Ralph McInerny and the tragedy of Notre Dame

In late February, Professor Marjorie Garber of Harvard came to the University of Notre Dame as the Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer for 2009-2010. Among other engagements, she spoke to a class on “Breaking the Code: Transvestism and Gay Identity,” the subject of chapter six of her book, Vested Interests: Transvestism and Cultural Anxiety. Ralph McInerny, an Olympic-class punster who taught at Notre Dame for 54 years before his death on Jan. 29, might have appreciated the sly title of Professor Garber’s book; he almost certainly would have regarded her topic as an example of everything that had gone wrong at the university to which he had dedicated his professional life.

Ralph McInerny was arguably the most distinguished scholar ever to work at Notre Dame. His scholarly publications outstrip those of other Notre Dame philosophers by orders of magnitude—and that’s before we get to his popular fiction, his magazine work, and his encouraging of generations of younger Catholic academics. Yet a university that does not hesitate to boast of its accomplishments as measured by the U.S. News and World Report ratings seemed curiously reticent about celebrating the life and accomplishments of Ralph McInerny. The university Web site posted a nicely written obituary three days after his death, but there was little sense in the university’s official recognition of its loss that a gigantic figure had left the scene.

One cannot help suspect that this has something to do with the fact that Ralph thought Notre Dame had gone off the rails in its dogged and relentlessly self-promoting attempts to measure itself against what it likes to term “peer schools,” such as Dartmouth and Yale. What Ralph understood, and what the man who brought him to Notre Dame, the legendary Father Theodore Hesburgh, has never seemed to understand, is that that’s the wrong plumb-line by which to measure a Catholic university’s accomplishment. Or indeed any university’s accomplishment, given the intellectual chaos, political correctness, decadence, and madcap trendiness that has afflicted those “peer schools” since the late Sixties.

Ralph McInerny knew, and could demonstrate with acute philosophical rigor, that there are truths built into the world and into us: truths we can know by exercising the arts of reason; truths that, known, lay certain moral obligations on us, personally and in our civic lives. With the rarest of exceptions, they don’t know that, and in fact they deny that, at the “peer schools” to which Notre Dame is addicted to comparing itself.  And therein lay the tragedy of Notre Dame and Catholic institutions of higher education of a similar cast of mind, as Ralph saw it: they had sold their intellectual and moral birthright—the true excellence that comes from an immersion in the Great Tradition of western higher learning—for a mess of pottage.

I’ve long thought that all of this had something to do with the misreading of a 1955 essay by Father John Tracy Elis, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” which justifiably criticized the shabby condition of too much of Catholic higher education in the United States in those days. Father Hesburgh and others influenced by one reading of Ellis’s critique decided that the thing to do was for Notre Dame to become Harvard, so to speak. Ralph McInerny thought that this didn’t make much sense at a time when those “peer schools” were awash in pragmatism and utilitarianism. Rather, he believed (and I think this was the more accurate reading of Ellis) that Notre Dame and other premier Catholic universities should play to strength, emphasizing a demanding liberal arts education while bringing the best of the mid-20th century Catholic philosophical, theological and literary renaissance to bear in the U.S. Doing that, Catholic universities would model a form of higher learning that was truth-centered, character-building, and life-inspiring.

There is indeed some of that going on at Our Lady’s University today, thanks to students, younger faculty, and some reform-minded members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.  Those true reformers lost a happy warrior for their noble cause with the death of Ralph McInerny. Perhaps someday the university’s board and administration will understand that.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.