I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You by Ralph McInerny

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I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In his brief and readable autobiography I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, Ralph McInerny traces the events that led him away from a life as a priest to the life of a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a parallel career as the author of more than sixty-five Father Dowling mysteries. Arranged chronologically, the book clusters events around themes expressed in the chapter titles. McInerny traces his growth from his Irish Catholic boyhood and early education through his appointment at Notre Dame. He describes his success as a writer of popular fiction, then addresses more directly the passions of his intellectual and religious life. Two of these are the life and teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the erosion of the Catholic Church’s traditional identity through the effects of Vatican II.

McInerny’s family members were firmly and deeply committed to the practice of Catholicism. His parents were strictly observant believers; his mother, in fact, was a lay member of a religious order. McInerny’s studies at a Catholic college-preparatory school were the same as those offered to young men planning to enter the priesthood. McInerny assumed his life would lead to ordination, but before leaving high school, he had turned his sights toward scholarship and university teaching. His undergraduate and graduate work culminated with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Laval University.

At his university, McInerny immersed himself in the study of Aquinas and the foundations of Scholasticism. These interests followed him throughout his career, the entirety of which (except a brief stint at Creighton University) was spent at Notre Dame. The location of many of his mystery stories on campus suggests that for McInerny, Notre Dame made possible a seamless integration of his family, his two careers, and his spiritual life.

A major focus of the later chapters of McInerny’s memoir is the shift at Notre Dame from the sacred toward the secular in education generally, but in the philosophy department specifically. This shift he attributes to the misguided desire of Notre Dame, like the ancient Israelites, to be like its neighbors. To achieve this competitive likeness with secular institutions such as Stanford or Brown, McInerny believes that Notre Dame gradually gave away a significant part of what made it unique—its Catholic heritage. In its place came a “culture of dissent,” made up of faculty eager to prove to the world that even though they worked at Notre Dame, they answered to no one, most especially the Vatican. Much of his life was spent in rallying students and faculty to resist these trends and preserve their heritage.

Obedience to authority is a key element of McInerny’s Christian values. Despite the Church’s lapses over the centuries, McInerny separates the incorrect or even evil acts of individuals from the “magisterium” of the Church: its authority to define and teach doctrine. That authority is larger than individuals and even that of entire eras, McInerny affirms. As his autobiography progresses, McInerny expresses his concern for the Church more forcefully. Vatican II is the central cause of these concerns. The changes reflected in the documents of Vatican II were not simply stylistic, McInerny feels, but substantial and damaging. McInerny points out the influences of liberal theologians like Karl Rahner and the even greater impact of a manipulative world press. Authors of the documents that came out of this council caved in to pressure from clergy and laity alike, he says, to make the Church “relevant” to modern life. The resulting downshift in interpretation of doctrine into the lives of laity has produced confusion and rudderless drifting by a generation reared on these revisions. McInerny feels this loss to be deep and grievous, a feeling that may have inspired the title of his book. Like the servant in Job, McInerny announces to his readers what they may expect to experience next as their weakened...

(The entire section is 1,059 words.)