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For Ralph McInerny

John O'Callaghan

Ralph McInerny

"Well done, good and faithful servant." No one's life can be counted in earthly words. Even Ralph who wrote so many words could not do so. His life is now recounted in the Book of Life. But here we pilgrims search for something to say as our friend has left us for now. I once called Ralph "magnanimous." But I don't think that is quite enough. I think perhaps the best word that I can think of now is "gracious." Gracious signifies the grace that filled Ralph, and the grace he shared with us. Because of his deep and abiding love of God, we can be confident that Ralph lived and died in grace. But we who were privileged to know him here, also know the ways in which that grace poured itself out as he shared his life and gifts with us -- the grace of his smile, of his wit, of his writing, of his kindness.

Ralph served Our Lady's University as a faculty member for 55 years. His scholarly life began with his Studies in Analogy and the The Logic of Analogy, in which he criticized Cardinal Cajetan's interpretation of Aquinas on analogy. They nearly concluded with his Praeambula Fidei, in which he defends the autonomy of philosophy within the context of religious faith, and along the way returns in charity to Cajetan, now to defend him on questions of grace and nature. Ralph never held a grudge. In between are uncountable books and papers touching not only on Aquinas, but Boethius, Averroes, Newman, Kierkegaard, Pascal, Descartes, and the list goes on and on. Fifty years on Ralph's writings on analogy in Aquinas still form the point of departure for all serious contemporary scholarship on the topic. And Ethica Thomistica is still recognized as the best and most accessible introduction to Aquinas' Ethics. And then there's his marvelous translation and commentary on Aquinas Against the Averroists: On There Being Only One Intellect. His The Very Spiritual Hours of Jacques Maritain won Christianity and Culture's Best Book in Religion for 2003. He portrayed Maritain as a saint endeavoring to live a life of sanctity in the world of ideas and politics in the tumultuous 20th century, no easy feat -- it was written from the heart.

It would be folly to rehearse his scholarly CV, and even more so the novels, short stories, detective series, his little book of Shakespearean Variations on the Sonnets, or any of his other poetry. In one of his editorials called "Memento Mori," Ralph reflects upon finding prayer cards in books; the thoughts lead him on to describe the general experience of finding mementos of one's own or others in old books -- a letter from his mother in a Latin edition of the Summa, and in his copy of Plato's Dialogues from 1948 the outline he had written at the age of 17 of the dialogue he would write to outdo Plato. He deadpans, "ah youth!" Apparently that dialogue is one of the few things Ralph ever planned to write, and failed to do so. At the end of the day, he was a writer through and through, a writer of philosophy, of fiction, of poetry, of you-name-it.

In the time that Ralph served Notre Dame, he built an international reputation as a scholar of medieval philosophy, serving for several decades on the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association and received its Aquinas Medal, the American Maritain Association, and the American Metaphysical Society. He was awarded several honorary doctorates around the country. And he was awarded Notre Dame's own Faculty Award. He served in Washington on the President's Council for the Arts. And of course there are the awards for his fiction.

Most importantly he was a teacher. In his 55 years he taught thousands upon thousands of students in almost all areas of philosophy. He focused upon the work of luminaries in the Catholic intellectual tradition such as Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Dante, Newman, Maritain, but also others outside that tradition such as Kierkegaard. In addition to the normal load of formal courses, Ralph was always willing to lead reading courses on Aquinas, sometimes two or three in a semester. After he ceased to offer official classes a few years ago, he continued to offer them in his home for anyone who would ask. In graduate education, Ralph is listed among the top ten philosophy professors in the United States for directing doctoral dissertations. However, that list only includes dissertations written by students in the Philosophy Department. I think he would place even higher if that list were to include the dissertations of students in the Medieval Institute who wrote on philosophical topics having to do with Aquinas. He served the department as its director of graduate studies, and directed the Medieval Institute. And for twenty-seven years as director of the Maritain Center he provided a locale for intellectual discussion among graduate and undergraduate students alike. Despite his very busy schedule of writing, teaching, and speaking, he was always willing to drop it all and spend hours talking philosophy in his office if one had a question or two or three.

It is less well known that for the past few decades Ralph responded almost every year to the requests of undergraduates and graduate students to read informally with him classics of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Quite often these groups went on, at his suggestion, to read the documents of Vatican II as well. Among the results of this reading of the documents of Vatican II was the entry of adult converts to the Catholic faith. This is a service he provided the students here, for which he sought no recognition. It was for him simply an act of the theological virtue of charity.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have been his students know of his tireless efforts to raise additional money to support graduate students, many of them with families, as they completed their degrees -- no one who came to Ralph for help ever went away empty. Many of us would not be in the profession but for his generosity. I know of one particular instance in which he raised outside money to keep a family of four afloat, with a regular salary and benefits at Notre Dame for two years after the student had graduated. Ralph can count on the prayers of thanksgiving of all us who spent time in the Maritain Center studying in genuine leisure, not worrying about whether having more children would be a difficulty, whether we could feed and clothe our growing families, or afford health insurance for them. He has seven successful children of his own, Michael, Cathy, Mary, Anne, David, Beth, and Dan, and countless grandchildren of whom he readily bragged. But our children, his students' children, are his spiritual grandchildren, and know well of him and the life he gave us.

Finally, he weighed in on the pressing cultural and political issues of our time, founding Crisis magazine, and writing many articles and editorials in other places. The fact, as in all things, that others might disagree with him was never a reason for Ralph not to write or express his thoughts on what mattered most to him. Perhaps Father Hesburgh captured Ralph's character best when he said of him at the festschrift in his honor a few years ago, "Ralph McInerny will always tell you what he thinks is true. I knew when I asked him for his advice that he would tell me what he thought I needed to hear, not what he thought I wanted to hear. I have not always agreed with him, but I always knew he would tell it to me straight, a virtue not often in abundant supply in the political or academic worlds. Ralph McInerny is an honest man."

While visiting Ralph recently, we began to talk about his latest project, publishing the collected works of his teacher Charles De Koninck. Ralph said that as he worked through the papers, "I realized that I did not know what an opportunity I had back then, I wasted so much time, and did not learn enough." I was fortunate enough to be able to echo the sentiment. But if piety is appropriate on this occasion, it is perhaps best to finish with Ralph's own written words. After Connie died, and he decided to move over to Holy Cross Village, he reflected upon those events in an essay, and finished with this about Notre Dame: "My final address will be Holy Cross Village. (Penultimate, that is, my plot in Cedar Grove awaits me.) I can walk to class and my campus office. My life will be centered physically as well as spiritually in Notre Dame." He now rests with Connie and Michael awaiting the resurrection under the loving gaze of his Mother, Our Mother, Notre Dame, in the serene knowledge that he lived a life of veritas in caritate, full of grace. Requiescat in pace.

© 2010 by the Jacques Maritain Center, University of Notre Dame.
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Revised 22 February 2010.