Yesterday we learned of the death of Dr. Ralph McInerny, the renowned Thomist philosopher, and holder of the Grace Chair of Philosophy. Dr. McInerny taught at the University of Notre Dame du Lac in South Bend, Indiana, from 1955 until his retirement this past June. Possibly best known to the general public as the author of a number of popular mystery novels, his more important contribution to civilization was his incisive criticism of the direction of education in general, and Catholic education in particular, a decay coincident with the virtual abandonment of Thomism and the natural moral law based on the Intellect as the guiding philosophy of life.
Most recently Dr. McInerny's comments were directed at the spectacle of his beloved Notre Dame giving in to the temptation to curry transitory and ephemeral — and, to all appearances, illusory — favor with political figures. This was a "triumph of the will" by means of which the president and trustees of Notre Dame, screened by a flood of sophistry and contradictory reasoning that fooled no one, forced the university to advance their private agendas in pursuit of personal advantage. The excuses and justifications issued by the president of Notre Dame would have acted as a barbed lash to a Thomist of Dr. McInerny's caliber, although it is safe to say that, in light of the soundness of his personal philosophy, it did not contribute to his death.
Notre Dame's direct disobedience in this matter was an event that Dr. McInerny seemed to feel was the final payment on the great sellout of Catholic higher education that began with the "Land O'Lakes" meeting in the 1960s. This may have been why, when we are constantly deluged with communications from the University about increasing the level of contributions and explaining how the bestowal of an honorary degree on a defiantly pro-abortion public figure doesn't really contradict the pro-life principles, Dr. McInerny's passing seems to have been passed over.
It is always easier to ignore something or someone that makes you feel uncomfortable and hope it — or he — just goes away quietly. When the situation or individual finally fades from the scene, the temptation to rejoice is usually quickly subsumed by the feeling of relief and the belief that now you can do what you want without those unwelcome twinges of conscience . . . which always seem to come back, anyway. As Horace says, you can chase Nature out with a pitchfork, but she always comes back.
And that is what may have been at the heart of what Dr. McInerny saw as the root problem of education today. In classic Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy, our concept of "good" is not based on our private opinion, but on the general consensus of all humanity in all times and places as to what constitutes "good." In Christian, Jewish, and Islamic belief, what is good in humanity is a reflection of that which is good in God. That is, God's essential Nature or Intellect is good, and this is reflected in humanity, God's special creation.
Since humanity is made in the image and likeness of God in this respect, what humanity discerns through the use of reason as being good must conform with a high degree of probability to what is actually good. Those things that we believe to be God's explicit commands as well as our personal opinion must be measured against the standard established by the common consent of all mankind in order for us to be honest in our conviction that what we believe to be good is, in fact, good.
What we believe to be God's Will, as well as our private opinions, may help to illuminate our understanding of good, that is, God's Nature, but it can never contradict it. If there appears to be a contradiction, we have, in all likelihood, either misunderstood God's Will, or have let our individual desires and wants override our reason and a well-formed conscience.
When the president and trustees of Notre Dame seem to have decided that, instead, it was their private will and desire to gain worldly approbation that governed the issue instead of clear concepts of right and wrong — the natural moral law — they committed what could only be in the eyes of a Thomist like Dr. McInerny a grave fault. Nor was this strictly a "personal affair" or an internal matter of the University, as the president and trustees asserted. The example of disobedience and the scandal it caused has not only seriously damaged the reputation of the University, but of all organized religion, already suffering from almost five centuries of buffeting from philosophies based on private opinions as to God's Will, and the resultant moral and legal positivism, relativism, and even nihilism.
For that reason, we view Dr. McInerny's death as a great loss. We were never able to connect up with Dr. McInerny as we wished, despite a number of attempts. His participation in CESJ's efforts to restore the natural moral law as the basis of society and to advance the social doctrine of Pope Pius XI and the economic justice principles of Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler would, we are still convinced, have resonated well with his goals, and possibly even shown a way to reverse the decay over which he expressed such concern. Other, more pressing matters and lack of time always seemed to intervene, however, and prevented a more concerted effort to join forces and work toward the common goal.
We cannot, however, afford to let the death of a single individual, even someone like Dr. Ralph McInerny, bring a halt to such efforts. On the contrary, we should let his life and his accomplishments inspire us to even greater efforts. We must strive to surface new people to carry on the work of establishing a more just and humane future for all.
With that goal before us, the Second Social Justice Collaborative scheduled for Friday, April 16, 2010, in Falls Church, Virginia, takes on greater importance. The Collaborative is not intended to be a debate or a presentation of the principles of economic and social justice. That is adequately covered on the CESJ website and in various postings on this blog, and participants are expected to have "done their homework." Instead, we are bringing together people who are committed to advancing these ideas in practicable form, and will be brainstorming on ways to bring these ideas to the attention of world leaders, and commit themselves to specific actions to bring about meetings with such "prime movers."
If you are interested in attending the Collaborative, or know someone whom you think would be interested in attending, please send an e-mail to the address given on the CESJ website, and we will send you an invitation and a list of materials (very short) when they are ready.