Tom O'Toole
Ralph's "Knights" in shining armor: can McInerny's "murders" save Notre Dame?
By Tom O'Toole
April 28, 2010

    "It's been a while since I saw a priest here in a Roman Collar. Except Fr. Hesburgh, but he's not on campus much since his retirement."

    "So you're at Notre Dame?"

    "My husband's doing graduate work." She hesitated. "In theology..."

    "Good God!" — Kate, to Father Dowling, from A Cardinal Offense

    What he objected to was substituting generic excellence — conceding that was what the university was getting with these clowns... — and an excellence peculiar to Notre Dame. "They [the current faculty] would be equally happy or unhappy at Meatball Tech, providing the salary was as astronomical as here."

    "You were about to say something about football."

    "Well...when did the team begin to sink in the national standings? When we [stopped] recruiting...the Catholic high schools of Chicago, the parishes of Pennsylvania...and began to recruit the same kids every other place was..." — Donald Weber, to Roger Knight, in Celt and Pepper

Although I was a student at Our Lady's University during his long and glorious Irish Tenure (pun intended) it is an irony both tragic and comic that I did not truly appreciate the monumental place Ralph McInerny held at the University of Notre Dame (and the Catholic Church as a whole) until after his recent death. A king in Philosophy (indeed, a "Philosopher King") and a man of many mysteries (Murder Mysteries, that is) I've found that McInerny led an amazing and devout life that I much admire, and also held a deep desire for Notre Dame to once again proclaim its complete and utter fidelity to the Faith that I too share. But now, on the eve of the one year anniversary of Notre Dame President John Jenkins' fateful decision to defy Rome by honoring our radically pro-abortion President Barack Obama at the University's commencement, perhaps my most astounding prediction since discovering the McInerny literary collection is that not only do I believe that Ralph's writing has a decent shot at "post-humorously" restoring the complete obedience of the "Domers" (and through ND, the rest of the wayward American Catholic Church) with Rome, but he will accomplish this compliance largely not through his formidable tomes on Thomism but due to his humble (yet hilarious) "mysteries set at the University of Notre Dame."

As tempting as it is to list the many academic accomplishments and literary awards McInerny accumulated in his fifty plus years teaching and writing at Notre Dame, one quickly realizes that an entire article could be taken up with this endeavor if he attempted to name them all. For my purposes, the image of a man who authored over eighty books by writing almost every evening from 10 p.m. 'til 2 a.m. (and in the early years, typing those four hours standing up) while at the same time passionately teaching a full load of university level philosophy courses, conjures up the comparison of Mother Teresa spending long days ministering to the poor and then taking four hours every night to personally answer her multitudinous mail. But if the likening of the saintly lifestyle of Professor Ralph to Blessed Teresa seems valid, the method to their holy madness seems even more similar. For if the beloved founder of the Missionaries of Charity insisted on unwavering cheerfulness from her sisters in the face of sickness and death, the co-founder of Crisis magazine continued to confound critics by confronting his Modernistic philosophical opponents with both Truth and humor — both of which are most evident in his writing of the Knights at Notre Dame.

McInerny loved to talk about analogies in Aquinas, and surely he came to see the failings of the faith at Notre Dame as analogous to those of the American Catholic Church as a whole. If McInerny's more famous sleuth Father Dowling was a forerunner to the Knight brothers (notice both Dowling and the Catholic Knight brother share the first name "Roger") then the 1994 Dowling mystery A Cardinal Offense was a precursor to the Notre Dame Knight Brothers' series. In this edition of the twenty-plus Dowling volume collection, Father is invited to attend a conference at Notre Dame led by Rome's Cardinal Josef Hildebrand (no doubt modeled after then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) with the added incentive of two tickets to that weekend's much anticipated Notre Dame-USC football game. No doubt the vivid descriptions of the campus McInerny affectionately called home left his mystery fans wanting more stories in this setting (and thus led to the Knights-ND series which he initiated in 1997), but I'm sure McInerny's wary cronies took a special interest in this particular Dowling drama as well. As it turns out, their fear is well founded; not only does McInerny depict the novel's Notre Dame couple Mark and Kate as both having lost their faith due to courses taught on campus (although Kate fell away largely at St. Mary's) but the protest of the strictly orthodox Hildebrand's appearance is led by the ND Theology Department, of which graduate student Mark is a part of!

Certainly, the trademark McInerny humor is found in Dowling, but the somewhat somber priestly sagas contain nowhere near the amount of comedy with which Ralph regales the tales of the Brothers Knight. Lines like "Omniscience as well as infallibility were now enjoyed by theologians. What a pill. That's what his students called him; he was so obsessed with contraception" (pg. 75), are found in "Offense," but they elicit smiles rather than belly laughs since the dissidence of the school's theologians is so prevalent.

In contrast, while McInerny continues to take the college to task in the Notre Dame Mystery Series, the constant crackups seem to render the University's many failings less overwhelming. For example, McInerny's love for pun-ny titles started in "Dowling," is continued in the Mysteries ND (On This Rockne, Lack of the Irish, Irish Tenure) but the Dickenesque names of many of these ND characters, including Bridget Quirk, Horst Lipschutz and Oscar Wack (that's Wack, O. for short) also contribute to their comic feel. In addition, the ND Mysteries contain certain reoccurring characters such as the "Old Bastards" (a bunch of undistinguished retired professors who twice a week lunch together to pontificate on the good ol' days and/or "deadpan" on the current murder) and ND Campus Security's Larry Douglas, aka "Space Cadet" (due to the costume-like plastic helmet that is part of the uniform) who scours the campus on his 10-speed giving tickets, uncovering dead bodies, and fighting off the amorous advances of his hefty fellow cadet Laura ("When he dreamed of women, Laura didn't enter the picture...there was a lot of her...he was no prize, but he took care of himself and sure as hell didn't have a tattoo on his rear end" Irish Gilt, pg. 93), not necessarily in that order.

While the "Kirkus Review" claim of the ND Mystery Irish Coffee, "Most readers will be converted to die-hard Notre Dame fans and possibly Catholicism," may be a bit over the top, it goes right to the heart of why I believe this series is a perfect apologetic tool for the average fan, casual Catholic, or curious agnostic; it is so much fun you hardly realize you're being proselytized! Whereas A Cardinal Offense takes on the heavy (if important) subject of the rash of U.S. annulments, On This Rockne (the first in the Knight-Notre Dame series) tackles the much less theological taxing subject of, "To many alumni, being a good Fighting Irish fan is as important as being a Catholic" (from the Rockne book jacket), plus the subplot of the administration trying to connive a way to get wealthy alum Marcus Bramble to keep his ten million donation pledge without spending it on a Rockne mausoleum as he wanted.

But if Rockne delivers on the ambitious game plan of keeping professional philosopher, football fanatic, and amateur detective on edge, Lack of the Irish, the series' next installment, does it one better. Against the backdrop of a campus theological conference between Notre Dame and Baptist affiliated Baylor University, the Reverend Edwina Marciniak, fallen-away Catholic and founder of the feminist "Independent Protestant Church of Jesus Christ and His Almighty Parent," convinces ND star quarterback Elijah Samuel Phipps, who happens to be a devout Baptist, that to play against Baylor would be a sacrilege. After fleeing Notre Dame, Phipps finds himself jailed on false charges ranging from murder to soliciting a prostitute. When he is finally rescued and whisked back to campus right at game time, Elijah still refuses to play the contest...until Roger Knight reveals that Baylor's quarterback is Catholic!

Still, the success of any murder series rests largely on the appeal of its detective(s), and there are none larger than Roger Knight. Although Roger comes to Notre Dame to be a professor, and brother Phil (who accompanies his brother to the University more for his love of Fighting Irish sports than a promise of many cases) is the full time private detective, as in the case of Holmes and Watson, it is soon clear who is running the show. Having both converted to Catholicism and attained a doctorate from Princeton at the age of 19, Roger sadly remains unemployed in academia for many years because of his great girth. But just when the situation appears hopeless, the wise and devout Father Carmody, in his last official act before retirement, offers Knight the newly created Huneker Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Formulated to bring back the Frank O'Malley approach to teaching Catholic literature, Knight, despite his lack of classroom experience, proves to be an instant success with students (if not the not-so-Catholic faculty), a giant of a man in every sense of the word. Half McInerny (also an academic prodigy before he became a beloved professor) and half G.K. Chesterton, Knight solves crimes with both his huge (and holy) intellect and humongous frame — in Irish Alibi he not only discovers the surprise killer of sleazy novelist Madeline O'Toole (no relation!) is none other than the bible-toting Kitty Callendar, but he catches the cornered Kitty by becoming wedged in Callendar's office door.

Despite the dire theological direction Notre Dame has taken in the years leading up to McInerny's death, humor remained an integral part of the campus mystery series, although in the later additions much of the humor grew dark. In his 2006 autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, McInerny, while lamenting his departmental meetings went from stressing a unified "commitment to the thought of Thomas Aquinas," to more closely resembling "a session of the United Nations without interpreters" with no shared "definition of philosophy" (pg. 104), he nevertheless remained optimistic about the University, later stating, "we now stand at a crossroads...[with] the presidency of Father John Jenkins, we have an unequaled opportunity to access where we have been and where we are going" (pg. 115).

But by March of 2009, McInerny, after Jenkins' commencement invitation to Obama, instead became convinced ND had gone the wrong way down a "One Way" street, calling the decision (in the blog "The Catholic Thing") "a deliberate thumbing of the collective nose at the Catholic Church," adding (after comparing Father Jenkins to Julian the Apostate) "Notre Dame has forfeited the right to be called a Catholic University." Similarly, in The Green Revolution when agnostic Notre Dame professor Horst Lipschutz brings an angry band to the Administration Building with the tired old demand of the new and improved faculty to concentrate on academics and drop football, Father Carmody comes out of retirement and puts an end to the insanity in truly decisive and hilarious fashion — only to see Lipschutz later awarded a new Notre Dame research center, thanks to the intervention of trustee (gulp!) Mimi O'Toole. Or, as McInerny, speaking through Father Carmody, says to one of his successors in The Letter Killeth, "There are two schools of thought [on Notre Dame]. One holds that we are fashioning a new way to be a Catholic university. The other holds that we are ceasing to be one."

"Which school do you belong to?"


One of the sad side notes of post Vatican intellectual snobbery is the false teaching that fiction is inferior to philosophy or theology for gaining an understanding of the meaning of life. Everyone from McInerny's real life colleagues to Father Dowling's long-time fictional housekeeper and foil Marie Murkin (who used to cover the copies of the Dickens' novels Father was always reading with the diocesan newspaper when guests came over) looked down on Ralph's "hobby" of reading and writing fiction (especially murder mysteries, a genre most considered just a step up from romances!) which may be precisely why he kept it up. McInerny knew that not only could he make his "novel" criticisms of pseudo-Catholic philosophers, theologians (and universities) all the more scathing in his fiction (after all, Ralph's philosophy contemporaries themselves claimed since fiction isn't "real" and therefore not "true," it was harmless) while in his mysteries (where murder is both the analogy and final consequence of sin) he could take a current Catholic heresy to its logical (and often absurd) conclusion, therefore illuminating the average reader to preposterousness of the lie in way a theory or news story can't. Which, in McInerny's case, brings us to an interesting situation, if not a final solution...

For both the readers who are already fans of the Knights, or those have now decided to accept the delightful if bittersweet assignment of helping solve the deadly dilemmas "set at the University of Notre Dame," we stand at a unique moment in history, a "crossroads" if you will. Although most bibliographies list Dante and the Blessed Virgin as McInerny's last book, Sham Rock, McInerny's thirteenth and final mystery in the Notre Dame series, has just been released! Whether McInerny's decision to release his last judgment on his former faithful institution after his death was intentional (more fireworks than usual?) or not, one has to admit it adds to the drama. It's almost as if Ralph is writing from heaven, trying to save Notre Dame one last time, this time by Divine intervention. Will Father Jenkins be deposed? Will Phillip Knight convert? Will Brian Kelly win the National Championship? Will Roger be named the first director of the newly created Ralph McInerny Center of Fiction and Philosophy at Notre Dame? Or all of the above?

We can only hope. But in any case, I think we can rest assured that McInerny (and of course, Our Lady) will have the last laugh.

© Tom O'Toole


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Tom O'Toole

Thomas Augustine O'Toole was born in Chicago and grew up in a devout Catholic family with five brothers and two sisters. He was the sports editor of Notre Dame's Scholastic magazine, where his story "Reflections on the Game" won the award for Best Sports Feature for the Indiana Collegiate Press Association... (more)


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