By Fr. George Welzbacher
March 7, 2010
A lifelong friend of mine, going all the way back to our high school and college days at the archdiocesan minor seminary, Nazareth Hall, passed away on January 29th.You will recall my requesting from the pulpit that you would remember him in your prayers. I am referring to my friend Ralph Mclnerny, dead at the age of eighty from cancer of the esophagus, and for more than half a century a much acclaimed professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He also served the University as director of the Jacques Maritain Institute of Philosophy and Notre Dame's Medieval Institute. He was the founder as well (with Michael Novak) of Crisis magazine. Most importantly of all, in his personal life as in his professional career, Ralph remained a faithful and persuasive witness to Christ. Preceded in death by Connie, his wife of many years, Ralph awaited his own death with a humility and calm that were the final expression of a faith to whose defense and elucidation he had devoted his energy and extraordinary talents throughout an amazingly productive life. In this respect he resembled his close friend and classmate from Nazareth Hall (and a cherished friend of mine as well) Father Marvin O'Connell (in his youth a member of our own St. John's parish), who, after distinguished service as a young professor of history (elected a "Professor of the Year") at the College of St. Thomas, was invited by the University of Notre Dame to become the Chairman of its History Department, a position in which he served for many years, during which years and continuing into his retirement he, like Ralph, published an impressive number of books. (His most recent publication is a superb history of our own archdiocese entitled Pilgrims to the Northland).
Ralph's published works range from first-rate expositions of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas---towards the end of his career Ralph was invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Glasgow, Scotland for 1999-2000-to an astonishing abundance of fiction, including (but not limited to) a light-hearted series of detective stories featuring Father Austin Dowling, books that subsequently inspired a popular television series. Ralph somehow managed to produce this oeuvre in the midst of teaching and research and while rearing six children. (A seventh child, Michael, died in early childhood).
Unflappably poised even as a high school student at Nazareth Hall, where he, Marvin and I quickly became friends, Ralph paradoxically combined a quality that today would be hailed as "cool" with a gracious warmth. Years later, armed with a doctorate from Quebec's Laval University-his mentor was the renowned Thomist Charles De Koninck-he would become one of Notre Dame's legendary teachers, famous for lectures that were elegant, trenchant, and salted with a brilliant but kindly wit. Together these two friends and expatriate Minnesotans did much to show generations of university students that faith and reason are indeed the two wings on which the mind of man is able to soar to God. Ralph's death reminds Father Marvin and me that for us the clock is ticking just a little more insistently now than before. May God grant in His mercy that an association spanning many years (to which Ralph in his memoir I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You makes a very gracious if too generous an allusion) may one day be renewed at a higher level in a Kingdom where discourse is no longer "cribbed, cabined, and confined" in the earthly medium of words.
May I share with you here two recently published tributes to Professor Ralph McInerny, one from a collegue at Notre Daine, a now retired Professor of Law, Charles E. Rice, and one, xeroxed and included here as an insert, from Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things. Joseph Bottum's tribute appeared in The Weekly Standard for February 15, 2010.
* * * * *Op-Ed by Charles Rice, The Wanderer,
February 25, 2010
Ralph McInerny, a member of the Notre Dame philosophy department since 1955, died on January 29. Author of more than 40 scholarly books, Dr. McInerny was justly regarded as the preeminent exponent of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He also wrote poetry and more than 80 novels and mysteries.
The many testimonials by friends and colleagues, available online, recount Ralph's life and achievements. They give a glimpse of his personal side. Ralph McInerny, a man of total integrity, was a kind and happy guy with a dryly unique sense of humor, a master of the pun and a family man devoted over 49 years of marriage to Connie, who was his match and whom he would occasionally introduce as "my first wife, Connie."
This column is neither an obituary nor a eulogy. Rather, the point is twofold. First, to note that Notre Dame students are now disadvantaged, whether they realize it or not, by their inability to study under Ralph McInerny and to know him in person. We will never see his like on this campus again.
The second point is to state the obvious. Ralph McInerny still lives-in Heaven... as we trust and pray, but also in his writings. Notre Dame students and others can still connect with his thought and wisdom.
Reading McInerny on Aquinas has a practical payoff. The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is called "realist" because it systematically affirms that there is a real world which we can know and understand through our senses and reason. The study of Aquinas is the study of how to integrate faith and reason, which, as John Paul II said, "are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth" (Fides et Ratio, preamble).
To advance that integration was Ralph's mission. He accomplished it, without intimidating or boring the reader, because he wrote easily on two levels. He operated without peer in the highest reaches of Thomistic philosophy, drawing out its implications and significance. But he also had a rare facility, a gift, for writing with such clarity as to reach and inspire the rest of us. For those of us who are gratefully "content to retail", as Ralph put it in his memoir I Alone Have Escaped To Tell You, the teachings of Aquinas, had-and have-a lodestar in Ralph McInerny.
We all continue to need his guidance. This is especially true for Notre Dame students. Through no fault of their own, they exist in an epistemological free-fire zone where the daily horoscope in The Observer [the Notre Dame College newspaper] predictably serves a large constituency. McInerny, instead, gave Notre Dame students and others a chance to connect with the real world, known to faith and reason, including the identification of objective right and wrong. Now that Ralph himself is gone, we can connect with those realities by reading his writings, especially on Aquinas. Out of many that could be chosen to provide an introduction to philosophy in general and to Aquinas in particular, I suggest five for openers. They are systematic, readable, and perhaps most important, short:
A Student's Guide to Philosophy (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999, 75 pages). A good refresher for anyone. The beginner should read this first. Everyone "does philosophy" inasmuch as he thinks. McInerny introduces the reader to what passes for modem philosophy and its contrast with the perennial philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas. He includes one-paragraph biographical inserts on 14 players in the philosophical game, from Socrates to Edith Stein. The reader will learn about the fact-value split between the is and the ought, scientific and pre-scientific analysis, and the essence of our post-Christian era.
The book concludes with a remarkable bibliographical essay, "A Student's Guide to Phlosophy," by Joshua Hochschild, describing dozens of books the reader can use to go more deeply into the subject.
A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, 208 pages). This primer explains Aristotle's commonsense approach to philosophy and Aquinas' use of those ideas to create a commonsense foundation for theology. Realities such as form (what a thing is), matter (what a thing is made of), art and nature, causation, creation and the soul are introduced philosophically and theologically. This book easily explains one of McInerny's great contributions: his explanation of the role of analogy [as expounded by] St. Thomas....
Ethica Thomistica. The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (Catholic University of America Press, 1982, 129 pages). "This book attempts to lay out in its main lines the moral philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas." McInerny explains the relation between the good and nature in Aristotle and Aquinas. He shows the origin and application of the first principle of practical reason and the natural law: "The good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided." He examines the structure of voluntary and other human acts; what makes an action good or evil; prudence, conscience, and the relation between religion and morality. St. Thomas' "conception of man as a rational agent" is counterculturat today. Which is a good reason to read this book.
Characters in Search of Their Author: The Gifford Lectures, Glasgow, 1999-2000 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001, 138 pages). "Natural Theology," McInerny says, "means the philosophical discipline which proves that God exists and that He has certain attributes." Mclnerny's Gifford Lectures are presented here in two parts. The first, "Whatever Happened to Natural Theology," examines the eclipse of the reality that reason can know God in a skeptical age that has lost the very concept of truth. Part Two, "The Recovery of Natural Theology,"examines the proofs for the existence and attributes of God. It addresses the reality that the fact that knowing that there is a God does not guarantee that one's conduct will be good. It discusses the different kinds of faith, including "the faith of scientists" and the compatibility of reason and religious faith. In short, there is a "Christian philosophy" and McInerny sees himself as a Christian philosopher. He explains how that can be.
I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life and Pastimes (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). This autobiography tells us about many things, Ralph himself included. "I picked this book up during a spare hour," said Michael Novak, "and hours later have scarcely been able to get back to anything else." Each chapter includes a personal narrative set in a fast-moving cultural commentary on a lot of things, including universities, the academics who inhabit them, seminaries, the writing trade, Europe and its decline, Notre Dame, the Vatican, and so on. I have listed this book last, but you may want to read it first.
We can profit from any of McInerny's books, including his fiction, all of which is entertaining and has a Catholic tone. In any event, it's kind of nice to know that Ralph McInerny, in his writings, is still around for us as a mentor. Pray for him and, while you're at it pray for Notre Dame. Requiescat in pace.
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