Massimo Sambucetti  /  AP
Cardinal Avery Dulles, right, shakes hands with Pope John Paul II during the General Audience at the Vatican on Feb. 23, 2001.
updated 12/12/2008 7:17:55 PM ET 2008-12-13T00:17:55

Cardinal Avery Dulles, a convert to Roman Catholicism from a prominent American family who was the only U.S. theologian named a cardinal without first becoming a bishop, died Friday. He was 90.

Dulles, a Jesuit, died in an infirmary at Fordham University, where he was a professor for two decades, according to the Rev. Jim Martin of America, a Jesuit magazine that regularly published Dulles' articles.

Pope John Paul II appointed Dulles in 2001 to the College of Cardinals, making him the first American Jesuit and the first U.S. theologian outside of a diocese to be named a cardinal. He was considered the dean of American Catholic theologians.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the U.S. in April, he made time for a private meeting with the cardinal in New York, underscoring Dulles' importance to the church.

Dulles came from a family of statesmen.

The grandson of a Presbyterian minister, he was the son of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who served under President Dwight Eisenhower. The cardinal's uncle was Allen Dulles, who led the Central Intelligence Agency, also in the Eisenhower administration.

A native of Auburn, N.Y., Avery Robert Dulles was a graduate of Harvard College and joined the Jesuits after he was discharged from the Navy in 1946. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1956, later earning a doctorate in sacred theology from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

He served for 14 years as a professor at The Catholic University in America, becoming an internationally known lecturer, then joined the Fordham faculty in 1988 in New York.

'Total Catholic theologian'
The author of more than 20 books, Dulles specialized in ecclesiology, studying the nature and mission of the church in the world. One of his best known works was "Models of the Church."

Still, he wrote widely on many topics, from Jesus to sacraments to Scripture, said Thomas Groome, a Boston College professor of theology and a former student of Dulles.

"He was the total Catholic theologian," Groome said.

Dulles was considered a progressive thinker around the time of the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s-era meetings that enacted modernizing reforms in the church. In his later years, he was viewed by many as becoming a defender of Catholic orthodoxy.

Yet, he called himself a moderate, and saw his role partly as "explaining both sides to the other," said the Rev. Joseph O'Hare, former president of Fordham.

"I think he was a great force for the center," O'Hare said. "He could sum up another person's work in a way that was generous and still accurate."

Dulles remained active until the very end of his life, attending meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and rising to correct the prelates if he felt they had misspoken. After the clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in 2001, he said the church's decision to bar all guilty priests from public church work went too far.

Story of conversion
Among Dulles' books is "A Testimonial to Grace," the story of his conversion. An agnostic when he arrived at Harvard, he said he was drawn to Catholicism through his studies of philosophy, the medieval church and the Protestant Reformation.

"I found my sympathies were always on the Catholic side and felt that was where I belonged," Dulles told America in a 2001 interview.

He said "it came as something of a shock" to his family when he wrote them to say he planned to convert. His father said he didn't believe it was the right decision, but that he was an adult and could make his own choices.

Dulles had contracted polio as a young man and suffered from post-polio syndrome, which can cause muscle weakness and difficulty breathing. He eventually had to use a wheelchair and couldn't speak for long periods. Yet, he continued writing.

In April, O'Hare delivered the last lecture that Dulles wrote as the cardinal looked on.

"The most important thing about my career, and many of yours," he told the students, "is the discovery of the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field — the Lord Jesus himself."

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