McInerny Revisited

A couple weeks ago a giant went ungently into that good night.  I am sad to say that I gave him only a passing mention, because I was so busy, but I would like to revisit and mark again the importance of Professor Ralph McInerny of the University of Notre Dame.  He was a giant, a Catholic, a man of wit and humor, a fierce friend, and an intellectual powerhouse.  He was an unabashed lover of puns and witicisms (like Chesterton and Belloc); he authored books such as On This Rockne, Irish Gilt, Law and Ardor, Rest in Pieces, The Book of Kills, Aquinas and Analogy (no pun, but a very important Philosophical text), and (my favorite) A First Glance at Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists.

Chris Wester wrote a superb obituary for McInerny in the University News this week.  Wester’s review highlights McInerny’s influence and dedication to Liberal Education and the restoration of Catholic Culture.  Wester’s review was the best thing I’ve read in the University News since Josh Mahan’s Sports section interviews where he interviewed himself pretending to be another Rugby player.

Western civilization has lost one of the most celebrated Thomists in recent memory. On the morning of January 29, Professor Ralph M. McInerny, surrounded by his friends, succumbed to esophageal cancer. Despite McInerny’s longtime association with the University of Notre Dame, it bears reminding that his influence on academia was not limited to one university. Rather, McInerny dedicated his life to redeeming the soul of the culture in which he lived, one university at a time. Between 1978 and 2004, McInerny gave over 380 separate lectures at institutions ranging from large and famous universities to small liberal arts colleges. Indeed, it was not long before McInerny found his way to the University of Dallas, an institution that McInerny came to admire and support with efforts that cannot go unsung.

Many of you reading this article may be wondering to yourself, who was Ralph McInerny anyway? This reaction would certainly make sense as many of us were not conscious of a Western intellectual tradition, much less Thomism, before coming to college. And given that McInerny’s primary academic work was completed by the time many of us entered high school, it may be difficult to discern this man’s importance to the tradition of liberal learning that we find at UD. Therefore, it would behoove us all to examine briefly the life and influence of McInerny and, in doing so, come to a better understanding of what one faithful man can do with the gifts God has given him.

Ralph McInerny was born in Minnesota on Feb. 24, 1929. After attending high school in St. Paul, McInerny spent a year in the U.S. Marine Corps. Following his undergraduate education at St. Paul Seminary, McInerny completed, with incredible speed, an intense series of postgraduate degrees in philosophy: a master’s from the University of Minnesota in 1952, and a Ph.L. and Ph.D. from Universit√© Laval, Quebec, in 1953 and 1954 respectively. After teaching briefly at Creighton University, McInerny was hired at the institution that was to become his home for the remainder of his life, the University of Notre Dame. After rising through the professorial cursus honorum, McInerny was named, in 1978, the Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies at Notre Dame. One year later, McInerny was named the director of the Jacques Maritain Center.

McInerny’s area of expertise was in the work of Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard and Jacques Maritain. He authored no less than 46 books on philosophy, the Catholic Church and other academic topics. Some choice titles of his lectures and articles include “Maritain on Liberal Education,” “Liberty in the Catholic Tradition” and “Memento Mortimer,” this last one written just after the death of Mortimer J. Adler, McInerny’s good friend and the architect of what is now considered to be the Western canon of literature. Through his Thomistic studies, McInerny came to be an ardent defender of liberal education in the Great Books. But, more importantly, McInerny saw the importance of Catholic identity to that liberal education. Never was this more clear than in 2009, the year he retired, when the ardently pro-choice Barack Obama was invited to be the commencement speaker at Notre Dame. McInery called the act “an unequivocal abandonment of any pretense at being a Catholic university” and added that the invitation was “in sad continuity with decades of waffling that have led with seeming inevitability to it.”

Despite the sour note upon which McInerny ended his career at Notre Dame, he had plenty of reasons to be hopeful. His interest in promoting liberal learning in America had led him to a number of small liberal arts colleges around the nation, including a peculiar institution on a small hill in Irving, Texas. In 1990, McInerny came to UD as the keynote speaker at the celebrated Aquinas Lecture, put on annually by the philosophy department. His lecture at the event was titled “The Voice of Conscience.” In 1991, McInerny was named to the steering committee for UD’s Center for Christianity and the Common Good. McInerny returned again in 1997 as Notre Dame’s official representative at the installment ceremonies of Rev. Milam Joseph. In 1999, McInerny delivered two more lectures at UD, the first titled “Fides et Ratio and Implicit Philosophy,” the second “What is Literature?” McInerny’s visits to Irving nurtured a growing friendship between faculty members at Notre Dame and UD. Indeed, many UD alumni have chosen Notre Dame as their first choice graduate school.

But other than lectures and visits, McInerny did not do anything to change our university. But this is precisely why he matters so much. McInerny’s support of UD and other colleges was a simple confirmation that this school was worth supporting because it had the right mission. Like so many other intellectual giants of the late 20th century (Mortimer Alder, Jacques Barzun and Malcolm Muggeridge, to name a few), McInerny, in life, found UD to be a home base of like-minded friends and, in death, friends we indeed remain. 

Friendship is something that marked McInerny’s life, particularly in the academic sphere. He sought to transform his culture, but not without allies. And this could ultimately be McInerny’s greatest lesson for our generation: that the transformation of culture need not be a solitary enterprise. With the encouragement of certain gifted leaders, men like McInerny, a general mobilization of minds can take place, at which point only the grace of God is needed to achieve a sure and lasting victory. Ralph M. McInerny, “requiescat in pace.”

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4 Responses
  1. Paul K Gautier, Jr says:

    I really want to change my facebook religious views to "Peeping Thomist."

  2. Peter Louis Kane says:

    Well done, my boy.

  3. LordVader says:

    Mortimer Adler was an intellectual giant? Please, spare me. At best he was the biggest promoter of Aristotelian revival in the past century. At worst he caused as much damage as he did good with his promotion of intellectual dillettantism.

  4. Lord Bloch says:

    I want to fight you.

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