Ralph McInerny and the tragedy of Notre DameGEORGE WEIGEL
Ralph McInerny was arguably the most distinguished scholar ever to work at Notre Dame.
Ralph McInerny was arguably the most distinguished scholar ever to work at Notre Dame. His scholarly publications outstrip those of other Notre Dame philosophers by orders of magnitude – and that's before we get to his popular fiction, his magazine work, and his encouraging of generations of younger Catholic academics. Yet a university that does not hesitate to boast of its accomplishments as measured by the U.S. News and World Report ratings seemed curiously reticent about celebrating the life and accomplishments of Ralph McInerny. The university Web site posted a nicely written obituary three days after his death, but there was little sense in the university's official recognition of its loss that a gigantic figure had left the scene.
One cannot help suspect that this has something to do with the fact that Ralph thought Notre Dame had gone off the rails in its dogged and relentlessly self-promoting attempts to measure itself against what it likes to term "peer schools," such as Dartmouth and Yale. What Ralph understood, and what the man who brought him to Notre Dame, the legendary Father Theodore Hesburgh, has never seemed to understand, is that that's the wrong plumb-line by which to measure a Catholic university's accomplishment. Or indeed any university's accomplishment, given the intellectual chaos, political correctness, decadence, and madcap trendiness that has afflicted those "peer schools" since the late Sixties.
Ralph McInerny knew, and could demonstrate with acute philosophical rigor, that there are truths built into the world and into us: truths we can know by exercising the arts of reason; truths that, known, lay certain moral obligations on us, personally and in our civic lives. With the rarest of exceptions, they don't know that, and in fact they deny that, at the "peer schools" to which Notre Dame is addicted to comparing itself. And therein lay the tragedy of Notre Dame and Catholic institutions of higher education of a similar cast of mind, as Ralph saw it: they had sold their intellectual and moral birthright – the true excellence that comes from an immersion in the Great Tradition of western higher learning – for a mess of pottage.
I've long thought that all of this had something to do with the misreading of a 1955 essay by Father John Tracy Ellis, "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life," which justifiably criticized the shabby condition of too much of Catholic higher education in the United States in those days. Father Hesburgh and others influenced by one reading of Ellis's critique decided that the thing to do was for Notre Dame to become Harvard, so to speak. Ralph McInerny thought that this didn't make much sense at a time when those "peer schools" were awash in pragmatism and utilitarianism. Rather, he believed (and I think this was the more accurate reading of Ellis) that Notre Dame and other premier Catholic universities should play to strength, emphasizing a demanding liberal arts education while bringing the best of the mid-20th century Catholic philosophical, theological, and literary renaissance to bear in the U.S. Doing that, Catholic universities would model a form of higher learning that was truth-centered, character-building, and life-inspiring.
There is indeed some of that going on at Our Lady's University today, thanks to students, younger faculty, and some reform-minded members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Those true reformers lost a happy warrior for their noble cause with the death of Ralph McInerny. Perhaps someday the university's board and administration will understand that.
George Weigel. "Ralph McInerny and the tragedy of Notre Dame." The Catholic Difference (March 3, 2010).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.
George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.
George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
Copyright © 2010 George Weigel
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