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In memory of Ralph McInerny

Charles Rice | Tuesday, February 16, 2010

 Ralph McInerny, a member of the Notre Dame philosophy department since 1955, died on Jan. 29. Author of more than 40 scholarly books, Dr. McInerny was justly regarded as the preeminent exponent of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He also wrote poetry and more than 80 novels and mysteries.

The many testimonials by friends and colleagues, available online, recount Ralph’s life and achievements. They give a glimpse of his personal side. Ralph McInerny, a man of total integrity, was a kind and happy guy with a drily unique sense of humor, a master of the pun and a family man devoted over 49 years of marriage to Connie who was his match and whom he would occasionally introduce as “my first wife, Connie.” 
This column is neither an obituary nor a eulogy. Rather, the point is twofold. First, to note that Notre Dame students are now disadvantaged, whether they realize it or not, by their inability to study under Ralph McInerny and to know him in person. We will never see his like on this campus again.
The second point is to state the obvious. Ralph McInerny still lives — in Heaven (spelled with a capital H because it is a place) as we trust and pray — but also in his writings. Notre Dame students and others can still connect with his thought and wisdom. Reading McInerny on Aquinas has a practical payoff. The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is called “realist” because it systematically affirms that there is a real world which we can know and understand through our senses and reason. The study of Aquinas is the study of how to integrate faith and reason, which, as John Paul II said, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (“Fides et Ratio,” preamble.) To advance that integration was Ralph’s mission. He accomplished it, without intimidating or boring the reader, because he wrote easily on two levels. He operated without peer in the highest reaches of Thomistic philosophy, drawing out its implications and significance. But he also had a rare facility, a gift, for writing with such clarity as to reach and inspire the rest of us. Those of us who are gratefully “content to retail,” as Ralph put it (“I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You,” 93), the teachings of Aquinas, had — and have — a lodestar in Ralph McInerny. If what we thought was consistent with Ralph’s position, we had a surety (not infallible, he would insist) that we were on the right track. 
We all continue to need the guidance of Ralph McInerny. This is especially true for Notre Dame students. Through no fault of their own, they exist in an epistemological free-fire zone where the daily horoscope in The Observer predictably serves a large constituency. McInerny, instead, gave Notre Dame students and others a chance to connect with the real world, known to faith and reason, including the identification of objective right and wrong. Now that Ralph himself is gone, we can connect with those realities by reading his writings, especially on Aquinas. Out of many that could be chosen to provide an introduction to philosophy in general and to Aquinas in particular, I suggest five for openers. They are systematic, readable, and perhaps most important, short:
“A Student’s Guide to Philosophy” (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999, 75 pages). A good refresher for anyone.  The beginner should read this first. Everyone “does philosophy” in that he thinks. McInerny introduces the reader to what passes for modern philosophy and its contrast with the perennial philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas. He includes one-paragraph biographical inserts on 14 players in the philosophical game, from Socrates to Edith Stein.  The reader will learn about the fact-value split between the is and the ought, scientific and pre-scientific analysis, and the essence of our post-Christian era. The book concludes with a remarkable bibliographical essay, “A Student’s Guide to Philosophy,” by Joshua Hochschild, describing dozens of books the reader can use to go more deeply into the subject.
“A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists” (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989, 208 pages).  This primer explains Aristotle’s common sense approach to philosophy, and Aquinas’s use of those ideas to create a common sense foundation for theology. Realities such as form (what a thing is), matter (what a thing is made of), art and nature, causation, creation and the soul are introduced philosophically and theologically. This book easily explains one of McInerny’s great contributions: his explanation of the role of analogy for St. Thomas. Incidentally, McInerny’s mastery of the pun as a high art form is a use of analogy. 
“Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas” (Catholic University of America Press, 1982, 129 pages). “This book attempts to lay out in its main lines the moral philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas” (ix). McInerny explains the relation between the good and nature in Aristotle and Aquinas. He shows the origin and application of the first principle of practical reason and the natural law: “The good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided” (43) He examines the structure of voluntary and other human acts, what makes an action good or evil, prudence, conscience and the relation between religion and morality. St. Thomas’ “conception of man as a rational agent” (124) is countercultural today. Which is a good reason to read this book.
“Characters in Search of Their Author: The Gifford Lectures, Glasgow, 1999-2000” (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2001, 138 pages).  “Natural theology,” McInerny says, “means the philosophical discipline which proves that God exists and that he has certain attributes” (5). McInerny’s Gifford Lectures are presented here in two parts. The first, “Whatever Happened to Natural Theology?” examines the eclipse of the reality that reason can know God in a skeptical age that has lost the very concept of truth. Part two, “The Recovery of Natural Theology,” examines the proofs for the existence and attributes of God. It addresses the reality that the fact that knowing that there is a God does not guarantee that one’s conduct will be good. It discusses the different kinds of faith, including “the faith of scientists,” (124), and the compatibility of reason and religious faith. In short, there is a “Christian philosophy” (129-32) and McInerny sees himself as a Christian philosopher. He explains how that can be.
“I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life and Pastimes” (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2006, 167). This autobiography tells us about many things, Ralph included. “I picked this book up during a spare hour,” said Michael Novak, “and hours later have scarcely been able to get back to anything else.” Each chapter includes a personal narrative set in a fast-moving cultural commentary on a lot of things, including universities, the academics who inhabit them, seminaries, the writing trade, Europe and its decline, Notre Dame, the Vatican, and so on. I have listed this book last, but you may want to read it first. 
We can profit from any of McInerny’s books, including his fiction, all of which is entertaining and has a Catholic tone.  In any event, it’s kind of nice to know that Ralph McInerny, in his writings, is still around for us as a mentor. Pray for him and, while you’re at it, pray for Notre Dame. Requiescat in pace. 
Professor Emeritus Rice is on the law school faculty. He may be reached at [email protected] or 574-633-4415.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.