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Tom Chaney No. 249, 11 April 2010:
Ralph McInerny

Of Writers and Their Books, No. 249 Tom Chaney author essay Rigor Morality: Ralph McInerny, Thomas Aquinas, and Father Dowling
The next earlier Tom Chaney book review: Out in the Country by Mary L. Gray

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Rigor Morality: Ralph McInerny, Thomas Aquinas, and Father Dowling

In the early 1970's when I was keeping the road hot between Horse Cave and Indianola, Iowa, I would occasionally stop by South Bend, Indiana, to visit a friend from Baylor days.

In the early 1960's David Solomon and I shared a small apartment near the Waco campus and a most disagreeable fice dog named Pablo. David went on to the University of Texas to study philosophy.

Later he was engaged to teach philosophy and ethics at the University of Notre Dame. I always thought that the good Catholic fathers were looking for an ecumenical bargain - a Baptist philosopher with a Jewish name.

Pablo and I returned to Kentucky where I piddled about at Caverna, thence to Arkansas back to Kentucky and on to Iowa. Some time in there Pablo met his death beneath the wheels of a 1949 Oldsmobile.

On one of my trips through South Bend, Solomon introduced me to a delightfully interesting colleague of his in the department of philosophy.

An authority on the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas, Ralph McInerny taught at Notre Dame for more than half a century churning out philosophical tomes on one hand and nigh one hundred novels on the other.

Professor McInerny died this past January 29 at 80.

I followed the meeting with McInerny by reading his novels whenever I could find them. He is best known as the creator of the Father Dowling mysteries.

Roger Dowling is a former canon lawyer now a parish priest in a town called Fox River. His career at church headquarters has been cut short, "derailed by drink" as New York Times writer Bruce Weber describes it. In his rehabilitation Roger is assigned to a declining parish with a crotchety housekeeper and enough murders to keep him occupied.

The first of the Father Dowling novels, published in 1977, was Her Death of Cold. A couple of dozen followed.With Roger changed to "Frank," Dowling was transported to Chicago in the made-for-television series "The Father Dowling Mysteries" which starred Tom Bosley. That series ran from 1989 to 1991.

McInerny's plots have always been intricate. His titles have shown the work of a mischievous punster. Body and Soil deals with a murder wherein the victim is buried. An introduction to Thomistic philosophy is titled Confessions of a Peeping Thomist.

Most notable, however, is the moral rigor which McInerny assigns to Roger Dowling. The reader can perceive a kinship with other conservative Christian authors such as Graham Green, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. In a 1992 study of new Catholic fiction, Anita Gandolfo observes that "Father Dowling embodies a medieval worldview with its unambiguous moral order and universally accepted recognition of the truth of that order."

McInerny's judgment of himself was less august. In his memoir, published when he was 77, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, he invoked St. Paul's disclaimer, "his [Paul's] admission that he remained largely a mystery to himself and was unable to say for certain that he was in the state of grace."

He was ever uneasy with the reforms of the Church which emerged in the 1960's. Latin he liked more than English for the liturgy. Priests should remain male and celibate. His writings reflect a strong anti-abortion, anti-gay attitude. He offered vigorous objection to the newly elected President Obama being invited to speak to the graduates of Notre Dame. "The pell-mell pursuit of warm and fuzzy Catholicism," he wrote at the time, "will continue."

But, my! My! Could he spin a tale!

Forget the television series if you were put off by the frantic car chases of Bosley/Dowling and his side kick nun. Pick up one of the novels where the mind, not the car, is sent careening around corners. The dazzling moral and intellectual chase of Law and Ardour or Frigor Mortis beats car chases all hollow.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2010-04-11 04:34:01
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