Editorial: Pulchrum Est Id Quod Visum Placet
It should be said therefore that the beautiful and good are indeed the same in subject, since they are founded on the same thing, namely, form, and because of this the good is praised as beauty is. - Saint Thomas Aquinas
Back in the late Twentieth century I received an invitation to teach architecture at small midwestern Catholic college. Not being very pious, I was ignorant of her significant prowess on the gridiron. However, I did know who Ralph McInerny was! It only took a matter of years when I, like some piece of space dust, was brought into the orbit of this great planet. On those rare instances when I was allowed to leave the aegis of the golden dome, I found that people assumed that I spent my afternoons smoking a pipe and discussing Dante with the tweedy philosopher. On campus it was a different story, because while Ralph was considered an expert in the philosophy of the “dark ages,” what made him respectable (and actually supported his family) were his Fr. Dowling mysteries. In these, an affable old Irish priest investigates seemingly monthly murders in his “dying” parish. And then there is his great novel about Vatican III, The Red Hat, in which renegade cardinals set up an anti-pope in Avignon, France while the true Pope Kevin I of Africa offers to sell the Sistine chapel to stem off creditors.
Unlike other brilliant types, Ralph always made one act and feel intelligent in his presence. Though he was of the Greatest generation and I a mere baby boomer, he happily discussed architecture and the bible (I mean the Summa) with me often. He also had a knack for quoting literary figures, particularly if they were dead. In fact, I clearly remember a T.S. Eliot laden lunch with him: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Ralph saw Eliot’s quote as referring to the highest forms of literature, such as murder mysteries, while I divined that he was analogizing architecture. As is well known by intellectuals of all stripes, most great writers, Ralph and T.S. included, were simply architect wannabes.
In 1997, Ralph offered me the opportunity to assist in editing an issue of Catholic Dossier themed “Church Architecture.” I jumped at the chance, in spite of the elusive remuneration. In his editorial for the issue, wittily titled “Debt Comes for the Archbishop” he writes “Bishops, and others, ought to give a lot of thought to the building of cathedrals and of other churches as well. And of course the building of churches involves other debts as well. Money will be spent. Let it be well spent.” My own debt was to Ralph McInerny and Catholic Dossier (a collector’s item now) who gave me the impetus for starting Sacred Architecture - the first journal on ecclesiastical architecture since the Dark Ages. At the time, Ralph was a columnist or editor for five or six magazines, in addition to his day job of teaching, directing the “Jacques McInerny” center and publishing tomes on Aquinas and Maritain annually. “The more journals the better” he encouraged and volunteered to be on the advisory board as long as I did all the work. Later, I needed an article that explained beauty to the common man and in true scholarly fashion he cranked it out. “The adage that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ is true of some eyes, but not all” he wrote. “But beautiful eyes must be seen in order to be recognized as beautiful and this does not transfer their beauty to the eye of the beholder of that beauty.” Classic McInerny. In the lucrative world of Catholic publishing I looked to him for guidance – and tried to flatter him by imitating the contents and the layout of his manifold publications. Of course we improved upon Ralph’s journals by including scintillating imagery (necessitated in part by the fact that many of our “readers” were architects).
In his dotage, he ran out of characters for his murder mysteries and so I was offered a cameo appearance. In The Third Revelation, a wealthy Catholic software mogul, sede vacantists, and CIA operatives all seek to recover the stolen secrets of Fatima. Far superior to Dan Brown, it is a painfully researched factual novel:
“What do you think of our present buildings?” “Very Impressive.” “ ‘Monuments to mediocrity.’ Duncan Stroik told me that.” Laura had been there when the young Notre Dame architect made this dismissive judgment. She had feared that Nate would undo the young man’s bow tie and drape it over his ears.
I predict that The Third Revelation will be his most popular yet—excepting his brilliant memoir I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You and his NYT bestsellers on Thomism.
Many of us thought that as long as Ralph McInerny stood firm, Western Civilization would stand firm as well. He was a bulwark against secularism in the Church and in the Academy. He offered inspiration to all of us on how Irishmen, and maybe others, could save civilization. Ralph was that rare sort: a Renaissance man who brought the timeless verities of Medieval philosophy to life in the modern age. And if all Thomists had as much fun as Ralph did, why would we need stand up comedians?
When I saw him a few days before he left us, I tried to joke around with him as always. “How is the angelic Phd doing?” I said. After a short conversation I saw that he was getting tired and it was time for me to go. His eyes twinkled. “As Henry VIII said to one of his wives, ‘I shall not keep you long.’” Hillarious to the end. Ralph McInerny, gentleman scholar - it was an honor to know you!
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine There’s music and laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so, Benedicamus Domino!