Studying with Ralph McInerny

EDITOR’S NOTE: This morning we remember one of the great American Catholic writers of recent years and one of the founders of The Catholic Thing. Before he went into the hospital for the last time, Professor McInerny sent a number of columns in order to meet his regular schedule and promised to “be back in early 2010.” Sadly, that never happened. But if one of the giants of Catholicism in our time could make such efforts, even near the end of his life, can you do any less? Our Fall fundraising enables us to plan for what we will be able to do for the rest of this calendar year and the early part of next. Please, take a minute right now and make a gift of $25, $50, $100, or more as your own contribution to the work of The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal

The mother of a Notre Dame student asked the other day: “Did you ever study with Ralph McInerny?”“Yes, ma’am, he was my dissertation director.”

“Oh my, that’s wonderful. I wanted my son to study with Dr. McInerny, but now. . . .”

Her voice trailed off. She knew that Ralph McInerny, a legendary professor at Notre Dame for over half a century, one of the founders and regular contributors to The Catholic Thing, and author of over 100 hundred books of philosophy, fiction, and poetry, died earlier this year. In this somewhat awkward moment, not knowing what else to say, I blurted out: “Read his books.” I’m not generally good at off-the-cuff remarks (unlike Ralph, who was always ready with a pun or bon mot on a moment’s notice), but on this particular occasion, I think I said the right thing.

Some men write in a style very different from their own voice. I once knew a philosophy professor who spoke in perfectly sensible sentences in informal settings, but if you read his published articles, he was nearly incomprehensible. It was as though the writer or the professor was an entirely different person from the man. That was not the case with Ralph McInerny. His voice – the  way he sounded in class – comes though clearly in his writing. I once had the pleasure of serving as his teaching assistant for a class on “The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.” When I later read his Handbook for Peeping Thomists, I thought to myself: “Wow; this is his ‘Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas’ class in writing. What a great resource!” But I was reluctant to reveal this to students for fear that they would use it as an excuse not to take good notes in class, thinking they could just get it all from reading the book.

That would have been a great loss because there was always so much more going on in Ralph’s classroom: great stories; constant references to literature, poetry, and other philosophers (especially his beloved Aristotle and Kierkegaard); and in what would probably be a surprise to some, frequent references to philosophers and writers with whom he disagreed. Many professors style themselves “open-minded” and would probably think of someone like Ralph McInerny, the supposedly stodgy old “neo-scholastic” known for his Catholic polemics in magazines like Crisis, as someone who was more “narrow.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. One was more likely to hear references to opposing voices in McInerny’s class than in anyone else’s. He was a man of strong views, but that didn’t prevent him from listening to others with strong views. Quite the contrary.

        The professor’s autobiography

A perfect example of what I will call his scholarly generosity can be found in his decades-long directorship of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. Ralph had all sorts of philosophical disagreements with Maritain. But by the same token, he felt that Maritain had made important philosophical contributions, and he wasn’t going to let his disagreements get in the way of spearheading efforts to have the collected works of Maritain published in English. That good work continues to be carried on by the Maritain Center today, even after Ralph’s death, under the leadership of another of Ralph’s students, John O’Callaghan.

So while there are things missing from Ralph McInerny’s books that students in his classes regularly benefitted from, you can still read any of his popular philosophical writings, such as his wonderful Handbook for Peeping Thomists, or Ethica Thomistica, his classic on moral philosophy, or one of my favorites: Characters In Search Of Their Author, his wide-ranging Gifford Lectures (about which Ralph once quipped: “They want me to say something memorable; I fear I might.”). Read any of these, and you’ll be “taking a class” with Ralph McInerny. That unmistakable voice comes through loud and clear, making even difficult material clearer, livelier, and more interesting than you might have thought possible.

Ralph was fond of quoting these lines from Hillaire Belloc: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said:/ His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.” Of Ralph McInerny’s sins, I am not qualified to speak. God only knows. But of his books, I can say that they will continue to be read – not only by professional philosophers but by anyone who appreciates good writing and powerful thought.

On a recent morning I was trying to work my way through the difficult section in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa of Theology that deals with the different elements of the human act: intention, deliberation, choice, consent, use. It’s notoriously complicated. So I pulled my copy of Ralph’s Aquinas on Human Action: A Theory of Practice off the shelf to help me sort through it all. In that regard, I’m still taking classes from Ralph McInerny. No doubt, I always will be. You should too.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.