Jacques Maritain Center


A Conversation with Ralph McInerny

© copyright 2002 by the LIBERTY FUND, INC. All rights reserved.

Transcribed by Alice Osberger in 2014 and presented here with
permission of the Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana.

Ralph McInerny is one of today's most noted Catholic philosophers and authors. He has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1955, and since 1978 has been the Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies. He also serves as Director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame. The author of a number of important works on St. Thomas Aquinas and one of our most noted Thomistic philosophers, he is a Fellow at the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Twenty years ago, McInerny helped found Crisis magazine, a publication that addresses problems facing contemporary society from the standpoint of the Catholic tradition. In 1999, McInerny was invited to give the prestigious Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh. This series of talks on the importance of natural theology was later published under the title Characters in Search of Their Author. Recently, Ralph McInerny was appointed to President (George W.) Bush's Council for Arts and the Humanities. Alongside his academic career, McInerny has had another successful career as the author of the best-selling and internationally acclaimed Father Dowling Mysteries which were also made into a series for television.

Born in Minneapolis in 1929, just as the Great Depression was beginning, he grew up Catholic in a predominantly Protestant community. With nine children in the family, times were hard but not austere. When he wasn't in school, much of life for young Ralph was spent outside playing in the parks and open spaces of Minnesota. In 1946 he joined the Marine Corps and later returned to Minnesota to take a Bachelor's degree from the St. Paul Seminary. Realizing that the priesthood was not his vocation, he began graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, earning a Master of Arts degree. He completed his graduate studies at Laval University in Canada, where his mentor was Charles DeKoninck. At the University of Minnesota, he met his wife Connie. They married in 1953 and had seven children, six of whom survived. Connie passed away in May of 2002 in the fiftieth year of their marriage. McInerny's first teaching job was at Creighton University in Omaha, and then it was on to Notre Dame in 1955. The rest is history.

In 1963, seeking to supplement what, in those days, was a modest salary for a professor, Ralph returned to one of his life-long interests, fiction. He first published in popular magazines where he learned the craft. He sold his first story to Redbook six months after undertaking to write fiction seriously, went on to novels, and, eventually, to mysteries. His first novel was Jolly Rogerson, a black comedy that examines the notion of success and failure. That book marked the beginning of his career as a novelist; and in 1976, he began penning the internationally popular Father Dowling mysteries, the Andrew Broom mysteries, and the Sister Mary Teresa mysteries. With his combination of philosophical wisdom, popular story-telling and deep concern for the problems facing modern society, McInerny occupies a unique place among modern philosophers.

Liberty Fund welcomes you to a Conversation with Professor Ralph McInerny.

JODY BOTTUM   Thanks so much for joining us today, Ralph.

RALPH McINERNY   Good to be here.

JODY BOTTUM   There is this American Catholic philosopher who teaches at Notre Dame, right? And he writes things like this:

"Jacques Maritain's teaching on the relation of philosophy and the nature of science -- surely one of the most carefully worked out of the Thomistic solutions -- was not thought adequate by Charles de Koninck of Laval or the River Forest Dominicans . . . ."

All right? And there is this mystery writer who lives in the Midwest, and he writes things like this:

"It took me a little over a quarter of an hour, and the towel was no good at all. So, finally, he used his bare hands, pressing his thumbs relentlessly down, as she kicked and squirmed and did not easily let go of her grip on life."

And then, there is this commentator on public affairs who lives in Indiana, and he writes things like this:

"To advise Catholics to ignore clear magisterial teaching is to advise them to reject the clear teaching of Vatican II. How ironic that the Council should be invoked as a warrant for dissenting from the Magisterium which the Council endorsed."

Now, of course, all three of those guys are you. Are they the same guy?

RALPH McINERNY   Yes, sure, absolutely. I used to, when I began writing, and the way it started, I would go down to the basement -- away from what I would describe as my day job with my family (laughs) -- and I would go down there. It was as if I was doing something quite different, and using my mind, using my imagination which you don't normally in philosophy, and it seemed to be a vacation from that in several senses. One, almost culpable, that I wasn't doing these other things when I might have been doing them. And freeing. And when I would go down there, I was kind of pooped, you know. It's 10 in the evening after putting the kids to bed and visiting with my wife, and so on; putting in a full day. But when I would go down those stairs, it was as if the sun was coming out, to a new day, you know, and all my energy would come back. I was young, and I would go at it, and I loved it. It was just wonderful. But there was a sense of separation, you know, almost two levels: you know, the underground man writing these commercial stories and so forth. There came a time, and I don't know exactly when it was, when I began to see these were part of a single thing. You know, me, for one thing, which they already were, but somehow they hung together in ways that are not terribly easy to explain. But I began to think of models of what I was or trying to be. And, I would have to go to the European model. And you take someone like, uh, Ortega or you take someone like Unamuno. You take some Italian writers, even, you know, people who are mainly known as novelists, like Manzoni, and look at the book he wrote, his Moralica Catholica, kind of philosophical work. And suddenly I began to see that we as philosophers have defined ourselves in a way that is really confining. Julian Marias is another one -- a Spanish philosopher about my age. But he had an essay that really struck me -- it was called The Philosophy of Dramatic Form. And he begins by saying we in the 20th century, as he was writing then, that we have this conception of philosophy as a piece in mind or in philosophical review or a treatise, you know, like Hume. He said, "Let's think about it. How did philosophy begin? Philosophy began as poetry; it began as prayer; it began as epigrams; it began as dialogue." And he went through all of the genres that philosophy has employed over its history. And from that point of view, the 20th century, at least analytic Anglo-American philosophy, could look exiguous. Here you have this very dry as dust, sort of unrelated to anything else -- although many analytic philosophers were very cultivated people, but it had nothing to do with their philosophy.

JODY BOTTUM   Ralph, this is fascinating, this notion that you put forward that there is some kind of unity among the various fields in which you have worked, not just unity, because you are the person who did it all, but unity in conception. You know, they do appear in different voices. The mysteries come in a different voice from the philosophy, from the social commentary; uh, and is that just a writing technique or is something different happening in you when do fiction? Or when you do the poetry, which you seem to have returned to in recent years?

RALPH McINERNY   Obviously there are differences. It seems to me that -- you know that old French adage that "Style is the man." There is an inner unity, it seems to me, that there can be, in terms of what you are coming out of. Your outlook on life, I think, is probably the sustaining kind of unifier. But I think, for example, of Aristotle's notion of the plurality of modes of discourse -- and the Medieval and Renaissance conception was that you move from apodictic discourse through dialectical discourse to rhetorical discourse, and you end up with poetry. And poetry was considered to be a kind of argument. And, of course, that's the conception of metaphor that Aristotle has. If you learn something from metaphor, there's something sort of discursive about it. I've thought about that, too, in terms of serious and commercial fiction. You know, how should one regard the relation between schlock -- you are doing it for commercial and venal reasons on the one hand and on the other -- what? Dwight Macdonald, a name that isn't paid much attention to any more. although recently there was an essay on him in Human Events. He had a little booklet, which I can't find any more, called Masscult and Midcult. It was a typical snobbish kind of thing, that there is a high kind of writing that is for us guys, and there is this other sort of unwashed writing that other people do, and there is just no traffic between them. There is an essay based on a series of lectures that C.S. Lewis gave at Cambridge called "Experiment in Criticism" in which he raised that question as a Professor of Literature. Well, what is literature? And he began by proposing as a kind of rule of thumb: "Literature is anything that you would read again." In Cyril Connelly's "Enemies of Promise," you get a similar sort of suggestion that there is this spectrum and that you can locate things along the lines so that there is a continuity and not disruption between them. There are some things that fall off entirely. You wouldn't read them again. But Lewis, by putting that question, is asking, "What is it that brings us back to something? Why do we re-read?" Now, it seems to me that this is what we have learned from fiction. It is what you have learned while you are writing it: the infinite possibilities in human action, the mystery of human action, of human personality. From a philosophical point of view, we tend to move toward the general and the universal and you try to capture essences and genres and this kind of thing. And when you've got that, the individuals become instances of that; they tend to become depreciated, it can sometimes seem. But if you can think of the way in which we reflect on human action in moral philosophy where you are trying to come up with generalities, and rules and principles and so forth, what you are talking about could never be exhausted by that kind of discussion. That's part of the theory in someone like Aristotle -- that the prudential order opens up into the singular and will be infinite and various in a good way. That is, the variety can be varieties of goodness, and there are variations off of goodness. It seems that when you explore characters and action in fiction. That's what you're doint, you're pondering the mysteriousness of human lives. And they are inexhaustible existentially, and within fiction you are never going to run out of possibilities. Just the surprises and the glory often of human action or the depths to which you can descend. So that I have often thought that what fiction does for us, both in the reading of it and the writing of it is to -- it's a way of meditating on what it is to be a human person, to be a free, responsible individual.

JODY BOTTUM  : But, Ralph, let me push you a little bit on this because this is something that relates to some of the questions that I have about literature in your own lifetime. There is an equivocation involved, of course, in moving from the final mystery of human action to the writing of mystery novels. We are doing some equivocation on the word "mystery" there. And it strikes me that for all that Dwight Macdonald was participating in a uniquely 1950s sort of highbrow snobbery, he was expressing something that we might take as still true, which is to say that even if you see all these things, as apparently you do, on a spectrum, still there is a difference between one end of the spectrum and the other. They may still be strung on a string together but there is still a distinction to be made between the two ends.

RALPH McINERNY   One of the disruptive things in the Academy now is the effort of everybody to say that Tarzan is every bit as important as Shakespeare. That would be a trivialization of this connection, because there is no connection between these standards anyway so you just decide what the classics are and just decide what their criteria are and every political and ideological in some way, so let's quit kidding ourselves that Conrad and Shakespeare are more important than, say Tarzan. I am certainly not suggesting anything like that. What I had in mind, though, was Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses. I re-read it some years back , expecting to feel again the delight that I felt when I first read it. And I had it in a twenty-five cent paperback, which is not unimportant. And in it, what Ortega is expressing from the very first paragraphs, is the utter and total contempt for ordinary people. This is what bothers me about this thing. I don't think there is any other way to put it. He talks about all these people coming into our museums, and coming into theatres, and pretending to be able to read and so forth. And what he is suggesting is that the modern in art is to ensure that the normal expectations of art on the part of most people will be thwarted, that this is the note of modernity, that you refuse to offer any of the normal consolations, as they were thought to be, of art. It's kind of a "in your face" sort of thing. There is a wonderful book called The Invention of the Masses or something like that [The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey] , T.S. Eliot lectures at Cambridge some years back -- I'll think of the author. But it's tremendous from the point of view of the data of the people gather on artists like D. H. Lawrence, who hated the ordinary people and dreams of herding people into the Crystal Palace and gassing them. You know, a dreadful sort of thing. And he despised people on the street and how loathsome they were, and so forth. You figure you cannot be a writer and have that attitude toward people. Imagine the contrast between that notion of writing and Trollope or Jane Austen or -- well, just about anyone you like. They are writing in a way that they hope will engage anyone and everyone in some sense. You know, there's a lot more there than, say, the initial reading would give you.

JODY BOTTOM   Of course, there are writers who have done this. The question is: are there writers who can do it now? There's an argument about the decline of fiction in our own lifetime. It's not entirely Jacques Barzun, among others, who are making arguments like this. It's not entirely attributable to the snobbery of 1950s intellectuals, or the failure of education, but the failure of the novel, the coming to an end of the novel as the fundamental work of art of this civilization -- which for English speakers it had become in the 19th century. And you, your career tracks some of that. There is a distinction to be made. Now correct me if I am wrong, but it strikes me that there is a distinction to be made between the novels like your 1973 The Priest and 1994's Mom and Dead.

RALPH McINERNY  : Yes. I was trying to do something quite different.

JODY BOTTOM   But why were you trying to do something quite different?

RALPH McINERNY  : No. It is true. One of the attractions, I have to tell you, one of the attractions of writing mysteries is that everybody reads them. The letters that you get about your mysteries are from the whole spectrum of society. You are not writing for a certain class. So that you can -- it's like Greene's entertainments. You're taking melodrama and you're trying to boost it beyond its possibilities, giving things that normally aren't in a thriller and the like. It seems to me now that when I began to write, if you looked at the best seller list, there wasn't a single thriller or mystery mentioned. If you look at them now there's practically nothing else. Now, something has happened, clearly has happened. And I think part of it has been deliberate. This thing that I mentioned -- a lot of writers have steered away from addressing the reader. They are addressing English professors or critics, or somebody else. And they are deliberately writing this sort of very in-need-of-interpretation kind of thing. So they've cut themselves off from this demotic kind of writing that I have been referring to. And that has created schlock. You see all these novels that glow in the dark on planes, you see people with these big chubby things, and if you ever tried to read some of those things, it's punishing. It's as if some roomful of gorillas were given typewriters and they ended up writing a novel of some kind. Now there are, I'm sure, exceptions to that. But they are quite deliberately based at a very low level of just diversion.

JODY BOTTOM   But are we going to blame all of that on the treason of the clerks? Are we going to blame all of that sociological fact?

RALPH McINERNY  : Yes, and the way we are going to do it is by saying that they are not just huddled in Greenwich Village, something like that, but they have infected the educational system in this country all the way down. And you get, reading Flannery O'Connor who was talking about a dispute as to whether some 20th-century novel could be read in high school, and whether it was corrupting of youth and so forth. A very interesting kind of reaction to that, and her idea was, "Look, what kids in high school ought to be reading are not the things that are just coming out. They ought to be reading 19th-century fiction, 20th-century fiction, and so forth, so that when they come to current literature, maybe they are prepared for things that would be a little surprising if they just started there.

JODY BOTTOM   The mention of Flannery O'Connor brings me to one last chance to try to suggest that there is something sociological going on as well as the failure of the novel as an explanatory device. The mention of Flannery O'Connor makes me want to ask you about what happened to Catholic fiction in your lifetime? There was a moment there, in part out of the great waves of conversions, but also in the existence of the Catholic subculture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where it looked like Catholicism was about to capture American literature. It was going to be the place to go for seriousness, whether it was moral seriousness or the gesture of seriousness in popular fiction or intellectual seriousness, which is why Robert Lowell espoused it. And that's the world into which you came as a writer. It changed very, very quickly, I think, from that great set of writers and people like J. F. Powers and Flannery O'Connor. The heirs are two who came in at the end and survived -- you and Mary Gordon.

RALPH McINERNY   What was going on there was, in a very special way, you had a set of criteria for appraising and understanding the actions that were being narrated in the story, so that the notion of sin and not just someone making a mistake and running into misfortune. So this notion of responsibility, beyond this life even, when you think of The End of the Affair, and when you think of The Heart of the Matter, and so forth. These Catholic novels were just -- you know, they put that right on your plate, and it was something that was Catholic, but it wasn't narrowly Catholic. It seems to me that is what Dostoyevsky does for people. At that time, take someone like James Jones who was a very serious kind of writer -- I don't think he had a lot equipment, but what he was looking for was a way of interpreting the events that he put forward. You know, the Pearl Harbor novel, it's really -- it's got something almost inchoative about it. He's looking for some set of principles that will enable him to understand this. And I think it's thin in that regard.

JODY BOTTUM   It's thin.

RALPH McINERNY   And, I think what's this other thing, it brought a deeper sense of moral seriousness.

JODY BOTTUM   Literature was feeling thin even to its own practitioners, and Catholicism seemed to offer a world of thickness.

RALPH McINERNY   I think you could see that in Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock. Here you have two of the most Catholic novels every produced and by a non-Catholic. finding in this specific Catholic outlook some kind of intensified version of what you have to have in fiction and what had been thinning out. Now what happened there, it seems to me, is sociological -- your favorite term. Something happened to the Catholic Church; something happened to Catholics' self-understanding; something happened to their sense of confidence, and it's one of the bad effects, and the unintended effects of Vatican II. And I think there was this departure from any sense of a special viewpoint, or the effort on the part of Catholic writers to write as much like as someone who isn't a Catholic as they could possibility write. So there is this kind of inner betrayal of their own life, just pushing that to one side.

JODY BOTTUM   You wrote a book in 1998 called What Went Wrong with Vatican II. So this gives me the opportunity to put the question: what went wrong with Vatican II?

RALPH McINERNY   Well, I think one has to distinguish between the Council itself and what went wrong. I was in Rome for the Second Extraordinary Synod meeting in 1985, which was on the twentieth anniversary of the close of the Council. That was right after the so-called Ratzinger Report had appeared a few months before. It was the first official recognition that things had gone wrong. There was a discussion of the true and the false spirit of Vatican II. Now in that intervening twenty years, of course, many of us made that claim. But it was just one voice against other voices. But here, it seemed to me, was an official recognition that there had been a use of the Council for purposes very different from what the Council had had in mind.

JODY BOTTUM   Let's distinguish this. What is the use that you saw, the misuse?

RALPH McINERNY   I'm thinking of something that was very widespread. People would say, "Vatican II says . . ." and then fill in the blank. And you get all kinds of outrageous things. And many of the unauthorized and uncontemplated liturgical changes were justified on the basis of Vatican II. That would be kind of a garden-level variety of it. But my own argument in that book was that what happened happened in 1968 with the appearance of Humane Vitae. There had been about a three year interval from the end of the Council until the appearance of that encyclical and the reiteration of the traditional judgment on artificial contraception. During those three years there had seemed to be an open question. There was the commission that had been expanded by Paul VI to advise him on that matter. Originally, the idea was, there was this estrogen pill and the question that was raised was: does this fall under the ban? But as this discussion went on, it was the ban in all its amplitude that was being questioned and discussed. And that commission, as you know, advised that there could be a change in Church teaching on that. The encyclical completely ignored that advice. What happened then was the emergence of something that was absolutely unique in the history of the Church, and that was a tradition of dissent within the Church. There has never been anything like that, where you had a class of theologians defining themselves as the ombudsmen that would intervene between the Magisterium and the people and guard us against the teaching of the Church and, in effect, interpret it out of existence. There was published by the American Catholic Theological Society in 1977 a book that was commissioned in 1972 called Human Sexuality. If you ever want to look at a handbook for the dissolution of Christian morality, that would be it. It's just amazing. All of the elements of Catholic sexual morality, of Christian sexuality morality, were treated in that book and a complete reversal as to what kind of a moral judgment you would put on it. They gave something like six criteria for appraising a human act which were just unbelievable. Is it "other regarding," is it "joyous," and this sort of thing. You could justify anything on that basis, and people did. What happened was that there was this tremendous outcry when Humanae Vitae appeared. And theologians began to see themselves as in opposition to the Magisterium. And to this day it turns on the question of contraception.

JODY BOTTUM   That's the mechanism by which, then, Vatican II went wrong. But why did it go wrong?

RALPH McINERNY   Original sin, maybe? (Both laugh)

JODY BOTTUM   That's one of those things by which one can explain everything.

RALPH McINERNY   There were extenuating circumstances, and I think it has to be said, there was this interval when, in perfectly good faith, people were raising questions about this, and it seemed to be an open question. And that was prolonged for three years after the close of the Council. As I think in retrospect, that was one of the most unfortunate things, because you got this build-up of expectation, and you got people who had committed themselves to the view that it is going to change. Not simply as an opinion of theirs, but it got into teaching, it got into marriage preparation, it got into preaching, it got into the confessional. So that it was almost as if up until noon tomorrow, something is seriously wrong, but at noon tomorrow it is going to be all right. It was a very strange way of looking at human behavior. So,when that did happen and the encyclical came out, I understood. I remember vividly. I was mowing the lawn when Humane Vitae appeared. It's when I said to myself, "This is my material." And the novel I wrote that came out some years later, The Priest, swung around these events of Humane Vitae. Imaginatively and intellectually, it was the moment in post-Conciliar history where things began to unravel. Why did they unravel? If there's any area of human life where we are going to look for a way of not doing what we ought to do, it's in the realm of sexuality, it seems to me. The Christian teaching there is so liberating and fulfilling of one, the sacramental view of marriage is so ennobling, that it just seems to me tragic that this has, if effect, been eroded by this kind of controversy, because what you notice is that people were talking about the relationships between men and women, wives, husbands, parents and children primarily in terms of criteria that were coming from the secular society and not out of our own tradition. It was a matter of being influenced by the culture in which we find ourselves. It's a continuing problem, probably an exacerbated problem with respect to evangelizing.

JODY BOTTUM   Why did you found Crisis Magazine? You and Michael Novak founded Crisis in . . .

RALPH McINERNY   Twenty years ago. Yes, it was twenty years ago.

JODY BOTTUM   Was it in part to address this situation?

RALPH McINERNY   No. It was prompted by the fact that the bishops were then issuing letters on the economy and on national defense which adopted one of several perfectly plausible notions as to how these things should be addressed. It was very much like what the Democratic Party would say about these things. What we wanted to do was to point out that being a Catholic did not entail holding those views. In the bishops' letters they would mention at the end that these were prudential judgments and that it was up to individuals to accept or reject. I found that an odd kind of letter to put out. It is kind of hard to know how seriously they meant this kind of disclaimer at the end, but we took it quite seriously and argued that political liberalism was not entailed by being a Catholic. At that moment it was like this was an important thing to establish. The original title was Catholicism in Crisis. That was the original title of the magazine.

JODY BOTTUM   How does this dissent that you have described, that took over in the theological community, people offering themselves up as representative Catholics and then dissenting from what appears to be Church teaching, how does that differ from, say, you writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying the Pope is wrong on the death penalty?

RALPH McINERNY   I didn't say that. The Pope is right on the death penalty because he has never denied that the State has the right to invoke the death penalty. He's making a prudential point as to whether it's wise in the present circumstances to avail ourselves of that. There might be a very deep analysis of modern culture in terms of his notion of the culture of death that explains that. But there's never been any question, any statement on his part in Evangelium Vitae or in the relevant articles of the Catechism, which were re-written in the light of Evangelium Vitae, which denies that right on the part of the State. It is more, I think, a prudential judgment: is it wise for us now? Just as one could say in the South now, would it be wise to invoke the death penalty in certain circumstances where it looked as if only a certain race was being singled out for this kind of treatment? You might wonder. Maybe there should be a moratorium for a while and think about that. But you are not denying the right. You are questioning the wisdom of the invocation of it.

JODY BOTTUM   Let's talk a little bit about your philosophy. Talk a little bit about natural law and this kind of analysis of moral act. Your first book was Logic of Analogy. It was the first book of all your writing. Why analogy? What's the point of analogy? Why have you kept coming back to it? Three other of your books have the word analogy in the title.

RALPH McINERNY   I think the reason is that it is a whole kind of epistemology. I was mainly interested in the logical dimensions of analogy. What it says to me is this: it's kind of a rock bottom Aristotelian view as to how the human mind works. There are certain things that everybody gets hold of, certain truths, theoretical and practical, that everyone has in their possession, however implicitly, and that what formal philosophy does is to move on from those. These provide us with a set of criteria when they are articulated and teased out of what everyone implicitly knows. They provide us with criteria for appraising philosophical systems, so that when a philosophical system that is radically out of whack, that tells against the system, not about what most people know. I locate natural law in this pre-philosophical awareness of what counts as right and wrong. What it doesn't mean, of course, is that everyone is born with a set of principles in his mind, and they are just explicitly there and you invoke them. What it means is that just as in any argument, theoretical or practical, when two people are talking and they are in disagreement, obviously the fact that they are talking implies some kind of agreement. The language that they are using implies all kinds of agreements about the world in which they are in communication. I think what we are after when we talk about the first principles, whether in the theoretical or the practical order, are not what anyone is likely just to say down at McDonald's if you pinch them or something, but what will come out in any dialectical discussion of a very concrete problem, and that you will find that someone who wants to be an antinomian and somebody who wants to, in the case of the Sophists in antiquity, who wants to say, in effect, what's true for you is true for you and what's true for me is true for me. But this is an incoherent position. You can't even state it coherently without, in effect, denying it. Natural law principles are like that. They emerge out of the interchange of human agents concerned about what we ought to do. The suggestion is sometimes made on the theoretical level that anything goes, or anything you want to do is right for you, and so forth. It won't wash in terms of that kind of discussion. Language which, rightly, has been emphasized by any number of contemporary philosophers is the key. Aristotle, in the Fourth Book of the Metaphysics when he is talking about the defense of the principle of contradiction against the Sophists, finally comes down to language as the rock bottom argument. In order to state the objection, you have to assume that words mean something and not the opposite. So you are invoking the principle of contradiction on the level of signification, at least, in order to talk about it. When we talk about language, it can sound like an overlay of thinking and the like, but when it is used in this fashion, we are talking about vocal expression, knowledge, and what we know. It's the whole package, so that the appeal to language is to get us anchored in the reality that is common to all of us. Natural law is simply that kind of a claim, that there are certain unavoidable recognitions about good and evil that will show up when people argue about some concrete problem.

JODY BOTTUM   Now, Ralph. The structure of speech, conversation, the structure of thought, and the structure of reality -- are these one?

RALPH McINERNY   No, but they are related. That's the great quarrel between Aristotle and Plato as to what comes first and whether there is some kind of one-to-one correspondence between the way in which we know and the way things are. One of the issues of analogy is the way all that gets reversed. In the use of analogical signification to talk about the Divine attributes, for example, we take language terms which have their native habitat and very everyday and ordinary settings, and we already know their meanings and we extrapolate from those, we extend from those, and use them to talk about God. So that from the point of view of the language it looks as if he is the last thing that gets named and that the word applies to him least appropriately. But then when you reflect on the things that you are talking about you realize, though in order to call God wise we have to know what we mean by calling Socrates wise and push on from there, wisdom is found most perfectly in God. So you reverse the order and the last thing named is the first thing in reality.

JODY BOTTUM   This understanding of analogy is the one that the great Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, would call satanic. He would say it is fundamentally anti-Christian.

RALPH McINERNY   Well, what I would say is, "Let's read the parables." Let's go to the gospels and ask ourselves, "How does Our Lord teach?" And he tells stories about very ordinary occurrences. He uses the story about the "Prodigal Son." He is telling this story, and it is about sons and fathers and misbehavior and forgiveness and the like. Obviously, it is more than a story. He is trying to tell us about something else. It is the only way the human mind can work without the move off of things that are close up and easily grasped and extrapolate from them to what is intrinsically more important but more obscure to us. To deny anything like analogy is in effect -- what it leads to, theologically, is fideism because you are just saying: there is this way of talking that belongs with religion and it has no relationship to the way we talk about anything else. That's schizophrenic, it seems to me. I don't think it matches anything like Christianity which is so incarnate. Why did Christ become man? To give us something to look at and listen to. He is sufficiently like us, so that he is showing us what we ought to do. Without that kind of very palpable sensory appeal, the human mind has got nothing to work with and faith would have nothing to pin on to.

JODY BOTTUM   What do American Catholic philosophers do, but non-American Catholic philosophers don't do?

RALPH McINERNY   Well, it would be easy, I suppose, to put it in terms of theology and the influence of American thinking on the Declaration on Religious Liberty of Vatican II with John Courtney Murray's contribution to that. The whole post-French-revolutionary question as to how you work out a pluralist society in terms of people with quite different religious outlooks, without getting into a theocracy, or one side beating up on the other. There had to be, clearly, an appeal to some common base that was more fundamental than the differences among religious believers. Murray's own view of the United States was that the Founders did have, and we should have, a kind of base morality that enabled us to make appraisals about public actions, at least, as to what was in and what was out, what was acceptable, what was not, but that did not appeal overtly to any religious criteria. It is a very powerful argument that he makes. It is, I would say, a natural law argument, saying there are certain principles of right and wrong that go beyond the mere banalities -- that you can arrive at agreement among human beings just because of what they are and the way things are. These are short of explicitly religious or supernatural beliefs. That's always been the Catholic point of view. You can look at any moral encyclical and there are two stories: there's the natural law appeal to anyone, to any interested observer, and then to Catholics specifically. Now, what has made that difficult is the apparent disappearance, at least in certain notable instances, like that dreadful Kennedy decision, the mystery clause, where people are, in effect, denying that there is anything like a substantive morality that is shared by citizens of this country. And then the question is: how in the world do you have anything like a society? Kennedy in that awful decision suggests that we have a constitutional right to define reality as we want.

JODY BOTTUM   This the Casey vs. Planned Parenthood decision?

RALPH McINERNY   Yeah. It is private. You have your view. I have my view. It goes back to Protagoras. That's chaotic, quite clearly, I think, incoherent. No one is consistent, and neither is Justice Kennedy, so in subequent decisions he adopts the opposite of that viewpoint. What's disruptive, I think, is that you have, at least on the level of theory this notion. You get it in Rorty also. There is just nothing to underpin in reality judgments as to right or wrong, or being or non-being, for that matter. It is only a pragmatic kind of decision that would be made. Well, I don't know what pragmatism would mean if you don't have any underlying basis.

JODY BOTTUM   You conceive of Catholic philosophers as bringing some understanding of the underlying basis?

RALPH McINERNY   We should have. What you've got in, say, the heyday of Catholic philosophy, people like Jacques Maritain, and his Walgreen lectures on Man and the State, which, if I'm not mistaken, came after his participation in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. He was the French Ambassador to the session in the Mexico City meeting that put that together. In Man and the State Maritain is asking himself -- you can put it this way -- "What is the relationship between natural law as it had traditionally been spoken of and discussed on the one hand and natural rights on the other?" They seem on the face of it to be quite different. What Maritain did, and what John Finnis does in his book Natural Law, Natural Rights, is to come up with an argument that, in effect, makes them complementary to one another. Rights are sort of the flip side of duties and vice versa. Now, it seems to me, one the problems with a solution like that is that it is very satisfying for the one who makes it, (laughing) who could show how he can accommodate, but if you look at radical proponents of rights theory, they are not going to accept this. They couldn't. It is an odd kind of solution that isn't a solution for the addressee, but only for the addresser. That doesn't make it any less true, but from the point of view of efficaciousness it is a sort of disconnect.

JODY BOTTUM   Your theory of natural law, the theory that you have worked out in books like Ethica Thomistica and that you seem to be holding here -- how is it possible that people do not know the natural law? There are Catholic philosophers or philosophers of natural law that think, well, everybody knows at some level and only an act of willfulness will pretend that you didn't know.

RALPH McINERNY   Sometimes the claim seems to be that everyone holds a given theory or account of natural law, and that is pretty counter-intuitive. I mean, you could come up with all kinds of instances where that doesn't seem to be the case. You hold that there are certain self-evident principles of practical reason. Ask anyone that, and they might say, "I never thought about it." But if you begin to talk about it -- Augustine puts it: many people who wanted to deceive but none who wanted to be deceived. Now you would think they would latch on to things like that. And you ask yourself, what does that tell you about a common and shared view about human behavior? That's the kind of thing that would enable you to get to the implicit awareness of natural law principles as opposed to a theoretical account of that, which can take any number of different forms, not all of them adequate. But you get different theories of natural law. And you get different explanations of the Thomistic theory of natural law, as well. But we are all talking about the same thing. And what we are talking about is what I tried to indicate: in the crunch when real agents discussing, arguing, about what ought to be done, it's not the case that anything goes. And you want to know what are the things that don't go. You don't have to formulate all these, you don't have to make a list of them. It's a sort of implicit possibility of people living together and communicating together.

JODY BOTTUM   Ralph, at the beginning of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, the very beginning, the first couple of sentences, dismisses with enormous impatience the idea that anything having to do with the metaphysical question, logical questions of freedom of the human will, has anything to do with the topic he is going to take up: the question of human liberty, meaning political liberty. He dismisses the idea that those might be linked topics with a great brio of impatience and launches into his famous, by some much disliked, much praised, account of political liberty. Is he right to do so or isn't much of your work an argument that he is wrong to do so.

RALPH McINERNY   No, I don't think so, because it seems to me that if you argued that somebody has to articulate a metaphysical theory about freedom and so forth before you even talked about what he ought to do, obviously that would seem very bizarre, and he would be right to say that that doesn't come before what I want to talk about. But there is something British about it, too. You know, disdaining theory and that kind of thing. So part of is, I think, contingent, but there is something right about it as well. I want to be careful, I don't want to say that you could really have an adequate moral theory without theism. But I think you can have the thing that we are talking about without these overt appeal to theoretical issues on another level.

JODY BOTTUM   Could you have an adequate politics? A politics of liberty in a world that disbelieved in freedom of the human will?

RALPH McINERNY   I don't see how, because otherwise what you would be saying is -- well, what would you be saying? That the whole thing is determined? That would be a usual kind of complaint against Marxism, that this is inevitable, (laughs) that if you were having this inevitable change taking place in history, well, why work for it? It's going to happen or not. Simenon, the mystery writer, was a determinist in his own views. I always thought what a strange thing for a mystery writer to be. Well, it seems to me that he is not at all consistent with that theory in his novels. It seems to me, too, that somebody might call himself a determinist, a lot of people have, but it is rather hard to live like one. It would be almost impossible to live in community on a determinist basis. We are constantly asking one another: what is the basis -- ethical question -- why are you doing that? Why are you doing that? The assumption is that you might have done otherwise. You are responsible. You are answerable for what you do. Now, if we try to avoid that by invoking a kind of subterranean theory according to which this is all illusory and we're really being determined. That's theoretical. It seems to me that what you start with is this recognition of responsibility and freedom, and the theory is going to fall because it is out of whack with that. There is a sense in which freedom is a self-evident truth: you don't prove it. It is one of those things with which you begin. So, consequently, if somebody denies it, what you do is not establish its truth so much as show that the denial is untenable. It seems to me that's what I would do with determinist theory. It might take a while. (Laughs)

JODY BOTTUM   Ralph, you said once or twice or probably many times that you are an Aristotelian because you are a Thomist. You feel connected to the world of Greek philosophy because you spent your life as a scholar and thinker on Saint Thomas Aquinas. What does that mean?

RALPH McINERNY   Well, Thomas Aquinas commented on twelve of the treatises of Aristotle, and he did this late in his career. He did it not in his normal, magisterial function as a theologian: this was a kind of moonlighting in a way. He started in 1268 with his commentary on the De Anima, and he stopped writing in 1273. So you have six years. If he had done nothing but these he would have been a busy man, but then he went back to Paris for a second stint as a professor and was caught up in all kinds of quarrels, the Latin Averroism, and so forth, and wrote all kinds of things other than these commentaries. They clearly are related to that Latin Averroist controversy. Is Aristotle inimical to or supportive of Christian belief? But the commentaries themselves -- one of the great benefits of [my] having gone to Laval was that the commentaries by Thomas on Aristotle were taken with extreme seriousness. This doesn't characterize every species of Thomist in the 20th century and beyond. I count that as one of the great blessings on my training to have seen that. And now you get the strangest tributes to these commentaries. Martha Nussbaum saying that the commentary on the De Anima of Thomas is is one of the most perceptive that she knows, and so on. So, they are important for Aristotelians. This is the point I am making. They are not simply Thomas using Aristotle in the commentaries to say things other than what the text is saying. They are efforts to understand the text itself.

JODY BOTTUM   The reason I asked the question is because there are those who want to insist that if you would raise Catholic issues and Christian themes and even natural theology, much less real theology, in a philosophical context, you have ceased to be philosophers. You need, somehow, Aristotle without Thomas Aquinas.

RALPH McINERNY   Well, part of that -- there is a long discussion that has gone on in this country for quite a while now on the whole notion of Christian philosophy. Can Christians be philosophers? You get on the part of some people this very secularized notion that in order to be a philosopher, you have to be at least agnostic, if not denying of your religious belief. If you are not open in this sense, you are simply not following the question where it goes. It seems to me you make the distinction between the atmosphere within which you do your philosophical work and the substantive arguments that you devise. Any philosophical argument, if persuasive, has to be persuasive to the believer and non-believer. But the setting of the believer very definitely influences the way in which his thinking goes, and the kinds of things that he is going to look for arguments for. This is true of anyone. The idea that anyone comes to philosophy without any antecedent belief, without any convictions, that he just dropped out of the sky someplace and began to ask "What is Being?", is just bizarre. The only difference, it seems to me, is that it is easier to identify what the presuppositions of the believing philosopher are than those of the non-believing philosopher.

JODY BOTTUM   But the analytic tradition wouldn't say you drop out of the sky as a babe newborn; they would say by very careful training you eliminate your prejudices, you eliminate this. To say other, that is a little bit unfair.

RALPH McINERNY   Okay. But you have to know French or Latin and so forth.

JODY BOTTUM   Is that really the answer?

RALPH McINERNY   Oh, I think so. It sounds facetious, but it isn't. The idea that you can somehow redefine yourself ab ovo and by means of methodic doubt, and so forth, eradicate all your belief is bogus, and all you have to do is notice that someone is writing French or Latin to tell you that, and ask yourself what are the presuppositions that come from communicating in French or Latin. Then the thing begins to wobble.

JODY BOTTUM   So how then do we distinguish? What is the proper distinction between philosophy and theology?

RALPH McINERNY   The kinds of arguments they formulate. The arguments in theology are intrinsically dependent on revealed truth. If you do not accept those revealed truths, those arguments cannot be a vehicle of truth for you. You might be able to analyze them logically and so forth, but you are not going to come to some new truth from the premisses because you do not hold them to be true; whereas a philosophical argument is based on what is, in principle, knowable to any human being.

JODY BOTTUM   Including God? Including, ranging up to some philosophical use of God?

RALPH McINERNY   Oh, yes. But the thing is, that when you talk about God, you are going to be using principles which are available to any human being, believer or not. That will be the difference in the arguments. But when you talk about philosophizing, you are talking about a lot more than the nature of the arguments. The ambience, the culture, the assumptions out of which we reason and argue, and in which we live our lives, are very influential on the arguments that we formulate and the questions that we raise, the things that we take to be important. Believers are different from non-believers in that regard, and better for it (smiles).

JODY BOTTUM   Ralph, on his death bed a French Catholic philosopher, writer, once suggested that the only sadness is not to have been a saint. Looking back over your life that's the only sadness. Now, it has the feel of one of those French exaggerations. But I want to ask you about this. Does the life of a philosopher deepen as the years go by?

RALPH McINERNY   No, that's Leon Bloy and that's the tremendous ending of The Woman Who Was Poor, and that's one of those great French novels. He was Jacques Maritain's godfather, and through Maritain, he became known to a lot of us in that novel which Sheed & Ward published in translation and was read by people my age with great avidity. How could you fail to be moved by that kind of summation of what human life is all about? One of the great benefits of being a Catholic philosopher is that you should find it extremely difficult to separate off the aims of the intellectual life from the larger aims of being a Christian. My great model, of course, is Thomas Aquinas, where you have this fusion of great intellectual talent and achievements with great sanctity, and any Catholic intellectual, I think, this is the great role that Maritain played. He was a kind of model of putting together the life of the mind and the life of the spirit. We shouldn't lose that. That's another aspect of the sadness of the academy. We are all failed clerks in the academy, in a clerk of Oxenford sense, and to have lost the sense of the relationship of what we are doing for the pursuit of truth to these wider and larger questions is tragic. But it is an occupational hazard for intellectuals to lose their bearings and to lose the sense of why they are doing what they are doing.

JODY BOTTUM   Ralph, thank you so much for joining us and discussing these questions in your work and life.

RALPH McINERNY   Jody, you are a patient man. You are a patient man.