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From Ralph, a Note from Afar

A time of anniversaries: This past June marked the fourth anniversary of my own first column, and the advent of our The Catholic Thing. The origin we owe to the conviction and drive of Bob Royal. He had recruited to this new venture the “band of brothers” who had founded and then sustained Crisis magazine – Ralph McInerny and Michael Novak, joined in time by Fr. Jim Schall, Mike Uhlmann, George Marlin, Austin Ruse, Bob, and me.  

The sustaining force has come with Bob, along with the devotion of Brad Miner, and our remarkable, committed donors. Some of the original crew had to take leave, but we were reinforced by gifted writers who had been part of the community drawn by The Catholic Thing – Anthony Esolen, Frank Beckwith, Fr. Bevil Bramwell, Howard Kainz.

Around the same time I was having another anniversary, another birthday, in the first week of July. I found myself in the public library, passing a section I rarely visited: “Mysteries.” But what caught my eye was a book by Ralph McInerny, published just after his death. 

It was one of those mysteries built around Notre Dame, where Ralph had taught for more than fifty years. And it had one of those whimsical titles: Sham Rock [1].  (Others: On this Rockne [2], Emerald Aisle [3]) Ralph was a distinguished Thomist, the head of Maritain Center, the Grace Professor of Medieval Studies.

He was steadily productive in his writings in philosophy, a notable point coming with his Gifford Lectures in Scotland in 1999-2000. But with six children to support, he began early on to make additional money by writing fiction. 

He turned out to have a deft hand: He would compose around fifty books. He wrote the Fr. Dowling mysteries, and at one point he had two stories in the same issue of Redbook under two different names. 

The book I found in my hand was one I hadn’t heard about, because it came out in April 2010 and Ralph had died at the end of January. As I opened the book, there came the jolt of surprise: it was dedicated to me. Ralph had never mentioned that he was doing that; but then he had other things on his mind as he was dying.  

He evidently meant this as a message coming later as a surprise, and I know that because he had alerted me on another occasion when he was putting me in one of these stories (The Third Revelation [4]). Did I solve the murder? No. Was I the one who was murdered? No. Well what was it?   A “cameo,” he said.

Not exactly that, but in a way better. A man and a woman were in a café in Rome. She had worked with the magazine First Things in New York and the man, a reporter, asked her to tell him about First Things [5]. To which she replied, “You mean that book by Hadley Arkes?” [Editor’s Note: I, or rather my book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century [6], also got a “cameo” in this story.]

That was Ralph, taking my side against Fr. Neuhaus in a joking way, joshing him about “borrowing” or taking the title for his new journal from my book.

But then some strange things came in reading Sham Rock. One of his characters had just read Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and was immensely affected by it. As it turned out, I too had just re-read that book and was gripped with a new admiration for it.

Another character in Ralph’s book was absorbed in Dorothy Day’s writings. This was eerie, because I, too, had her autobiography in hand and was much absorbed in it. Was there something to which Ralph would have directed me? 

I found her an unaccountable figure. So much in her politics was flakey. Her pacifism should have revealed its moral problems in the face of Hitler. Her economics were sophomoric. But there was no denying the earnest flame of her piety and her willingness to immerse herself in the life of the poor. 

In a manner almost Christ-like, she professed to find liberation in poverty. She could have lived in the circles of writers in Manhattan; but instead she was willing to live on almost nothing, driving out to places of desperate poverty, in a broken-down car with the gas pedal falling through the floorboard. 

And through it all she would come up with something sublime, as in Augustine’s avowal of love for God: 

What is it that I love when I love you? Not the beauty of the bodily thing. . .nor the sweet fragrance of flowers. . .not the limbs which carnal love embraces.

Yet in a sense I do love light and melody and fragrance and food and embrace when I love my God. . . .I breathe that fragrance that no wind scatters, I eat the food which is not lessened by eating, and I lie in that embrace which satiety never comes to sunder.  

But now, Sunday Mass, July 15: By Mark’s account Jesus sends out the Twelve with the authority to purge unclean spirits. He tells them “to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick – no food, no sack, no money in their belts.” They were to be dependent solely on God’s grace.  

Dorothy Day could have gone off in the same way. But Ralph would have taken his typewriter – and found a way of getting a note to me from afar. 


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.