On Dec. 19, Cardinal Avery Dulles died in New York. Dulles was one of the world’s preeminent theologians and intellectuals. His absence will be noticed in the public square.

His passing also marks the end of a very particular kind of American life. The Dulles clan was never quite royalty, but it was, in its way, an American version of the British nobility. Three of Avery Dulles’ forebears were secretaries of state. His father had an airport named after him, and his uncle was director of the CIA.

Born in 1918, Dulles was educated in Switzerland and then at Choate Rosemary Hall before being packed off to Harvard. He entered Harvard Law but left to serve in the Navy, where he was distinguished with the Croix de Guerre and also contracted polio. His early life looked something like the traditional upbringing of a young British gentleman.

Yet Dulles took unexpected turns along the way. Presbyterian by birth, he was fashionably agnostic by the time he reached Harvard. And in 1940, he converted to Catholicism.

One must understand how radical this was at the time. The Dulles family was the epitome of elite, respectable Protestantism. Catholics were immigrants and laborers, viewed as suspect and perhaps un-American.

But Dulles continued down the road to Rome. After leaving the Navy in 1946, he became a Jesuit; in 1956, he was ordained as a priest.

Over the course of his time in the priesthood, Dulles often taught (at Fordham, Catholic University and many other schools) and always wrote. There were 23 books and more than 700 articles when all was said and done – the product of a mind engaged with the world right up until the end. His last book was released in April.

Dulles’ body of work demonstrates an astonishingly lucid mind, linked to a gentle, charitable soul. He explored theological subjects, such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, with the same careful inquisitiveness he brought to discussions of societal topics, such as human rights.

Dulles’ most lasting work involved the Second Vatican Council, of which he was an important interpreter and reconciler. It was a task he was born for. “I think of myself as a moderate trying to make peace between opposed schools of thought,” he explained.

Dulles’ particular gifts were grounded in a kind of intellectual modesty that barely exists anymore. He knew what he did not (and could not) know, and he placed enormous value in the sum of human philosophical achievement. “I do not particularly strive for originality,” he remarked toward the end of his life. “Very few new ideas, I suspect, are true. If I conceived a theological idea that had never occurred to anyone in the past, I would have every reason to think myself mistaken.”

This humble man became the most important American theologian of the 20th century. In recognition of his importance to the church, Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001 – a rare elevation, since Dulles was not a bishop.

Into his 90th year, Dulles continued to inspire, even as his physical condition deteriorated. The aftereffects of polio robbed him of his voice and began to paralyze him, forcing him to abandon his teaching duties. In April, Pope Benedict XVI met privately with him to bless him and say goodbye.

Two weeks earlier, Dulles had delivered his farewell lecture at Fordham.

“Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils, but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age,” the cardinal explained.

“As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity.”

Faith and reason were never better met.

Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. E-mail [email protected]

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