Remembering Avery Dulles, S.J.

It was my privilege to count the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, as a friend, and to do so for almost a quarter of a century. Truth to tell, though, I had “known” Avery long before I met him; I had begun reading him when two of his books, Apologetics and the Biblical Christ and Models of the Church, had been assigned in my sophomore college theology classes, back in the (gasp!) first Nixon Administration. When we first met in Washington, somewhere around 1985, Avery’s reputation as Catholic America’s unique theological reference point was well-established; what was immediately evident about the man himself was his unaffected naturalness, his preternatural calm, and his good humor.

From the mid-‘70s on, Avery had been a sign of contradiction within an ever-more-left-leaning U.S. Catholic theological establishment. He was one of the Catholic signatories of the 1975 “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” an ecumenical challenge to then-dominant revisionist and secularizing tendencies in academic theology. Dubbed the “Hartford Heresies” by its enemies, the Appeal in fact marked one of the points at which Catholic theology in America began to reground itself in the Church’s ancient and ongoing tradition, rather than imagining that theology (and everything else, for that matter), had started all over again with the Second Vatican Council.

Taking a leadership role wasn’t a particularly pleasant task for Avery, a private man who relished serious argument but had no taste for polemics. Yet he acceded to the wishes of his peers and served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America during one of its most difficult periods. A CTSA-commissioned study on sexual morality couldn’t bring itself to condemn bestiality; Church authorities were (rightly) aghast; the experience of defending orthodoxy while leading the society through the ecclesiastical donnybrook that followed doubtless reinforced Avery’s longstanding dislike of the spotlight.

He never made a point of his lineage, although his great-grandfather, his great-uncle, and his father had all served as Secretary of State. Yet as his father’s reputation came under fire from historians stewed in the juices of the ‘60s, Avery remained a man of deep, if usually understated, filial piety. In a 1994 lecture, “John Foster Dulles: His Religious and Philosophical Heritage,” Avery met the fashionable liberal critique of Foster Dulles and his alleged marriage of hyper-Calvinism to American chauvinism in the calm, scholarly spirit with which he handled theological controversy. His conclusion was both just and loving: “At a distance of a generation or two, I think we may judge that my father made the kind of contribution to which he felt called—that of a Christian layman concerned with developing a world order consonant with Christ and the Gospel. [Thus] he was able to make a coherent and, to me, convincing case that a nation cannot be enduringly strong and prosperous without adherence to strong spiritual and moral principles.”

My favorite Dulles memory, however, involves a black-and-white photo, not a lecture or a book. In it, Avery, his lanky torso clad only in a T-shirt, is standing at the bar of New York’s Union League Club, having just performed a modest striptease for an ecumenical and interreligious group of theologians.

It was, in a sense, my fault: in a fit of whimsy, I had had T-shirts made from the cover of my book, Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy, for which Avery had kindly provided a glowing front-cover blurb. One of the shirts went to Father Dulles, with a note explaining that this would make him the best-dressed theologian at Fordham. Some weeks later, at a meeting organized by Richard John Neuhaus (then still a Lutheran), Avery caused consternation in the Union League Club bar by taking off his suit jacket (itself a grave offense in the very proper ULC) before starting to peel off his shirt. “He’s had a stroke,” people thought. “Somebody call 911!”

But there was no stroke. Father Dulles just wanted to show off his new T-shirt. The photo of Avery and his wicked, crooked grin, surrounded by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish theologians cracking up, is one I shall cherish ad multos annos. 

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.