On Saturday, a banquet was held in Washington, D.C., to mark the establishment of a new center for Thomistic studiesa center named after America's best-known Thomist, Ralph McInerny. It's hard to imagine anyone more deserving of the honor. In a recent issue of FIRST THINGS, McInerny published "The Writing Life," a recollection of his career as a novelist. That essay now forms one chapter of his fascinating autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, published just in time to coincide with the founding of the new Ralph McInerny Center.
Introducing Ralph at the banquet was Michael Novak, who offered this tribute to his longtime friend and collaborator:
Winston Churchill was once swaying gently back and forth on a train, reading a newspaper, when he came upon a notice in a printed box, from which he immediately read aloud to his companion: "Three doctors from Birmingham reported yesterday that during a lifetime of normal span, the average Englishman who takes at least a brandy and soda per day probably consumes enough brandy to fill an entire railway car." Touching his companion's shoulder, Churchill turned his head to study the full dimensions of the railway car, and settled back with a sigh: "So much to do, so little time."
That is what future graduate students will say, when told that to complete their theses on the life and work of Ralph McInerny they will have to read all his writings. First of all, they will discover that it requires three single-spaced pages just to list all his academic appointments, honors, and organizational officesand if one adds just the names of the magazines and reviews he has written for (not counting the articles) that would take another eight or ten pages, in more than a score of languagesand still he has been overheard to look around at empty bookcases, muttering "So much to do, so little time."
In the beginning, Ralph McInerny needed to write. As he and his Connie tried to provide a transportation service for their six children at Creighton and then Notre Dame in their younger days, Ralph discovered the biting need to raise money for tuitions. To keep the wolf from the door, Ralph decided to learn to write income. He put a little sign over his desk in the basement, to remind himself every night as he sat down before a blank piece of paper: "NO ONE OWES YOU A READING." If you want their money, you have to earn their attention and their desire.
And so, slowly, he learned to write short stories for the few magazines that pay enough to help. It took several years to learn the skilland to see the incomeand a lot of patience from the very skeptical, commonsensical woman named Connie. (You want skepticism? You have to meet a wife married to a writer who dreams of making money. Behind every successful man, there is a lovely little woman telling him he's nuts.)
Eventually, he would write at least sixty novels, nearly all of them mystery novels, all of them exceedingly good entertainments, all of them witty, wise, and wonderfully informative about daily life. Also, a high number of them with puns in their titles. My favorite punning titles are Sine Qua Nun, And Then There Were Nun, and then, in other vocations: Her Death of Cold, Let Us Prey, Loss of Patients, Body and Soil, Frigor Mortis, Abracadaver, Mom & Dead, and Law and Ardor. My favorite series is his Notre Dame mysteries: On This Rockne, The Lack of the Irish, The Book of Kills, Celt and Pepper, Irish Coffee, Irish Gilt, and The Emerald Aisle (about two Notre Dame weddings, wonderfully crossed).
I have received hours of pleasure from Ralph McInerny's mysteries, and I have been proud to see the honors he was won from his peers in the world of mysteries and detective stories, including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Mystery Writers of America, an Ellery Queen Prize, and the presidency of the Mystery Writers of America. And the whole world has watched the wonderful "Father Dowling Mysteries" that have flowed from his own creativity flowed from more than a dozen novels in that series, and on outwards into the very successful television show inspired by it.
Along the way, Ralph has left one of the most vivid available records of what midwestern American Catholic life was like from about the time of World War II into the new century that has no equal. He has written the sole truly great novel of the long, slow undermining of the American priesthood in his 1973 bestsellerhis most serious, ambitious novelThe Priest.
Then add to that Professor McInerny's very heavy lifting in the field of philosophy. He has made available as publisher and sometimes translator and always introductory commentator a dozen really key books in the history of philosophy that the English-speaking world had not had available before him. To mention only two: the most important introduction to the thought of Thomas Aquinas (Maritain's favorite) by John of St. Thomas, and the long, line-by-line commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
A student of the renowned Thomist of Quebec, Charles De Konninck, Ralph has also published several critical books on analogy, the human soul, ethics, and art. Here, too, if all the graduate student of the future had to go on were the twenty books in the history of western philosophy brought into being by Ralph McInerny, those would alone represent a lifetime of great achievement. And this achievement was recognized by his election to present the most prestigious award in philosophy in the Anglo-American world, the Gifford Lecture in Scotland. All this work was recognized by Ralph's appointment by President Bush to the Council on the Arts and Humanities.
He was also a great teacher. He had a rare facility for imagining just the right vivid story, and the telling example, that grabbed hold of the listener's imagination, and allowed the aha! insight to transform puzzlement into the pleasure of a new light in the intelligence, a new way of seeing reality. Ralph has a genius for introducing difficult subjects. (His little introductory text for home-bound readers, A First Glance at Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists, is one of my all-time favorites.)
His scholarly work has also won him one of the most distinguished chairs at Notre Dame, the Michael P. Grace Chair in Medieval Studies, and directorship of the university's Medieval Institute, one of the two most distinguished medieval institutes in the Western hemisphere. Notre Dame also appointed Ralph the Director of the Maritain Center, the reservoir of the books and some of the papers of one of the greatest Thomists of our time, Jacques Maritain. And his peers in the field of Maritain studies have had no difficulty in presenting McInerny with the handsome bronze Maritain Medal.
Poor Ralph, he is weighted down with medals and awards. This ex-Marine from Minnesota carries in his ample and well-stocked brain and imagination and creativity an entire world of persons, events, funny scenes, good puns, sad and tragic moments, and wonderment at the glory of the human story, as it follows in the shadows of the Way of the Cross. Taught by nuns, he remains nunplussed by praise. Ralph McInerny has been a serious Christian man, a profound and crystal-clear Thomist of the Bright Observance, a cunning mystery writer, a punning philosopher: the perfect model of the humanities in our time, a pattern by which a Christian humanist, in love with the time in which God placed him, ought to be measured.
It is for that reason that we are proud to call our new dream of an international philosophical center, the Ralph McInerny Center.
In addition to which:
Many were outraged, while many others were jubilant, when the court in Dover, Pennsylvania, outlawed the questioning of Darwinist orthodoxy in public school classrooms. In the April issue of FIRST THINGS, Robert Miller of Villanova Law School writes that the court was right, but for better reasons than it gave. In an argument sure to be controversial, Miller says it all comes down to the differences between science and philosophy, and he offers a possible solution to conflicts in Dover and the rest of the country. Isn't it time for you to subscribe to FIRST THINGS?
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth:
"When it comes to 'Catholic matters,' Father Richard Neuhaus' thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."