The Death of a Great Philosopher

A reflection on the life of Ralph McInerny

Ralph McInerny, one of the greatest Catholic philosophers of his generation, best-selling novelist, and longtime faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, died on Friday, January 29, 2010. He excelled in so many spheres and combined so many virtues in his life that it is difficult to know where to begin in recounting his noteworthy achievements. He was in his personal life a man of rich virtue (a devoted husband and father of seven children), gracious disposition, and irrepressible wit.

Everyone who knew Ralph has fond memories. Here is one of my own, from my first conference presentation, as a respondent to another philosopher’s essay given at USC. I had just finished my doctorate under Ralph at Notre Dame, and was a bit jittery. Ralph happened to be speaking at the same conference. The chair of my session introduced me by saying Dr. Hibbs would now come forth and offer an unqualified endorsement of the paper we had just heard. As I walked to the podium, I heard Ralph yell out, “What do you mean? He’s qualified.” That loosened things up considerably.

One of the other memories I have of Ralph at conferences is of his excusing himself between sessions to get in an hour or two of good writing. He was a remarkably productive writer, the author of numerous books of scholarship and even more books of fiction, an author as well known for his writings on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as he was for his famous series of Father Dowling mysteries, which became the basis of a TV series.

He was also a journalist of some note, founding with Michael Novak a journal of lay Catholic opinion, Crisis, for which he wrote a regular column; in addition he penned columns for the New York Times, among other publications. He appeared on William F. Buckley’s television show Firing Line. He was a member of President George W. Bush’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and a fellow of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The achievements and honors go on and on.

First, last, and always, he was a teacher of things Catholic. He taught advanced graduate students; indeed, he directed more dissertations than anyone in the history of the Notre Dame philosophy department. He taught undergraduates in formal classes and, increasingly in his last years at Notre Dame, in informal seminars—requested by students—on the documents of the Church. He taught ordinary lay persons as he lectured widely and ran summer seminars at Notre Dame on the basics of Catholicism. An author of dozens of scholarly books who gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures, he never lost his enthusiasm for the fundamental and simple starting points of knowledge or faith, of nature or grace.

Ralph did almost all of his writing and teaching at the University of Notre Dame, at which he arrived in 1955 after receiving his doctorate in philosophy at Laval University and teaching for one year at Creighton. He would go on at Notre Dame to hold an endowed chair, the Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies, and to become the director of both the Medieval Institute and the Jacques Maritain Center.

He loved the university and spoke and wrote of the indelible memory of first turning down Notre Dame Avenue and seeing the Golden Dome adorned with the statue of Mary. But in recent years, as his doubts grew about Notre Dame’s commitment to its Catholic identity, Ralph’s own attitude toward the institution to which he had devoted so much of his life became “ambivalent.” That is the word his lifelong friend and Notre Dame colleague Father Marvin O’Connell used in his homily at the funeral Mass for Ralph held at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame on February 1.

One of Ralph’s most compelling character traits was his utt er absence of bitterness, his inability—perhaps against the grain of his Irish heritage— to hold grudges. As a faithful son of the Church, he lived through the dire times for orthodoxy, in practice and thought, after the Council and fought the good fight incessantly. Yet, he never lost his sense of humor or his hopefulness.

As a student of the Laval Thomist Charles De Koninck, Ralph was a grateful recipient of the riches of the revival of Thomism initiated by Pope Leo XIII in the encylical Aeterni Patris. At a time after the Council when Thomas and the entire Thomistic tradition were being abandoned, Ralph never wavered. He was certainly not one to dismiss the enormous amount of work that had been done to keep Thomas’ thought alive and to revive it in dark times. Yet, his focus, following that of his mentor, was on the texts themselves of Thomas and on the realities—from the simplest of natural and human things on up to the highest good, God himself—about which Thomas wrote.

Unlike many of those working in philosophy before and after him, Ralph did not need to access the great texts of past and present through translations. He read Aristotle in Greek, Thomas in Latin, Dante in Italian, and Maritain and De Koninck in French. At one point or another, he produced translations of all these authors. His linguistic skills enabled him to engage in genuine revival, not the sort of half-hearted recovery that results from a superfi cial acquaintance with classical texts.

Even as he remained rooted in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, whom he read in Latin daily, he learned from and argued with a host of philosophers, old and new. Most do not know that he was hired at Notre Dame not just to teach Thomas Aquinas but also to teach the modern Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, on whom he had writt en a thesis. He engaged and made lasting contributions to ongoing debates in logic, natural law, and the rationality of belief in God.

He was, in ways too many to enumerate here, an exemplar of the best features of the Thomistic revival. This point was driven home to me when I recently re-read the famous essay by John Tracy Ellis, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” published in 1955, the very year Ralph began his career at Notre Dame. Ellis’ essay was both a lament of the current state of Catholic higher education and a hortatory statement of the need for Catholics to raise standards and expectations.

Because it focused on the need for top-notch research and castigated Catholics for their ghett o mentality, the piece is often seen as initiating the process of secularization, the effects of which we can detect at Catholic universities that have most enthusiastically embraced the research ideal of the leading secular schools. In fact, Ellis’ essay strikes, in its expressed hopes for American Catholic intellectual life, a distinctively counter-cultural note. In words that seem even more pertinent now than then, he identifi es self-betrayal as a fundamental cause of Catholic intellectual mediocrity.

As he puts it, “Part of the reason why American Catholics have not made a notable impression on the intellectual life of their country is due, I am convinced, to what might be called a betrayal of that which is peculiarly their own.” He goes on to argue that the “scholastic revival in philosophy” has been more rigorously and in some cases more enthusiastically advanced at secular schools such as Princeton and Chicago than at Catholic institutions. He complains that, as the secular schools were pursuing things Catholic, “the Catholic universities were engrossed in their mad pursuit of every passing fancy that crossed the American educational scene, and found relatively litt le time for distinguished contributions to scholastic philosophy.” Ellis may here be given to overstatement. But the point is well taken.

From the start, Ralph McInerny avoided the extremes against which Ellis warned—defensive Catholic apologetics and unrefl ective assimilation resulting in self-betrayal. Ralph could hardly have been accused of having a parochial interest in things Catholic.

What he did have was a deep gratitude for his familial Catholic upbringing and the academic education and spiritual formation he received in the minor seminary in St. Paul. His conviction about the truth of the Catholic faith, and in particular the truth of the Catholic teachings on nature and grace and reason and faith, made him hopeful about the pursuit of knowledge and confident in his engagement with rival philosophical schools.

He studied and wrote out of a genuine love of the truth, but this was no mere private predilection. He looked back to be able to see the present more clearly and to be able to advance in the present projects begun by our predecessors in the faith. Like all great teachers, he wanted not only to contemplate the truth but also to share it with others through teaching. In the words of the saint whose disciple he was, the “Common Doctor” of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, Ralph’s goal was “contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere” (“to contemplate and to hand on to others things contemplated”).


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About Thomas S. Hibbs 21 Articles
Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., is President of the University of Dallas, as well as Professor of Philosophy. He has written, edited or provided introductions for 12 books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas; his most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy. He has also written more than 200 movie reviews and dozens of essays and book reviews for publications such as National Review, Catholic World Report, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and others.