Thoughts About Ralph McInernry

A Man of Wit, Wisdom and Achievement

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By Steven A. Long

AVE MARIA, Florida, FEB. 3, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Aristotle famously remarks in the Eudemian ethics about friendship according to equality and friendship according to preeminence that "Both are friendships; those who are friends, however, are friends according to equality."

In any purely natural sense it is clear to me that Ralph McInerny and I were not in this strict sense friends, because I was not, nor is it at all likely that ever I shall be, his equal: in scholarship, in the radiance of the contemplation of Catholic truth, in the distinctively rich cordiality, generosity, and joy that Ralph lavished on one and all.

Nonetheless of course there is a sense in which, in the Christian life, by reason of the common need to receive grace, we were equals and in the Christian life, friends. And in respect of the profession of Catholic truth, and of Thomism, Ralph came to think well of my work, converging on certain points with his own. And so through grace and Ralph’s natural generosity, I enjoyed the inestimable privilege the past seven years of coming to know him better.

There are many who have more right to offer commemoration, to describe his remarkable life, character, and achievements. But his warmth, humor, and wisdom lit for me certain dark moments of trial to which he also contributed a will adamantine in its support for my work, even on those few points on which we differed. It is impossible not to savor the grace of having enjoyed his presence in my life.

Some men are greater than their work -- even when that work is itself great -- whereas some, even should their work be great, pour themselves out in their work and are less than their work. Ralph was clearly in the first category -- a man of great works, and greater character and virtue -- and the encouragements he lavished on many, and which I remember as given to me, manifested this from start to finish.

My acquaintance with Ralph revolved chiefly around the enjoyment and defense of certain truths. It centered upon a profound love for the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, and of the Church; a realization of the importance for theology of speculative philosophy and the praeambula fidei about which he so discerningly wrote; an appreciation of the distinction between, and providential synthesis of, nature and grace. We shared these contemplations, and I was blessed by his appreciation and encouragement of my work.

Ralph knew what many good Catholic souls nonetheless do not know: that neither phenomenology, nor analytic thought, nor the bulk of modern and postmodern thought, nor mere historical studies, can substitute for the wisdom of St. Thomas in the Church. Today it is not uncommon for neoterist scholars to raise their flags, develop various historical genealogical narratives, and then place a black hat upon one or more of the dramatis personae, whose arguments consequently are -- without the least consideration or argument -- snidely disparaged.

This all too common species of intellectual laziness achieving works of detraction is at the furthest remove from the open, generous discursive reason that Ralph brought to every theological or philosophic criticism. He spent a lifetime considering evidence, unfolding arguments, and sustaining the Catholic theological and philosophic tradition. He wrote poems, detective novels, apologetic works, and the entirety of a profound and extensive scholarly oeuvre, all the while radiating a rich geniality, humor, and cheerfulness. His combination of humane learning, debonair wit and humor, Thomistic wisdom, and Catholic common sense, made him one of the most important Catholic scholars and apologists in the world.  

Sending to me his book, "The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain," he enclosed an amusing poem turning upon a pun about my name. Shortly after my family’s move southward to Ave Maria University, amidst the jumble of papers and the confusion of unpacking, the poem somehow was misplaced. I cannot remember it even with approximate perfection. But I do remember his presence to me through the droll and delightful humor, as I likewise recall the rich geniality of his voice greeting me, the twinkle in the eye, the perennial youthfulness of spirit.

For all his many achievements, it is the geniality and humor that all who knew him will remember. No one can recall him without a smile of joy -- and about how many prominent personages, much less prominent academics, can that truthfully be said? With an altogether uncommon certitude, one wants to say: He made this world a better place. And, one suspects: all the beati in Heaven are now in an accidentally merrier state.

Here below, beyond the joy of memory and the splendor of his literary and scholarly achievement, he also leaves us the gift of an accidental intensification of one's desire for beatitude, and the desire that God make one worthy of one's friend. "Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei!"

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Steven A. Long is professor of theology at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria Florida. He is the author of "The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act" and "Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace," as well as numerous articles in scholarly journals.