend that courtesy.
I did my usual perfunctory job: an introduction, a few meaty quotes from the source material and a terse wrap-up. Not too much effort, lots of time to shoot baskets and I had a teacher in my pocket. Or so I thought.
And, at first it looked like I was correct: I got a B for the paper, not bad for the limited effort; the only comment was “philosophy is concerned with reality.”
I continued along that path with slightly lowered results until an assignment on “The Philosophy of Plato”—no more than 1,500 words (no danger of that).
I received a nod for a fine introduction and for an interesting conclusion and the notation that perhaps for my next assignment I could actually write a paper. My lack of effort was acknowledged with a C-minus.
From then on, Mr. Dulles had a serious student, one whose grades reflected a growing interest in such topics as the prime cause and the unmoved mover, of Saints Ambrose and Augustine and, of course, the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas. Even Moses Maimonides made an occasional guest appearance.
In my life, I’ve met many people smarter than I, but there have been only two people who awed me with their intellect—Avery Dulles was one. I watched, fascinated, as students regarded as the most brilliant in the school developed philosophical booby traps, logical landmines, tried them out on their classmates in the cafeteria and then sprung them on Mr. Dulles. Sometimes, he paused and sometimes he smiled, but within seconds invariably he shattered the argument, pointed out its illogic, its fallacies.
He was the thinnest healthy adult I’d ever seen and he probably could accurately be described as mournful. But he was not without a dry sense of humor. We used a textbook—Nature, Knowledge and God: An Introduction to Thomistic Philosophy—written by a Manhattan College philosopher named Brother Benignus, F.S.C.
In January 1953, Brother Benignus died. Mr. Dulles made his way to the classroom dais, looking more mournful than usual.
And he said, “I suppose most of you know by now that Brother Benignus died yesterday.” He paused for a beat. “Well, now he knows.”
After my graduation, my friendship with Mr. Dulles grew, mostly by mail. I was invited to attend his ordination, but unfortunately I was otherwise occupied at Camp Gordon, Georgia, by the U.S. Army. We exchanged Christmas greetings, and when Leonard Mosely wrote negatively of John Foster Dulles in a book about the family, I wrote to Father Dulles pointing out some of the writer’s errors and I received an answer thanking me.
Our correspondence continued through his time at Catholic University and his return to Fordham. I only saw him once, when he made a brief appearance at a reunion of my class at Rose Hill. But I always regarded him as a friend.
Our last exchange occurred when he was elevated to the College of Cardinals and I wrote to congratulate him.
His response, along with his photograph, hangs on the wall of my residence.
It reads in part: “I continue to remember you from your student days when you were so patient with my theological perspectives, which must have seemed quite strange to you.”
On the contrary, I learned to be a logical thinker, to the degree that I have on occasion been described as “arguing like a Jesuit.” I learned to question, to probe, to analyze. Much of what he thought was strange to me has been absorbed into my personal philosophy, perhaps more Maimonides than Aquinas, but there nevertheless.
The concluding part of his letter invariably moves me. He wrote: “I assure you of a remembrance in my prayers and ask that you pray for me that I may continue to serve the Church in this new capacity.”
A prince of the Roman Catholic Church praying for a little Jewish guy from the Bronx and asking that I reciprocate. I never cease to be amazed. As the late Harry Golden often wrote: “Only in America.”
—Burt Solomon, FCRH ’54, a former adjunct professor at Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, is the author of The Baseball Timeline (Dorling Kindersley, 2001).