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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.
Today is the feast of San Tommaso d’Aquino, patron of my current university, of academics and theologians everywhere. Unfortunately, as I was trying to beat a cold, I was unable to get to the celebration of our Patronal Feast at the Angelicum this morning, with Archbishop Agustin DiNoia, OP, but a friar friend has put some photos up on the university blog, so check them out!
I have never claimed to be a Thomist per se, for as one of my first university philosophy professors said, “If you are going to be a Thomist, you have to be a damn good one.” I am fascinated by the Angelic Doctor, but I see him as one (important) contributor to the Catholic, Christian theological tradition, rather than devoting all of my studies to him and his works, which is what it would take to be a “damn good” Thomist.
Truth be told, though, even that would not be enough – I am not convinced Thomas would approve of such narrowed focus! He was, after all, the Great Synthesizer, and did not hesitate to use a variety of Christian sources, as well as Jewish, Muslim and pagan ones.
When I was an undergraduate, I had a friend who was studying medieval philosophy, almost exclusively with the late Ralph McInerny – who is a Thomist. He and I would have many long debates some of which revolved around the maxim of the Papal Theologian: “Never mix philosophy and theology, because philosophy always wins!” My friend felt that, as a medieval philosophy with a particular focus, he was therefore an adept theologian. As a theologian with a much broader view of Tradition, I often had to remind him that this was not the case! No matter how profound and how great the tradition, no one theologian encompasses the whole of Catholic theology, much less the attendant pastoral, liturgical, historical and other issues that interact with theology in the lived experience of the Church.
As a theologian and student, his peers dubbed him the “Dumb Ox” – dumb as in mute – to which Albertus Magnus supposedly retorted, “That ‘dumb ox’ will one day fill the world with his bellowing!” Thomas was no quick wit. He would not have made it as official Catholic commentator on Fox News or CNN. He was big, slow to move and slow to speak, and as with any good introvert, would fix you with a stare in response to unexpected questions that probably left less astute contemporaries wondering if he really was all that bright. He is an inspiration to any systemitizing introvert who has been caught in the spotlight by “think out loud” extravert peers!
As a candidate for patron of “new” vocations, consider his story:
According to his father, the Count of Aquino, Thomas was going to be groomed as the Abbot of Montecassino, an old, established, and wealthy Benedictine Abbey not too far from Rome. This was the normal sort of ecclesial vocation of his era – monastic life. It was how you served the church successfully. It was expected. It was “just the way things were done”. You want to serve the church? Fine, join the monastery.
But he would have none of it. At 19 he ran off to join some newfangled wannabes who were kind of like monks, but not really monks – and I doubt the real monastics would have been too happy if you called these mendicant friars “monks”! They had only been around for 40 years. They did not spend their time at the monastery but wandered around the countryside preaching, teaching, and doing God-only-knows what else that was properly the ministry of monks and diocesan clergy.
This was not right!! How dare they? So, his family did the only respectable thing to do – they arranged for him to be rescued from this cult, threw him in a locked room and commenced a serious deprogramming effort.
A year later, he remained committed to his vocation. He was called to serve the church, clearly, just not in the way that his parents and grandparents generations took for granted. It looked a little different. The charism was a little different. New terminology had to be used to explain it. There were bishops who did not support it. People worried about the confusion of identity of traditional monastic life – of monks and nuns – with this itinerant innovation of mendicant life – these friars. Even a few years later, after being ordained in this “new order”, he spent time writing defense of the vocation he was living. Some critics argued that real ministers would be spending their time in prayer and sacramental service, not defending and defining a “new” vocation!
The parallels to the present age, to lay ecclesial ministry and even to the restoration of a real diaconate, are overwhelming! (Though, I admit I am not aware of any pastoral associate being kidnapped by family to consider the diocesan presbyterate or religious life instead.) We are 50 years into the present form of lay ecclesial ministry in the U.S., and it never ceases to amaze me how much suspicion, ignorance, misunderstanding and outright vitriol is out there. I completely understand this minister’s plea, “Don’t dis lay ecclesial ministry!”
St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of “new” vocations, pray for us!