Notre Dame Professor Ralph McInerny was called home to the Lord yesterday morning. He was 80, and had spent more than 50 years as a Philosophy professor there, and became one of our nation’s leading Thomists. He was given an endowed chair the same year i was born. He directed the Jacques Maritain Center and the Medieval Institute, and served as a visiting professor for universities around the world, including here in Rome. In addition to his two dozen scholarly books, he has authored something like eighty novels. He co-founded Crisis magazine, the standard bearer of conservative Catholicism in the U.S. for years, and was still writing articles when President Obama gave the commencement address at Our Lady’s University last year.
Though he was teaching throughout my time under the Golden Dome, I never had him for a class. In part, this was because I paid more attention to my theology major than my philosophy major (by a ratio of 2:1), and he did not teach the required philosophy courses. Partially, it was because he was so popular with some of my Knights of Columbus colleagues and other philo majors, that I felt like I was taking a seminar with him anyway, just from our conversations! I did hear him speak on several occasions, and had a few conversations with him outside the lecture hall.
The most memorable was actually after I graduated from Notre Dame, and was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America. The Theology Students Association hosted a series of guest lecturers throughout the year, and Prof. McInerny was invited during my second year. As one of four or five officers – the only one not a priest or seminarian at that time – I was invited to dinner before the lecture with the Professor and the other officers. I do not recall the topic of his lecture, for what impressed me most was the conversation over dinner. He is a tribute to a different kind of Catholic, a different generation, “old school” in a positive way – a living reminder that a great man’s followers usually lack his balance.
One of the first questions asked by one of the seminarians was about Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC, who had served as president of Notre Dame for 35 years, starting just three years before Ralph McInerny was hired as an instructor in philosophy in 1955. They were practically salivating to get the “inside scoop” from this icon of neo-conservative Catholicism on the ‘archliberal’ priest-president who lead Notre Dame and much of American Catholicism through the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council. I had never before felt such palpable ill-will by Catholics to a priest, especially one of such prominence and accomplishment (yes, I was still a young and naïve 24!).
“We are good friends. We do not always agree, but he is a good priest, and I have nothing but respect for the man.”
Silence. Slack jaws. And some little monster inside of me shouting “yes!” in a fit of indignant righteousness.
He offered such a contrast to my own generation, wherein the different schools of thought, philosophies, ecclesiologies, interpretations of tradition or scripture have hardened in such a way that the other is not only ‘other’ but has become the enemy – vile and to be despised. It is the oldest trick in the book, divide and conquer! If we are really striving for continuity in tradition, why not embrace the idea that we can disagree without being disagreeable, like Ralph McInerny and Ted Hesburgh? Is that too passé?
Professor McInerny was a prolific researcher and teacher, and I have not agreed with everything I have heard from him or from those he has taught, but I have a profound respect for him, and was honored to have made his acquaintance. He was an important part of the spirit of Notre Dame.