The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 23, 2017

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In Memoriam: Ralph McInerny (1929–2010)
Fr. Joseph W. Koterski, S. J. - 02/01/10
Ralph McInerny

Ralph McInerny, whom the ethicist Thomas Hibbs called “one of the great Catholic intellectuals of our time,” passed away on Friday at the age of eighty. Dr. McInerny, a professor at the University of Notre Dame for more than fifty years, is most widely known for his popular Father Dowling mystery novels. Yet he also made an indelible contribution with his scholarship, as the author of many dozens of books and articles on philosophy and theology.

Peter Lawler has perhaps said it best by noting that Dr. McInerny “was a theologian, philosopher, novelist, poet, and then and now a saint.” Requiescat in pace.

The following profile of Dr. McInerny was originally published in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006).

Thomistic philosopher, educator, author, and Catholic public intellectual, the quick-witted and gregarious Ralph McInerny has been exceeded by no one in making the thought of Thomas Aquinas and such contemporary Neo-Thomists as Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon well known and attractive today. The author of more than 150 articles, some twenty books on philosophy and theology, and more than fifty novels (some of which have been filmed for television, including those in the popular Father Dowling mystery series), McInerny has inspired countless people by his popular lectures as well as by his long years of teaching at the University of Notre Dame, where he is the Michael P. Grace Distinguished Professor. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the Université Laval in 1954 and joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1955. Since 1979 McInerny has been the director of the Jacques Maritain Center and he has overseen the publication of Maritain’s collected works. Entrepreneurial in spirit, he was influential in establishing the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the Catholic Dossier magazine, and many other publishing ventures, including Crisis magazine, to which he has contributed a regular column since 1982.

Philosophically, McInerny is a Thomist and stands in the scholarly tradition of the Laval professor Charles DeKoninck. He has emphasized the Aristotelian dimensions of the synthesis achieved by Thomas Aquinas, with stress on the importance of Aristotelian logic and physics for the understanding of Thomistic metaphysics. Convinced of the philosophical distinctiveness of Aquinas in drawing attention to the analogical nature of the term “being,” McInerny has explored crucial works on this topic by Aquinas, such as Aquinas’s commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius. Among McInerny’s earliest books were The Logic of Analogy (1961) and Studies in Analogy (1968). Later works such as St. Thomas Aquinas (1977) and Ethica Thomistica (1982), not to mention his delightful First Glance at Thomas Aquinas: Handbook for Peeping Thomists (1990), have been extremely reliable guides for those seeking an introduction to the thought of Aquinas.

More recently McInerny has also penned a number of insightful studies on Aquinas that are of a highly technical nature. Like his Being and Predication (1986), his Boethius and Aquinas (1990) advances further arguments for the type of approach to Aquinas that he has been proposing since his early studies on analogy. His Aquinas on Human Action (1992) both contributes to the contemporary debates on action theory and develops in a more technical vein the approach to Thomistic ethics that McInerny had laid out in more popularly accessible form in Ethica Thomistica. His Aquinas against the Averroists (1993) explores the quarrel between Thomas Aquinas and thirteenth-century figures like Siger of Brabant over the proper interpretation of the Aristotelian doctrine of the agent intellect. This issue is crucial for the explanation of how human beings are able to know what they know, and McInerny’s discussion bears not just on the historical controversy but on lively issues in the philosophy of mind today.

Further Reading
  • McInerny, Ralph. Art and Prudence. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
  • ———. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Penguin, 1998.
  • ———. What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained. Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, 1998.
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