Ralph McInerny, 1929-2010
Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
When Ralph McInerny landed back in the United States and cashed his GI check, a civilian again, the first thing he did was run to a bookstore to buy a copy of Lord Weary’s Castle, Robert Lowell’s new collection of poems.
Or so he told me once, and then he laughed and gave a deprecating shrug, because—well, because that’s the kind of thing smart boys with literary pretensions did in those days, and if there ever was one of those smart 1940s literary boys, it was Ralph McInerny. Besides, Lowell had produced an amazingly Catholic book, and the Catholic Renaissance that included everyone from Flannery O’Connor to Thomas Merton was about to take off in America.
They are slipping away from us one by one, the people who can remember those times that once seemed so promising. Names like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson had a weight about them; you could conjure with them and see the future—a world turned high scholastic and Neo-Thomistic: Catholic philosophy and Catholic art joining to make a golden age.
On another occasion, I asked Ralph what he thought had happened—why, by the late 1960s, the whole Renaissance had faded, first to fantasy and then to dust. But he merely gave another of those shrugs and said, “We just weren’t good enough.”
If Ralph McInerny wasn’t good enough, it’s hard to imagine who could have been. He went up to Quebec to study medieval philosophy under Charles De Koninck (another in the Maritain/Gilson line, making Thomism seem, at that moment, the most exciting philosophy around). Doctorate in hand, he landed at Notre Dame in 1955—and there he stayed for the rest of his life, publishing scholarly tomes (some twenty nonfiction volumes, in all) and establishing himself among the leading philosophers in America. Aquinas and Analogy is probably the most important of the books, and his Gifford Lectures, Characters in Search of Their Author, formed his most serious attempt to return, late in life, to the unity of philosophy and art with which he began.
He had a journalism career, as well, as a columnist and a culture warrior, founding Crisis magazine with Michael Novak in the 1980s. He wrote about sports, and the great moral issues of the day, and the internal struggles of the Catholic Church, and the literary legacy of his friend, the novelist J.F. Powers. He even wrote poetry, publishing a collection of Shakespearean sonnets and a volume of reflections on death.
And then there were the mysteries. Twenty-nine books starring his clerical detective, Father Dowling (played by Tom Bosley in the 1980s television series). Another thirteen set at Notre Dame. Ten more featuring a nun mystery-solver (published under the pen name “Monica Quill”), and twelve with other detectives—sixty-two mystery novels, in all, between 1977 and 2009.
It was too much, particularly when you add the nineteen non-mystery novels he also wrote (the best of them probably his 1967 academic novel Jolly Rogerson and his 1973 bestseller The Priest). Ralph had reasonably good sales and some recognition, but the mysteries to which he devoted most of his writing were always a little on the thin side—stronger in prose and character than in the actual puzzle. Besides, they had those awful titles he couldn’t stop himself from giving them. As his student Thomas Hibbs remarked, the problem wasn’t just that Ralph would make bad puns; it was that he seemed to prefer the bad ones—giving his books such titles as A Handbook for Peeping Thomists, On This Rockne, and Nun Plussed.
It’s worth contrasting all this with Powers, the enormously celebrated Catholic writer of that same generation. When the Catholic Renaissance collapsed, Powers, undeterred, continued to write brilliantly polished, delicate prose at his same slow, one-book-a-decade rate. More of an activist, Ralph slipped instead into pour-it-out mode, never stopping to look back or revise.
He told me once that he sometimes wished he had slowed down, making a stronger effort to maintain the high literary goals of the world in which he began. But I didn’t believe him. He simply lived and worked at a constant pitch of ceaseless activity.
When he died two weeks ago, at the age of 80, he took from us the last, best argument for that Thomistic synthesis of philosophy and art that had seemed so fresh and new in the 1940s. He wrote some truly fine intellectual studies and some serious fiction, but his books were a secondary effect. Really, the Catholic Renaissance produced one of its brightest works just by giving us the life of Ralph McInerny.
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