Ralph McInerny on a Forgotten Thomist

Calls Charles De Koninck a Man of Faith, Philosopher of Science

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By Annamarie Adkins

SOUTH BEND, Indiana, NOV. 6, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The renewed interest in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas in the early-to-mid 20th century produced a flowering of Catholic thought that formulated a coherent intellectual critique and alternative to modernity.

But Thomism fell out of fashion after the Second Vatican Council as the perennial philosophy and leading intellectual framework for the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason.

Today, however, Thomism is experiencing somewhat of a revival, and that can be attributed to the work of Thomists such as Ralph McInerny, who, among others, kept the flame of Thomism burning during the tumultuous intellectual milieu that followed the council.

Now, in an act of gratitude, McInerny seeks to introduce a new generation to his own teacher -- a man who helped lay the groundwork for the recent Thomistic revival: Charles De Koninck.

McInerny is in the process of editing and translating into English the collected works of De Koninck (Notre Dame Press), a layman who inspired a whole generation of Thomists that eventually took up positions in the philosophy departments of many Catholic colleges and universities.

Those professors served as an intellectual bridge between an earlier generation of Thomists and the revival going on today.

McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

He spoke with ZENIT about his relationship with De Koninck, the motivation for making the great professor's writings known to a wider audience, and what they offer us in the challenge of confronting contemporary problems.

ZENIT: Who was Charles De Koninck? What role did he play in your own formation and intellectual training?

McInerny: De Koninck was dean of the Faculté de Philosophie at the Université Laval in Quebec, and played an enormous role in the formation of American Thomists who began to study there in the 1940s.

For almost two decades this phenomenon continued.

Easily recognizable “Laval Thomists” went on to join the faculties of colleges throughout the nation.

I myself took a licentiate and doctorate at Laval, with Professor De Koninck as my director, going there after taking a master's in philosophy from the University of Minnesota.

There is a marvelous biographical essay by his son Thomas in volume one of the Collected Writings.

ZENIT: Why did you decide to compile and translate his collected works? For what reasons does he deserve a wider, contemporary audience?

McInerny: One night I was rereading an essay by De Koninck on the Eucharist and I fell back in my chair and thanked God that I had studied under this man. But he is now all but unknown, his writings are difficult to find, and few had been translated.

I conceived the project of the collected works as an instance of pietas and gratitude.

ZENIT: How did De Koninck understand the task of philosophy and the philosopher?  

McInerny: His principal mentors were Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. He taught by subjecting the texts to a close reading, conveying a technique that one could continue to employ for a lifetime.

ZENIT: De Koninck wrote eloquently about how the Mother of God personifies Wisdom. What role did the Catholic faith play in his philosophical explorations?

McInerny: De Koninck was a Catholic philosopher, which meant that the faith – the magisterium – was always the guide for his work.

His devotion to Mary followed the teaching of St Louis Grignion de Monfort. His work "Ego Sapientia" is a florilegium of texts brought together under titles of Mary drawn from the great masters of Mariology: Bernard and Bonaventure.

ZENIT: His most notable work seems to be his treatise on the common good. What did De Koninck have to say about this often-misunderstood concept? In what contemporary context could his insights have significant value?

McInerny: The book, "The Primacy of the Common Good," was aimed at the personalists.

Who were they? Marx, Engels, various Renaissance figures whose thought on the primacy of man De Koninck regarded as tempting to contemporaries.

The book was regarded as an attack on Jacques Maritain. This is nonsense; Yves Simon saw the teaching of the two men as identical on this matter.

Father I.T. Eschmann, OP, in a lengthy and condescending study, sought to show that De Koninck's teaching was at variance with that of St. Thomas. Eschmann called his essay "A Defense of Jacques Maritain."

Maritain is not mentioned in the "Primacy," nor does he figure much in Eschmann's defense. But the unfortunate myth was created that De Koninck was attacking Maritain.

ZENIT: In the first volume, you've compiled a number of works that address the philosophy of science, as well as themes related to creation and evolution. What audiences might find these writings particularly helpful?

McInerny: De Koninck's views of evolution are of fundamental importance.

His account of the relation between natural philosophy and natural science still awaits a serious appraisal by philosophers of science.

ZENIT: Where is De Koninck's intellectual legacy found today?

McInerny: In many respects, his legacy is embodied in the approach of Thomas Aquinas College, founded by De Koninck's students and flourishing in a time of chaos in higher education.

And, of course, in his writings, which are ripe for reconsideration.

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For more information: http://undpress.nd.edu/book/P01230