Honoris Causa

Aristotle remarks that anyone who wonders whether he should honor his parents requires punishment, not instruction. This is a vivid expression of the self-evidence of the debt of gratitude we owe those on whom our existence depends. Piety begins at home, so to say, and is extended to the ultimate source of our being. Isn’t that the point of seeing God as father?

To be a human is more than undifferentiated existence, of course, and we have as many parents as there are different ways in which we come to be with the help of others. Piety becomes a commodious concept and spring, at least in academe, is a reason when we pay off some of those debts.

You will fear that this is an encomium for honorary degrees and I imagine you wincing at the thought of calculating committees in the public relations and fund raising offices of colleges and universities, licking their pencils as they pore over lists of potential honorary doctors who can be counted on to recognize that “to receive” has as its correlative “to give.” Fear not. On the other hand, I am disinclined to knock the practice, no matter the parade of uneven laureates who, newly hooded, arrive like robins in the spring.

John and Jean Oesterle were awarded the Aquinas Medal by the American Catholic Philosophical Association in April, and Jean’s acceptance speech was the high point of an unusually interesting convention. John died in 1977 and the award was a first in several ways: it was the first time a couple received the medal, it was the first time the medal had been awarded posthumously, it was the first time a woman had been medalist.

In her remarks, Jean recalled how she and John had come into the Church, the role that the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas had played in their lives, and then, not in a litany-like roll call, but folded into her reminiscing, she named others who had influenced her and her husband. Later, someone mentioned being reminded of Raissa Mantain’s memoirs. Jean evoked a not too distant past, the pre-conciliar Church, with its giants like Maritain and Gilson, and others who influenced her more directly, Charles DeKoninck and Father Belleperche, and in doing so she deftly and almost unconsciously took up the activity of those who were honoring her by drawing attention to a once pervasive way of understanding the relation between the intellectual and spiritual lives. Some there were for whom this was only a matter of history, not of personal memory, but there were others who realized that we have been forgetful of a golden period of Catholic philosophy. Jean Oesterle brought it all back in a few quick strokes, earning the medal over again right on the spot.

This spring, the Catholic University of America awarded an honorary doctorate to Father Joseph Owens, acknowledging his vast contributions to scholarship and his role in Catholic philosophy. Étienne Gilson wrote the preface to Father Owen’s magisterial The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics and remarked that in Owens, the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at Toronto had produced the paradigm instance of Institute scholar. It is a commonplace that Owens has been a leader in carrying on the tradition of Gilson.

Natural as such as honor seems, someone has to decide to confer it. In the Owens case, as in many similar ones, notably that of Etienne Gilson himself, Jude Dougherty, Dean of the School of Philosophy, has inspired his university to acknowledge heroes of contemporary Catholic culture. It is as if Dougherty fears that, in the enthusiasm of the moment, perhaps misled by distorted accounts of the past, the young may fail to know a whole generation of men and women who preceded them. The cultural illiteracy of young Catholics who have been fed a comic book version of Vatican II and been effectively cut off from tradition appalls many. Dougherty and his university have seen that one way to counter this is to put forward such people as Owens and Gilson as models.

Inspired by this and encouraged by Mr. Thomas White, a Notre Dame alumnus, the Jacques Maritain Center will honor Father Leo Ward, C.S.C. on May 2, shortly after his 91st birthday, in a ceremony at Holy Cross House on the campus. Father Hesburgh will speak for the university, Tom Stritch will speak for Father Ward’s colleagues, White will speak on behalf of the alumni and Jude Dougherty will give the major address on Ward’s role in American philosophy. To commemorate the occasion, the Jacques Maritain Center is publishing Father Ward’s bibliography.

Like other philosophers before him, Father Ward has turned in his last years to the writing of poetry and has published three collections. He is alive to what is going on today, as au courant as ever, but a special delight in talking with him is to elicit anecdotes of Chesterton and Maritain and other luminaries who have come to Notre Dame. Once again, to honor such a person is to be drawn into a continuum that stretches back into time, to gain a sense of tradition. Eliot, responding to the objection that we have no need to bother ourselves with such predecessors because we know so much more than they did, wrote, “Yes, and they are what we know.”

A final example. John Noonan is the 1984 recipient of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal annually awarded to an outstanding Catholic. Noonan’s scholarly writings, the studies of usury and contraception, his legal writings, technical and semi-popular, but most important in its way his steady, reasoned and efficacious role in the criticism of the infamous Roe vs. Wade decision, make him preeminently worthy of this honor. There are those of us who expect to see John Noonan on the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Laetare Medal acknowledges what he has already done.

These are a few examples of piety, ones that occur to me. Others will occur to others. It is important that we praise praiseworthy persons. The alternative, as Aristotle suggests, is punishment, not corporal punishment perhaps, but spiritual inanition.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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