Sketches of Ralph

Bruce Fingerhut, in South Bend, had kept us posted from the hospital and then the hospice. We had been stunned already two weeks earlier, when we had received the report—wrong, as it turned out—that Ralph McInerny had died. But Bruce gave us the news finally, last Friday, of Ralph’s death. Yet we had already experienced the sharp sense of what we were losing. As with the deaths of Richard Neuhaus and Karen Novak over the past year, it was rather like a vast hole torn out of our lives. Most of the things we would say now could only be a filling out of Bruce Fingerhut’s message to us bearing his own lament:

[Ralph] was outstanding in all the important roles of life: husband and father, friend and teacher, inspirer and witness, in love with God and truly loved by God. Has there ever been a happier man, a man more able to make all around him smile?

There was the key: he was joyous, he lit up the life of friends. But as the Thomist he was, the spirit and the joy were always affected with an awareness of the things that were higher and lower, the good to be celebrated and advanced, against the lesser things, to be put in their proper place, diminished, or even cast out and shunned. There was the ever-present scale of things, with an understanding, sure and fixed, of the ends, human and divine, to which everything was rightly directed.

The first time I saw him was in a seminar in New York in 1987, when I was invited into the meetings assembled by Richard Neuhaus, at that time of course, a Lutheran pastor. As we went round the table introducing ourselves, Ralph introduced himself as “a Thomist from Notre Dame.” Sitting next to him, Fr. Ernie Fortin (from BostonCollege) was caught by Ralph’s description, and said, in a wistful haze, “I too was once a Thomist—as a teenager.”

But one way or another, the writers in that room would all be involved in resisting the currents of relativism so dominant in the culture. With minor skirmishes among ourselves we would all be involved in the project of restoring the teaching of natural law in our time, and Ralph, holding the ground of Aquinas, would always be at the center of that project. For over fifty years he would teach philosophy at Notre Dame, and he would become the founder and director of the Jacques Maritain Center. And just a few years ago I joined him in speaking at the opening of a new project, launched by Christopher Wolfe, to form a Ralph McInerny Center for the study of natural law.

At a conference in Worcester in the early 1990s, I recall him taking a stringent Thomist line on assisted suicide. Death could not stand as a rival good to life, and it was at the edge of incoherence to speak of delivering a patient from pain through the expedient of simply extinguishing, not the pain, but the bearer of the pain. It was hard to see what “interests” of the person could be advanced by destroying the person himself as the bearer of those interests. Later that evening as we assembled for dinner, he turned his wine glass upside down on the table. Not taking wine?, I asked. He confided that he had promised God that if He could get one of his children through a grave illness, he would give up the wine.

He would craft books to make the case for Thomism ever more accessible. The crowning honor came when he was asked to give the famed Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh. They were published in 2001 as Characters in Search of Their Author. Five years later came his delightful autobiography, with a mock dramatic title, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You. But apart from his scholarly writing, he wrote also to support a growing family, and there he cultivated a whole other career as a writer of mysteries. His Father Dowling stories made it into a television series, but others came out in a steady stream of productivity— and literary craft. At one point he had two stories at the same time in Redbook magazine, one under his own name and one under a female name as he shaped another series, about a nun-detective.

He called me about a year ago to tell me that he was putting Bob Royal and me in his latest mystery. I knew that I wouldn’t be the one who solved the murder. Was I the one killed? No. It was a cameo, he said. A walk on? As it turned out, not even that, and yet more: He took the occasion to take my side in an ongoing, ribbing argument within the family. He had a woman in a café in Rome point out a book called First Things and the man who wrote it. Years earlier, he would go into bookstores, find that book—and turn it face full on the shelf. Why would a busy writer do that? Pure friendship and pure joy.

Bruce Fingerhut told us that when he went to see Ralph at the last moments, it was Ralph who was consoling him. Just like the man, and the best consolation is the hope that we may be with him one day again.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.