“The Catholic faith is the best thing that ever happened to the human race.”
In a lecture given on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 7 in Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Hall, Notre Dame philosophy Professor David Solomon recounted the life and works of Ralph McInerny, the late philosopher-novelist-poet and professor emeritus of the university.
The evening’s lecture was the first in a four part Catholic Culture Literature series entitled “Strangers in a Strange Land,” an initiative of the Notre Dame Center of Ethics and Culture.” The purpose of the series is “to inspire Notre Dame undergraduate students to read and appreciate the work of these great Catholic luminaries as invaluable to their Catholic formation.”
As a personal friend and colleague of McInerny for more than 40 years, Solomon was able to give an authoritative and unique glimpse into this amazing man’s life. He related the story of his first day in South Bend when he and his wife were picked up by McInerny and his wife at the train station.
It was their first, and quite memorable, meeting. Said Solomon, “We had a long and boozy evening that night, which was extended when we were invited back to the McInerny house on Portage Ave. for even more conversation.” It was the beginning of a long friendship between McInerny and Solomon.
Their friendship was unlikely given that Solomon was hired to be the “anti-Ralph.” McInerny was one of the leading Thomistic philosophers of the 20th century and had been hired in 1955 as part of an effort to build a department that was firmly rooted in the neo-scholastic revival in philosophy, launched by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879).
He was expected to bring new energy and new ideas to Notre Dame in the vein of that revival. McInerny was an unusual Thomist because of his interest in nineteenth century German philosopher Sorin Kirkegaard, as well as in modernist literature.
The philosophy department at that time was overwhelmingly Catholic. Solomon was only the third non-Catholic to be hired before 1968 and described himself as an “off-the-shelf analytic philosopher,” as innocent of any real understanding of Catholicism as one could be.
Despite their original differences in faith and philosophy, Solomon and McInerny shared three interests on which their friendship would grow: a deep interest in literature, especially the novel; an influence from Aristotelian philosophers; and a strong belief that philosophical reflection was inevitably related to one’s attitude toward religious belief.
David described McInerny as the only “professional philosopher [and] significant professional novelist.” Commenting on McInerny’s motivation for writing novels at such a productive rate, Solomon half-jokingly explained that it was in large part for financial gain, saying, “Ralph was not embarrassed to be paid for his novels.”
McInerny wrote two books in the 1960s, eleven in the 1970s, 22 in the 1980s, 28 in the 1990s, and 28 in the 2000s. His works ranged from significant philosophical works, to mystery novels, to “serious” novels.
Among his philosophical works was an important discourse on The Logic of Analogy (1961), as well as superb defenses of St. Thomas against contemporary critics. His mystery novels include the famous Father Dowling Mysteries, the Notre Dame novels, and more recently, The Rosary Chronicles, which were a response to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. As Solomon articulated, “It had the same type of mad hopelessness: murderers inside the Vatican, bad theology, bad history- showing that Catholics can do it too.”
McInerny’s first breakthrough novel, Jolly Rogerson (1967), is counted among his more “serious” novels, along with The Priest (1973), which was “an attempt to capture… the spirit of the church in America in the late 60s, early 70s after the dispute about Humanae Vitae and the revolt of the theologians.”
Solomon concluded his talk by noting that “one of the most remarkable features of Ralph’s life…is the continuity of religious belief, philosophical orientation and moral commitment throughout his life.” While most philosophers want to be liberated from their past and grow into their future, there is a smoothness of development, free from any distinct breaks or departures which characterizes not only McInerny’s career but his life as well.
A short while before his death, McInerny asked Solomon to bring him a copy of St. Louis de Montfort’s The Secret of the Rosary, which he had bought with money received on his eleventh birthday. Solomon was struck by the idea that a man as learned as McInerny was asking in the last months of his life for the same book the 11 year old Ralph had meditated on those many years ago. From Solomon’s perspective, “He must have forged his identity pretty early.”
Ralph McInerny left behind a giant legacy centered on that identity, a legacy based not only on his contributions to the philosophical landscape of the twentieth century, or on his many novels, but most especially on his deep and abiding loyalty to the Church, its teachings and Christ through Our Lady.
Dean Masuda is a junior philosophy major. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.