Our dear friend and regular TCT contributor Ralph McInerny died Friday at age eighty of complications, weeks after surgery for esophageal cancer. To say that he will be sorely missed and that he leaves a gaping hole in Catholic intellectual life are the kinds of things that might be said about several people. But Ralph was like no one else. In fact, given his great achievements in philosophy, fiction writing, poetry, journalism, teaching, translation, and other fields (not least humor), his passing is like the disappearance of several highly talented people. You can imagine him writing a clever detective story in which friends who knew a person in one capacity are shocked to find out after he dies that they knew only a small slice of a multifaceted character. There may indeed be people who have precisely that experience at his funeral this morning in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, where he was a phenomenon for over half a century.
There are remembrances of those who knew him at Notre Dame and elsewhere below. If Ralph were still alive, he might find this a bit embarrassing because he was the least self-centered of men. To be sure, he knew what he had done and he liked to talk about it, especially the books that had fallen into relative obscurity. But you often had the sense that he, too, was surprised that he’d been lucky enough to create such wonderful things, was happy he had, yet felt as a matter of course that such things are not, in the end, reason to boast, but gifts from God. We were together once at EWTN to tape some shows. After breakfast, we went to our rooms to work until we had to appear. Ralph emerged about two hours later, a kind of standard writing session for him, with a dazed smile on his face, “I didn’t expect it to go that well.” All writers have days when they suffer the torments of hell just to produce a few ordinary paragraphs. Ralph seemed to have fewer such days than anyone else.
His autobiography I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life and Pastimes manages to give you in a very few lively pages the history of Ralph and his family – his time in a seminary, his decision to study philosophy, travels around the world, his often nocturnal work habits – as if even he thought of all of it as just interesting material for which he was not bragging or trying to make himself any more than he already was in readers’ minds. But almost anyone who picks it up will be “unable to put it down.” I gave it to my wife and some of my children, who have quite different tastes and interests, as a kind of experiment to see how Ralph’s magic would work outside the usual readership. It worked like a charm.
It was typical of his generous spirit that he told me (after helping, with Michael Novak, to get The Catholic Thing off the ground by sending us a small sum still sitting in the account of the Orestes Brownson Institute at Notre Dame) that he didn’t need or want any payment for columns. We pay so little that it’s maybe not as great a sacrifice as it might seem. But a regular contributor who is not getting paid might be tempted to skip a deadline here and there. Ralph, never. Once he made a commitment, he delivered. Before he went to the Mayo Clinic for his operation, he sent several columns (you may not have noticed at the time, but re-read “We Lepers” in light of Ralph’s own intimations of mortality, with its conclusion “Notionally, mortality is a pretty dull fact. But it is a feature of life that certain limit situations bring home to us its reality. It is no longer notional. What then? Like Damien, we go on doing what we were doing. Yet everything is different.”)
He had calculated out how long his convalescence would take and sent enough columns to appear normally in the regular rotation until he could start writing again. When convalescence took longer than he’d hoped, he let me know that he still expected to be back in 2010. I said I’d hold him to that. Sadly, it didn’t work out. But his spirit will always be a part of the writers and readers of The Catholic Thing, as he’s part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world – now, perhaps, even more than in life.
Rest in peace, dear Ralph, and flights of angels – O lucky angels! – take thee to thy rest.
Professor, Artist, Editor, Publisher, Translator, Holy Man, Gentleman, Friend to a Multitude, and a Helluva Companion for Laughter and Story
Our friend Ralph has slipped behind the clouds, out where the Sun is brightest. He will still be with us.
I can’t think of any man in our time who accomplished more in one lifetime, in more different spheres, with a wider array of talents. He seemed to be laughing all the time. No one was so steady a gusher of puns, not least in the titles of his novels: On This Rockne, Frigor Mortis, The Emerald Aisle . . . even in his introduction to the philosophy of St.Thomas Aquinas, his guide for “Peeping Thomists.”
A dinner with Ralph was a feast of stories. Also, probes by him to follow up on his curiosities. Also, seeking your opinions. Tales of the latest “progressive” outrages, followed by kind words for the particular persons being singled out. New projects he was thinking of, and what do you think of this? Puns, of course, and an endless appetite for new funny stories and the telling of the latest of his own.
One always left Ralph warmed by his love for the Church. That love may have been his most distinguishing characteristic. It surely fed his zest for the comedic sense of the Divine. It won his gratitude for the great intellectual patrimony it brought him.
He had great patience for me when I was swinging left, both politically and theologically. Nor did he gloat when experience brought me back toward love for orthodoxy (not passive, but inquisitive and pioneering) and political realism. He wryly smiled at the proposed title for my intellectual journey: Writing from Left to Right.
Ralph’s course was always steadier. He let people pass him by on left and right, and observed the wreckage as he later passed them by. He changed a lot himself, of course. But often he was just remaining constant as the world veered left and right, to extremes. He watched his hereditary Democratic Party adopt old Republican tendencies such as isolationism, while Republicans (mirabile dictu) became pro-life and rather more Catholic all the time. Ralph did not think social justice, the common good, and subsidiarity pointed to ever larger government. He had a mid-western habit of common sense and a steady observation of results, rather than self-admiring motives.
There is a largeness about the American Middle West, and the sky there is very tall above the silos, water tanks, and trees. What counts there is feet on the ground, and not getting too big for thine own britches. There is a contemplative spirit there, and the steadiness of the rich soil all around. There is a distinctive Catholic spirituality of the middle part of the United States. Ralph lived it.
He suffered a lot from his wife Connie’s death. She was always so matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, and a wifely puncturer of dreams too rosy to be true. He missed her terribly, although (so far as I could see) without complaint.
I loved and envied the boldness of Ralph’s writing travels: two months here or there to write another novel, eat well, and laugh a lot – in Sicily, on Capri, even in Sarasota, Florida.
Ralph lit my life, kept my compass true, ate well with me (mostly I with him), and made me laugh a lot. Not a few times I kept him from working at his desk, with long telephone calls.
I will never forget founding Crisis with him (at first it was Catholicism in Crisis). We each put in $2000 to get the first issue out, and trusted in Providence to bring us enough in the mail to let us put out another one, and another. It always came.
Ralph, dear friend, I cannot say that I will miss you, or grieve for you. I know you are with us, even closer than before. I know that you are laughing at our blunders. And pulling for us.
Thanks, good friend.
O Rare Ralph McInerny
Ralph McInerny’s professional accomplishments are legendary: perhaps 125 books in philosophy, poetry, general fiction, and mysteries – plus thousands of articles and translations of dozens of books from several languages. He edited three national magazines; started an online university before they became passé; founded a book/audio publishing company producing user-friendly versions of Cliffs Notes; directed hundreds and hundreds of dissertations; headed two major centers in philosophy and medieval studies; won awards in mystery writing and, finally, philosophy’s greatest award, the Gifford Lectures; all while being recognized worldwide as one of the foremost Thomist philosophers of our time.
I’ll let my betters speak to such matters.
The most attractive aspect of this most attractive man was . . . the man. Ralph achieved with easy grace what every academic yearns for: to be the smartest guy in the room. But in his case, he never showed it. He always had time for students, friends, and fans. His goal was to lift people up, not put them down (remember, now, he taught at the university for fifty-five years; to be positive in such a venue is to approach sainthood). He was an outstanding teacher and writer and witness for Christ. But it was as a friend that so many will remember him. I consider him one of the closest, if not the closest, friend I have had, and I’m sure I am one of scores of people who think that. His capacity for friendship was overwhelming, lavish, effortless. His gifts of time and treasure, advice and encouragement, affability and care were all just part of being in the enormous circle of friends whom he helped and laughed with and counseled and prayed for.
He was at ease with Tolstoy and Dante, with football and movies, with Church history and Chinese food. My own mentor, Gerhart Niemeyer, once said that an educated person should be able to be say something intelligent in any conversation. He must have been thinking of Ralph, a man able to uplift the disheartened, edify the skeptic, and encourage the searcher. To be with him was to be happy.
And humor! Why, heaven itself must be shaking with laughter, now that Ralph is in their midst, bringing wit to the most mundane, and proving once and for all time that puns are the greatest form of humor.
Bruce Fingerhut is the founder and director of St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, which has published more than a dozen books by Ralph McInerny.
A Notre Dame Legend
Well done, good and faithful servant.” No one’s life can be counted in earthly words. Even Ralph who wrote so many words could not do so. His life is now recorded in the Book of Life. I once called Ralph “magnanimous.” Perhaps the best word that I can think of now is “gracious.” Grace-filled, he shared grace with us. Because of his deep and abiding love of God, we can be confident that Ralph lived and died in grace. We who were privileged to know him received the grace of his smile, his wit, his writing, his kindness.
Ralph’s writings on analogy in Aquinas still form the point of departure for all serious contemporary scholarship on the topic. His Ethica Thomistica is the best and most accessible introduction to Aquinas’ Ethics. And then there’s his marvelous translation and commentary on Aquinas against the Averroists: On There Being Only One Intellect. His The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain won Christianity and Culture’s Best Book in Religion for 2003. It was written from the heart.
At Notre Dame, he built an international reputation as a scholar of medieval philosophy, serving for several decades on the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, the American Maritain Association, and the American Metaphysical Society. He was awarded several honorary doctorates and Notre Dame’s own Faculty Award. He served in Washington on the President’s Council for the Arts. And of course, there are the awards for his fiction.
For the past few decades, Ralph responded almost every year to the requests of undergraduates and graduate students to read informally with him classics of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Quite often these groups went on, at his suggestion, to read the documents of Vatican II. Among the results were crops of adult converts. He sought no recognition for this service. For him, it was simply an act of the theological virtue of charity.
Those of us fortunate enough to have been his students know of his tireless efforts to raise additional money to support graduate students, many with families, as they completed degrees. No one who came to Ralph for help ever went away empty. Many of us would not be in the profession but for his generosity. Ralph can count on the prayers of thanksgiving of all us who spent time in the Maritain Center studying in genuine leisure, not worrying about whether we could feed and clothe our growing families or afford health insurance. He has seven successful children, and countless grandchildren. But our children, his students’ children, are his spiritual grandchildren.
Finally, he weighed in on the cultural and political issues of our time, founding Crisis magazine, and writing many articles in other places. He was candid about his opinions. Perhaps Father Hesburgh captured Ralph’s character best when he said of him, “Ralph McInerny will always tell you what he thinks is true. I knew when I asked him for his advice that he would tell me what he thought I needed to hear, not what he thought I wanted to hear. I have not always agreed with him, but I always knew he would tell it to me straight, a virtue not often in abundant supply in the political or academic worlds. Ralph McInerny is an honest man.”
It is perhaps best to finish with Ralph’s own words. After Connie died, he decided to move to Holy Cross Village, “My final address will be Holy Cross Village. (Penultimate, that is, my plot in Cedar Grove awaits me.) I can walk to class and my campus office. My life will be centered physically as well as spiritually in Notre Dame.” He now rests with Connie and Michael awaiting the resurrection under the loving gaze of his Mother, Our Mother, Notre Dame, in the serene knowledge that he lived a life of veritas in caritate, full of grace. Requiescat in pace.