Ralph M. McInerny was not all things to all men, but he came uncommonly close. Scholar, teacher, author of mystery novels and serious philosophical works, controversialist, Christian gentleman — these were a few aspects of his many-faceted personality during a long and distinguished career.
Appropriately enough, McInerny died Jan. 29, the day after the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, his intellectual mentor and model. He was 80. Appropriately, too, his funeral Mass was celebrated in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, an institution he deeply loved, loyally served for more than half a century, and often criticized in his latter years for actions he judged inimical to its Catholic identity.
McInerny, Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies at Notre Dame and director of its Jacques Maritain Center, began teaching philosophy there in 1955 and retired last June.
A former student of his said: “He called forth the best from us by seeing it in us before we did. Most of all perhaps he provided a living model of a philosopher, a mentor, and a man who embodied virtues and commitments that inspired us all.”
Astonishingly, McInerny wrote more than 80 books. Of his philosophical works, “Aquinas and Analogy” (CUA Press, $14.95) is considered perhaps the most significant. His puckish sense of humor was visible even when he wrote about philosophy, as when he titled one volume “A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists” (University of Notre Dame Press, $18). Often, too, he wrote as a controversialist, publishing books critical of aberrations in the Church since the Second Vatican Council and of attacks on Pope Pius XII for supposedly being insensitive to Jews.
As an author, however, he was familiar to the general public largely for mystery novels. Best known were 29 Father Dowling mysteries about a crime-solving priest, which provided the basis for an ABC television series. Among other works of fiction, his 1973 novel “The Priest” was a best-seller.
McInerny’s prodigious output was the product of a vast capacity for hard work and huge self-discipline. Someone who once attended a conference with him recalls that after the midday break he said that, having put in his stint on the program during the morning, he was now going upstairs to his room. His companion assumed this meant going upstairs to make phone calls and take a nap. No, he explained it meant getting back to his writing.
McInerny received his doctorate from Laval University in Quebec and taught for a year at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., before coming to Notre Dame. He and his wife had seven children. He was a member of President George W. Bush’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appeared often in the national media, with author and scholar Michael Novak founded Crisis magazine, and published hundreds of articles both popular and scholarly.
Devotee and critic
He was devoted to Notre Dame. A friend recalls visiting there the first time and, as a stranger, being welcomed warmly by McInerny and given a personal tour of the campus. He remembers little else about the occasion except his guide’s evident pride in a place he loved.
Presumably it was with heavy heart that McInerny in recent years became a public critic of Notre Dame. His criticism peaked last March in an essay taking exception to the university’s decision to award an honorary degree to President Barack Obama despite his support for legal abortion.
“The invitation to Barack Obama is far from being the usual effort of the university to get into contact with the power figures of the day. It is an unequivocal abandonment of any pretense at being a Catholic university,” he wrote. “Lip service may be paid to the teaching on abortion, but it is no impediment to the truly vulgar lust to be welcomed into secular society, whether on the part of individuals or institutions.”
Ralph McInerny himself often was welcomed in that way, but there was nothing vulgar about him.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.