December 1, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Ralph McInerny: Philosopher, mystery author and more

John F. FinkLet me tell you something about Ralph McInerny, although I’m sure some of you know about him, especially if you have a Notre Dame connection or are a murder-mystery fan.

Ralph died almost eight years ago, on Jan. 10, 2010, at age 80. For 54 of those years, he taught philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he was also director of the Jacques Maritain Center. Maritain was his hero because both of them were experts in the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.

He was an excellent teacher, selected by 47 students to review their doctoral dissertations, more than any other Notre Dame professor. He was awarded eight honorary doctorates and taught at Oxford. He was president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. And he wrote or edited 38 books on philosophy or theology.

But teaching philosophy at a Catholic university wasn’t lucrative back in the 1950s. Ralph’s family was growing (he and his wife Connie would eventually have seven children; one died at age 3), so he had to supplement his income.

He had always written, so he decided to try his hand at fiction. He sent stories to magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal. Like all of us writers, he received his share of rejection letters. He persevered and eventually realized why his stories were rejected; he found the secret. His stories began to sell.

He switched to longer stories, to novels and then to mysteries. In all, he wrote 95 murder mysteries. Twenty-nine of them were the Father Dowling mysteries, which became a TV series with actor Tom Bosley as Father Dowling. He also wrote a series of mysteries centered at Notre Dame, 13 in all. Under the pen name Monica Quill, he wrote 10 mysteries with Sister Mary Teresa as the protagonist. And he had six mysteries starring attorney Andrew Bloom.

Ralph loved puns, the cornier the better. That was reflected in his book titles, like On This Rockne, Lack of the Irish, and Mom and Dead. Even one of his books about Thomas Aquinas was Handbook for Peeping Thomists. His autobiography was titled I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, a quotation you’ll find four times in Chapter 1 of the Book of Job.

Ralph went to Mass daily, usually at noon. He was a conservative Catholic. Unhappy with some of the things that happened to the Church after the Second Vatican Council, he and Michael Novak founded Crisis magazine in 1982, with Ralph as its first editor. He also founded and edited Catholic Dossier.

In later years, he became president of the International Catholic University, with videos on the Internet. He recorded five separate courses which I think are still available from The Catholic Thing, which Ralph also helped to start.

Ralph was, obviously, always writing. A vacation for him usually consisted of a trip somewhere where he could hole up in a hotel across the street from a Catholic Church (his favorite place was Sicily) and write.

As he was dying, he asked for writing materials. Given a pad, he wrote his last words, “I commend my soul to God.” †

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