Dr. Ralph McInerny, an internationally acclaimed scholar who was for 55 years one of Notre Dame’s most beloved and influential teachers, died on Friday, January 29 at age 80. The feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, to whose work Dr. McInerny had devoted so much of his life, had just passed.
Dr. McInerny was first of all a loving husband and father, but he was also a cherished friend and advisor to countless colleagues, friends and students, a trenchant commentator on social and cultural issues of the day, a faithful Catholic with a deep understanding of the Church, and both a champion and, in later years, also a critic of his beloved Notre Dame. Sycamore Trust was among the grateful beneficiaries of his support and counsel.
It would be futile for us to attempt here a description of Dr. McInerny’s vast academic and literary outlet – as scholar, poet, and author of novels, poems, and detective series – or to list his innumerable awards and lectures and enterprises. We refer you instead to a warm and illuminating tribute by one of Dr. McInerny’s most prominent students, Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.
For those concerned about Notre Dame’s deepening secularization and widening separation from the Church, Dr. McInerny has been a sure guide, and his insights leave a rich legacy. Dr. Hibbs, a Sycamore Trust board member and close friend of Dr. McInerny, was well aware of Dr. McInerny’s anxiety about his university. Dr. Hibbs writes:
Ralph’s life and career will always be enmeshed with the university he loved…He was of course deeply chagrined at the direction of the University. The concerns about Notre Dame’s Catholic identity have become very public in the past few years with the administration’s decision to elevate the tawdry Vagina Monologues to the status of great art and to award an honorary degree to a pro-abortion president….Even prior to that, Ralph objected to hiring practices that focused exclusively on “academic” criteria and rendered irrelevant knowledge of, and sympathy for, the Catholic faith and intellectual tradition. For Ralph, the accelerating abandonment of things Catholic at Notre Dame was the direct result of a craven quest for success understood in conventional, and often quite secular, terms.
Dr. McInerny’s autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped To Tell You (Notre Dame 2006), is a special gift to all his friends and admirers. It is an engaging account of an extraordinary life, and it should be required reading for those who want an unsparing, but not entirely despairing, look at Catholic education at Notre Dame. One meets, for example, the philosophy professor who “announced in a departmental meeting that, since he regarded Catholicism as false, he had a moral obligation to disabuse his students of their faith.” More generally, Dr. McInerny deplored the near demise of scholastic philosophy. “Our departments of philosophy now have a majority of members for whom what I have been saying would be as unintelligible as it doubtless would at Meatball Tech.” But near the close of the book Dr. McInerny celebrates “a renaissance of sorts among undergraduates, young people who cannot accept that education at Notre Dame should be indistinguishable from that at secular universities.”
Most recently, the Obama episode triggered Dr. McInerney’s blistering criticism of those responsible, on the one hand, and his unstinting praise of the small band of protesting students and faculty, on the other.
He characterized the honoring of President Obama as “a deliberate thumbing of the collective nose at the Roman Catholic Church to which Notre Dame purports to be faithful,” and declared that while “lip service may be paid to the teaching on abortion, ” this is “no impediment to the truly vulgar lust to be welcomed into secular society.” It was the objecting students, he wrote, who “stood tall and retained clarity of mind” in leading supporting faculty and alumni and friends in prayerful protest on the west mall and at the Grotto.
Still, he held out hope that this episode, because so shocking, might unexpectedly do some good.
If the Obama invitation has stirred such passionately prayerful reaction from an heroic band of students, from alumni and Catholics across the country, and – mirable dictu – from more than seventy bishops it may prove to be providential…
For our part, we have treasured Dr. McInerny’s endorsemebt, and we pledge to do our best to live up to his description of Sycamore Trust as “a model of calm and reasonable yet unrelenting friendly questioning of events on the South Bend campus.”
We close our recollection of this great man with the words of another of our Board members, Rev. John J. Raphael, SSJ, upon hearing of Dr. McInerny’s death:
“Though a sad day for the Church Militant, the Church Triumphant rejoices!”
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