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Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, looks appropriately Gothic as a backdrop for its most eminent teacher, whose 6-foot-2-inch frame is clothed in black against the night chill. Avery Dulles, 81, distinguished son of a famous father, remembers the letter he sent to his parents 59 years ago, announcing his first steps on the Catholic path of service to the faith whose founder's birth is celebrated this season.

"Something of a shock" was, he says, the initial reaction of his father, John Foster Dulles, a flinty Presbyterian. However, in the 1950s, Secretary of State Dulles found that having a Jesuit son gave him special stature with American Catholics, gave him a shared experience with Germany's Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, whose son was a priest, and helped him with Catholic politicians in France and Italy.

Avery Dulles was at Choate and Harvard with John F. Kennedy. The great Catholic Medievalist Etienne Gilson had recently been at Harvard, and his teachings lingered. And it was from Harvard in autumn 1940 that Dulles wrote home to say he was converting to Catholicism. After one year at Harvard Law School and four years in the Navy, he decided on the priesthood.

From the vantage of his ninth decade, Dulles is not greatly impressed by this year's big news in Christianity, the joint declaration of Lutherans and Catholics in Augsburg, Germany, in October. It stated that "a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics." Some press reports suggested that the purported consensus proves that the Reformation, which made the 16th century the incubator of modernity, was, it turns out, about an arcane misunderstanding. Other reports suggested the Catholic church surrendered on the subject at the heart of Luther's theology -- "justification by faith alone."

Salvation, that is, by faith rather than good works. In the 16th and 17th centuries, much ink and not a little blood was shed over whether faith is the unmerited gift of God's grace, or whether free will, manifested in deeds, participates in earning salvation.

Over a plateful of veal in a restaurant near the campus, Dulles delicately suggests that real differences still divide Lutherans and Catholics on the acquisition of faith, the interior renewal wrought by faith and manifestations of this renewal. The fact that Luther and the Council of Trent are dinner-time topics in the Bronx pleases people who believe that history is dignified by its serious quarrels. And that fact satisfies those Christians who regard the continuing vitality of Christianity's divisions as evidence of spiritual vigor.

But there is a common Christian sensibility, elegantly expressed by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89): "Time has three dimensions and one positive pitch or direction. It is therefore not so much like any river or any sea as like the Sea of Galilee, which has the Jordan running through it and giving a current to the whole."

That may strike the secular-minded as optimistic, but for Dulles, optimism about the long run is not optional. It is a vocational imperative. "The long run," he says dryly, "includes the eschaton."

That is, "the fullness of time," meaning the Second Coming and the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, Dulles' time is full of writing. The manuscript of his 21st book has just gone to the printer, and the list of his publications during the last 15 months includes two new books, the reissue of a third and 39 shorter pieces in books and periodicals.

Among sociologists and other advanced thinkers, it has long been, so to speak, an article of faith that modernity is inimical to religious faith. Which makes them regard America with scandalized disbelief -- America, the most modern of nations, and one planted thick with people who feel, as Hopkins put it in a poem, a religious "ah!" about the presence of the divine:

. . . the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

That is how the Bronx, and everything contiguous thereto -- the world -- seems to Dulles, a place constantly burdened by sin but unceasingly solicited by grace. Quite a drama. It keeps him spry.

Washington Post Writers Group

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