Ralph McInerny, Teacher and Friend

Ralph McInerny, Teacher and Friend

Feb 24, 1929-January 29, 2010

In the fall of 1972, I sat in a classroom under the golden dome; a newly declared philosophy major, I looked forward to a class on ancient and medieval philosophy. Ralph McInerny strode in and sat in front of the professor’s desk. That calm earnestness about the task of philosophy combined with a joyous wit characterized his presence in that first encounter and such a presence marks my memories of him over numerous years of association. We used his own History of Western Philosophy, now available online at the Maritain Center (click here). The next year I took another class from him on the thought of Aquinas, which later became the book, A First Glance at St Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists. Combining the exposition of texts, historical context, clear thinking, logical arrangement, homespun examples, with the goal of wisdom always in view – Ralph was the consummate teacher. With more than thirty years of teaching experience, I can say that I still aspire to be like him in the classroom.

Devotion to Thomas Aquinas and Catholic faith was a natural part of his persona and repertoire. It was during the semester that I was enrolled in the Aquinas class (Spring 1974) that he was named to the Pontifical Academy of Thomas Aquinas. I remember the pride he took in the appointment and the joy with which he planned his trip to Rome. I approached him after one class prior to his trip and expressed my disappointment that he would be absent from class for over a week. He looked me in the eye and assured me that students in Europe did not need such hand-holding – “go read your Thomas.” I took the opportunity to read his Thomism in an Age of Renewal and began to get some glimmer of the battles that he undertook for the wholeness of truth and the authentic renewal of the Church. Earnest and witty, learned and spirited, McInerny made the case for Thomas and the Catholic tradition with aplomb. He would later write What Went Wrong with Vatican II in the same style. I cannot think of two better books for understanding the role of the Catholic intellectual after Vatican II. In addition, he launched Crisis magazine (for which he asked me to serve as a writer and board member) and Catholic Dossier.

He organized Thomistic Summer Institutes and Basics of Catholicism workshops; I attended a number of the Summer Institutes. There are many good papers on Pope John Paul II and on Thomas Aquinas available here. We felt like a clan, a tribe of Thomists, blessed by good fortune to have such an illustrious chief in the likes of Ralph McInerny. (The picture for this blog was taken around 1999 at such an Institute) The fight was always confident and joyful, not bitter; the weeklong meetings were both pious and rollicking; and he presided over some marvelous intellectual conversations and debate, many of which are available still on line and in books on Augustine Press. And the circle spread out far and wide — Neuhaus seminars, Liberty Fund, American Maritain Association, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, American Catholic Philosophical Association – Ralph was a constant and engaging participant, always a friendly face, and eminently a witty conversationalist.

Not only the scholar and teacher, the spokesman and chief – Ralph was a personal mentor for many young Thomists, including myself and my brother. We always felt that he took a personal concern for our lives, families and careers. We shared a love for the Church, the Marine Corps (our father was career Marine who died in Vietnam), and Thomistic philosophy. My brother Russ and I would often be invited to the various events mentioned above, and on different occasions one or the other of us could not attend. Quick on the draw, Ralph quipped at a Neuhaus seminar that I was “the designated Hittinger” for that day, a phrase he would always use thereafter whenever one of us was not in attendance.

He would often have some affectionate play on words for many of the young scholars – I remember once at a conference Ralph and I were at the table with Father Canavan and Regis Factor, a professor at the University of South Florida, who died of ALS in 1999; Regis was conveying to us some discouragement he was facing at his institution and Ralph banged the table and exclaimed – “But they have underestimated the ‘Regis Factor’.” Regis was perhaps an overly serious young man, so Ralph would say it a few more times and at last Regis quietly smiled and beamed with the encouragement. My own professional career owes much to Ralph’s personal intervention. My first conference presentation was delivered at Notre Dame for the American Maritain Association concurrent session at the annual meeting in 1983 because Ralph proposed my name to the program chair, Sister Mary Clark. I prepared by reading and annotating everything written by Maritain on political philosophy. “A Prologomena to any future critique of ‘Bourgeois Liberalism’” I entitled my paper. Ralph sat in the front row. He shook my hand afterward and encouraged me to publish it – it appeared in This World along side a piece by Allan Bloom. Ralph’s advice to me as a young scholar was to get around and show your stuff – “show them some leg,” he said. Ralph was truly a man in the world, but not of the world. I still relish that piece of advice for its wit and wisdom.

Over the years I worked on various projects and conferences with Ralph. His initiative for the International Catholic University is truly remarkable. See it here. I did a few of the courses along with numerous other Catholic scholars.

I served as Vice-President while he was President of the American Maritain Association. We held some terrific conferences on the Vocation of Philosophy (the papers from this conference are soon to be published) and on the Philosophy of Nature. Perhaps the proudest moment of my association with Ralph McInerny was at one of these Maritain conferences. A special meeting brought me together with Ralph and John McGreevy, now Dean at Notre Dame, for a “meet the author” session. My book under consideration was Liberty, Wisdom and Grace and Ralph’s was The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain, and McGreevy’s was Catholicism and American Freedom. Ralph’s book is perhaps his best of all on the vocation of Catholic philosophy; add it to the list of essential reading for appreciating the McInerny legacy. I am also proud of the connection with Ralph and Jude Dougherty by being considered along with them in an article by Nicholas Capaldi, “Jacques Maritain: La Vie Intellectualle,” published in 2004 in the Review of Metaphysics (Vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 399-421). It may be accessed here.

Ralph McInerny was for me the best hope of Notre Dame. He sang with full throated ease of the beauty of the Catholic mind and Catholic culture.

-John Hittinger, ND ’74

Here is a post by my friend Fred Freddoso on the ND paper, The Rover

See also the recollections on the Catholic Thing

The New York Times obituary.

1 Comment
  1. Absolutely beautiful, John. Thanks for this.

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