“The best of a bad job is all the most of us make of it—except of course the saints,” said T.S. Eliot. That admission, on the flyleaf of Ralph McInerny’s autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life and Pastimes (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, c. 2006), sets the tone for his memoirs. Nearing the end of his earthly days, he finds himself “praying for mercy and the grace of a happy death” (p. 2). One of America’s most distinguished philosophers (delivering the Gifford Lectures a decade ago), McInerny has taught philosophy for 50 years at the University of Notre Dame. In his spare time, he churned out dozens of novels (mainly mysteries) to provide an ample income for himself and his rapidly growing family. He also inspired and helped guide various publishing ventures designed to promulgate the Catholic faith. He is, in short, a multitalented intellectual whose influence endures in many sectors.
Rather than tell his life story chronologically, McInerny takes a thematic approach. So we begin with the “biosphere,” the world wherein he began to be. Born in 1929 in Minneapolis to devout Irish Catholic parents who were impoverished by the Great Depression, he nevertheless remembers his “childhood as a veritable idyll of happiness” (p. 7). Whether exploring the mysteries of nature pulsating within the lakes and woods adjacent to his home, or the resources of the library, or the glories of worship in the parish church, McInerny relished all aspects of life.
After the eighth grade (in 1942), following his religious inclinations, he decided to enter Nazareth Hall, a preparatory seminary in St. Paul. Here he studied under “some of the best teachers I ever had” (p. 16) a staunchly classical curriculum which proved invaluable throughout the rest of his life—“Latin from the very beginning, Greek starting in Third Year, English, history, math, science of a sort, and French or German” (p. 15). Here too he “first began to regard myself as a writer” (p. 15) and ultimately edited the school newspaper. From Nazareth Hall McInerny moved on to nearby St. Paul Seminary, studying a philosophy and theology, still aspiring to the priesthood. “It was here that, at a fateful moment, I was introduced to philosophy” (p. 24). A bright young teacher-priest assigned some works of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, rather than secondary textbooks, and a new world opened for McInerny. Reading the masters, plumbing the depths of the primary sources, forever altered the young scholar. “I could not get enough of Aquinas” (p. 24). A growing love for philosophy—as well as the potential joys of the conjugal life—led him to leave the seminary with a bachelor’s degree and the knowledge that he was not called to the priesthood.
The woman he married, Connie, was his faithful wife for 50 years, and to her this book is dedicated. In a chapter entitled “Paterfamilias,” McInerny properly praises her for the multiple and absolutely essential ways she blessed him and her world. “Marriage,” he found, “is the school in which most of us learn our own defects as well as the joys and griefs of life” (p. 31). “Connie was to have seven children in the course of some ten and a half years. We just had them. That is the point of being married” (p. 31). Children too taught him many life lessons. And they have proved to be, for McInerny, a great blessing.
Throughout his life McInerny wrote and wanted to be a writer. He wrote poems, essays, short stories, and novels simply because he liked to write. Re-reading his early efforts, he laments: “It is penitential for me to even page through those early efforts” (p. 58). Now and then he would send a story to a magazine. “It would come back, in Thurber’s phrase, like a serve in tennis” (p. 58). Finally financial pressures (Notre Dame professors in those days were poorly paid) prompted him to “get serious” (p. 58) about writing for the commercial market in 1964. He determined to write daily for a year and set to work at a workbench in his basement, “day after day” (p. 62), typing away. “My resolution,” he declares, “had made me a disciplined writer, which is the only kind I can admire” (p. 62). His early stories were routinely rejected, but he slowly learned “that one writes for a reader” rather than for himself (p. 59). To remind himself of this he “typed a slogan and pinned it over my typewriter. Nobody Owes You A Reading” (p. 59). Some kindly editors began to advise him. Then he got a good agent. Slowly his stories began to be published. Indeed he wrote so much that he began publishing under several pseudonyms. Then came some books, such as Jolly Rogerson, which were well reviewed and sold well. Most importantly, he wrote The Priest, which sold a million copies and established him as a successful novelist. In time he hit upon a popular format and published the Father Dowling mysteries (24 of them), which provided the basis for a successful TV series.
While writing all these popular books, of course, McInerny continued to do the work required of a Notre Dame professor. Having been introduced to Aristotle and Aquinas in seminary, he remained forever grateful to these two for their philosophical realism, a position he supported throughout his career. He briefly explains his rejection of rival philosophical positions, especially those following in the “modern” lineage of Descartes. Such positions, almost always articulated by a very particular and oft-solipsistic individual, are increasingly espoused by many of his Notre Dame colleagues, but McInerny finds them fatally flawed by “a deep incoherence, and not just from some other and alien point of view, but on the terms they themselves accept. By contrast, the way I do philosophy is not just a way of doing philosophy, it is philosophy. And it isn’t my way, it’s ours” (p. 92). And his way, he argues, is the way of Aquinas, who has become increasingly the magnetic hook upon which he hangs his philosophical hat. “The rationale of Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris [calling for a return to Aquinas] has proved its soundness to me over the years. There is no other way, really. Gustate et videte. Water only slakes when drunk, and the choice we make at the outset of philosophizing is a fateful one” (p. 164).
Consider the decidedly anti-Thomistic currents of modern morality. Relativism reigns most everywhere, primarily in an emotivist garb. “That is,” McInerny notes, “to judgments of good and bad are to be taken as expressions of the speaker’s feelings or subjective condition. This being the case, moral judgments could only be taken to have public value at the price of tyranny. That is, to promote a moral position is to seek to make others act in accord with your feelings about the matter. Here is the root of the privatization of morality along with religion” (p. 154). Emotivism oozes from newspapers and TV and country music as well as from allegedly high-level philosophical journals. Historians, of course, equate this with the position of Protagoras, the ancient sophist who “maintained that what is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me” (p. 155). Refuting Protagoras, “Plato argued that this claim is incoherent. It refutes itself. Its refutation comes not from an alien viewpoint, but from its own internal assumptions” (p. 155). The assumptions stand revealed as fallacious once one thinks logically and acknowledges the pre-logical truths basic to that discipline. Yet, sad to say, however incoherent it may be, emotivism enjoys such certain absolute currency as to define our weltgeist.
McInerny loves Notre Dame, warts and all. But he’s distressed by directions lately taken, making the university increasingly less Catholic. “How ironic, he says, “that Catholic philosophy since the Council has taken on the coloration of modernity and all but abandoned its traditional roots. Our departments of philosophy now have a majority of members for whom what I have been saying would be as unintelligible as doubtless it would be at Meatball Tech. It is a melancholy thought that now, when the salutary impact of traditional philosophy is most urgently needed, we who are its presumed representatives have abandoned ship and are crowding the rails of the Titanic.” (p. 105).
Towards the end of the book, he repeats his warning: “Permit me to be repetitive. I have spent my academic career in what I regard as the premier institution of Catholic higher education in this country, Notre Dame. I have seen close up, and have participated in, decisions that have had the unlooked-for effect of sending us down the path of secularization” (pp. 152-153). In its determination to be an “excellent” university, in its almost juvenile desire to rival secular institutions like Stanford, Notre Dame has sold its soul to the devil. As a professor for half-a-century in a Catholic institution, McInerny acknowledges that he is now “involved in a long twilight struggle within the walls. Positions dubiously compatible with the faith are maintained and taught all around us. A young colleague of mine announced in a departmental meeting that, since he regarded Catholicism as false, he had a moral obligation to disabuse his students of their faith. That is where we have come” (p. 157). With certain qualifications, much the same could be said of most “Christian” colleges and universities during the past five decades—as James Burtchaell (for a time a Notre Dame professor) makes clear in his definitive study, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges & Universities from their Christian Churches.
McInerny also loves his Church, though he laments much that has transpired in the wake of Vatican II. Even as the official council was ending “a sort of para-council began, in which members of the media sought to exercise influence on the fathers of the council” (p. 122). And when the fathers could not be influenced, different interpretations of their positions could be espoused in accord with the famous spirit of Vatican II. “At soirees sponsored by Time magazine, strategy and tactics wee exuberantly discussed. And major pressure was to be put on changing the Church’s attitude toward sexual morality” (p. 122). When Pope Paul VI failed to endorse contraception in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, it “came as a bombshell to those who had convinced themselves that the ban on contraception was a dead letter. The reaction was unique in the history of the Catholic Church. Moral theologians took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, rejecting the decision of the pope and advising the faithful that they were not bound by it. The rebellion of the theologians had begun. It was to characterize and disrupt the life of the Church for decades, and is only now beginning to subside” (p. 124).
Such theologians regarded themselves as a “second magisterium,” endowed with the authority to defy popes and bishops! Importantly, McInerny insists: the rebellion within the Church, like the rebellion of the ‘60s, is all about sex! By any means necessary, the ‘60s Generation intends to establish a libertine sexual ethos, both within and outside the Catholic Church. “Have I become a Cassandra, in despair of the Church the modern world?” McInerny asks. “Not at all. With William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize address, I am confident that man will prevail, and as for the Church, the gates of hell will not prevail against her. But one would have to be a mindless Pollyanna not to admit that we live in strange and antinomian times” (p. 133). And he sees small, hopeful signs of changing times. New priests, new seminaries, new magazines all promise a new day for the Church. No doubt he cheers Benedict XVI!
Part of the Church’s renewal in America newness results from McInerny’s own efforts as an editor and publisher of very traditional, Catholic materials. To counter the liberalism of those promoting a “false spirit of Vatican II,” he and Michael Novak launched a highly successful magazine, Crisis. That the magazine elicited furious denunciations from those of the left validated its mission! He also established a publishing house, Crisis Books, that made available orthodox works. He joined with Father Fessio, who established Ignatius Press, to published a journal, Catholic Dossier. He also helped established the Maritain Center at Notre and oversee the translation and publication of Maritain’s works. Another study center, the Medieval Institute, exists at the university, thanks to McInerny’s efforts, where seminars and speakers and special events continue to espouse the Catholicism that birthed the university.
That a remarkable man could compress a life story into 167 pages is in itself remarkable! He ever remembers that “Nobody Owes You A Reading.” Better a book that’s too brief than one that’s mind-numbingly long! Reading McInerny is simply a feast for the mind and soul. His friend Michael Novak says it well: “This is a charming, bittersweet, witty, evocative, even romantic reminiscence of a wonderful life . . . . Be prepared to weep a little, and laugh a little—it ought to be a movie. McInerny’s masterpiece!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Roger Scruton, an English philosopher recently re-located to the United States, provides us his memoirs in Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (New York: Continuum, c. 2005). Though he taught for many years at an English university, Birkbeck College in London, and more recently at Boston University in America, Scruton is best labeled a “public intellectual” who has written many books on various topics. Like McInerny, he tells his story thematically rather than chronologically. And the reverberating theme reveals the struggles of a thoughtful conservative trying to survive in a culture that celebrates anything but conservative views.
He begins his Gentle Regrets by telling us how he “discovered books” in 1957, at the age of 13, when he picked up Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. “I did not put the book down until I had finished it. And for months afterwards I strode through our suburb side by side with Christian, my inner eye fixed on the Celestial City” (p. 2). That vision slowly faded, but the role of books in shaping a man’s life was firmly fixed. He discovered that great writers, such as Bunyan and Shakespeare, provide great philosophy—“philosophy not argued but shown” (p. 9).
His reading rooted him in classical culture (thanks in part to the Royal Grammar School curriculum) and largely alienated him from his counter-cultural contemporaries. A bona fide member of the ‘60s generation, he “was a rebel—but a meta-rebel, so to speak, in rebellion against rebellion” (p. 19). He rejected the regnant nihilism of his peers. He further abandoned the socialism that virtually identifies the counter-culture, “only to discover that a socialist conscience was the one thing required for success in the only spheres where I could aspire to it” (p. 19). Consequently, when Scruton became a conservative at a rather young age he could hardly have anticipated the venom of the left nor realize the price he’d pay for this decision. “It became a matter of honour among English-speaking intellectuals to disassociate themselves from me, to write, if possible, damning and contemptuous reviews of my books, and to block my chances of promotion” (p. 55). Though many Englishmen vote Conservative in national elections, most “intellectuals regarded the term ‘conservative’ as a term of abuse” (p. 33). Indeed, they generally embraced the fashionable rhetorical fantasies of Michael Foucault, whose Les mots et les choses (very much the bible for the radicals who rioted in Paris in 1968, literally just outside Scruton’s hotel window) “seemed to justify every form of transgression” (p. 35).
In his opinion, Foucault’s “book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue—by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies—that ‘truth’ requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class that profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy” (p. 35). Sadly enough, this is the message now dominating Europe’s universities.
To illustrate this, Scruton notes that Eric Habsbawm was awarded, at the request of Prime Minister Tony Blair, “the second highest award that the Queen can bestow—that of the Companion of Honour” (p. 36). Habsbawm, a long-term member of England’s Communist Party until it finally dissolved amidst revelations provided by Solzhenitsyn and The Black Book of Communism, recently lamented the demise of Stalinism! He is nevertheless “the lionized historian of the Industrial Revolution, whose Marxist vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools” (p. 36). Consider too “the extraordinary fact that Oxford University, which granted an honorary degree to Bill Clinton on the grounds that he had once hung around its precincts, refused the same honour to Margaret Thatcher, its most distinguished post-war graduate, and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister” (p. 36).
Conjoined with his growing conservatism, Scruton slowly turned from atheism to the church, discovering therein a wisdom and peace the world does not afford. In a fascinating chapter entitled “Stealing from Churches,” he remembers entering a small French chapel with a Parisian woman (a philosopher teacher) who enjoyed visiting country churches. After wandering through the church, she deftly pocketed silver-bound crystal bottles used by the priest when distributing the Eucharist. In that theft, she represents, to Scruton, the legions of secularists (like ancient Vandals) who have been on a spiritual rampage, literally taking and tossing away the incomparable riches of the West.
Those spiritual riches were evident in some of the persons Scruton encountered in his “years as a voyeur of holiness” that led him “into contact with true believers, and taught me that faith transfigures everything it touches, and raises the world to God” (p. 63). One was a rather eccentric priest in London, Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, who resolutely resisted the alleged “reforms” of Vatican II. He showed Scruton that a highly traditional religion “is quite unlike the fashionable social doctrines of our day, all of which are founded, in the end, on anger or resentment” (p. 67). Love, Christian love, is quite different from social justice. Memorably, Gilbey said: “’We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man’” (p. 68).
In a very different place, Poland, where he lectured on philosophy, Scruton met a 26 year old woman, Barbara, who lived in Gdansk. Her life had been anything but pleasant, yet she is “the other holy person in my life” (p. 71). She listened intently to his lectures, but he was the one who learned from their conversations and profited from her prayers for his salvation. In particular, she incarnated “the truth that sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between, and that nothing matters more than the customs, ceremonies and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as a soul” (p. 75). Certainly one should resist (as did Solidarity) some of the Communists’ policies in Poland, but “the real fight was within you, to overcome the spirit of selfish calculation. The important thing, she said, was not to improve the world, but to improve yourself” (p. 79). The most saintly people Scruton said almost exactly the same thing! And it’s the perennial truth of the Faith.
Thus influenced, Scruton has been “regaining my religion.” He began attending an Anglican church, “no longer as a thief but as a penitent” (p. 233) and (as an accomplished musician) volunteered to play the organ. He is not yet what one would consider an orthodox believer. But he has rediscovered what he sensed, decades ago while reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets—the power of permanent, indeed eternal things. “Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective” (p. 228).
In chapters I’ve not touched on Scruton discusses opera, architecture, pets and children. And he does so with a gentle touch, a probing mind, giving us a book quite worth perusing.