Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Walter J. BurghardtApril 08, 2000

The death of the Jesuit moral theologian Richard A. McCormick at 77 forces an uncommon sadness not only on family and friends but on the world of scholarship as well. For in his own field Father McCormick has provided a remarkable example of five facets that should characterize the genuine Catholic scholar, the man or woman who lives with wisdom.

First, Richard McCormick perceived scholarship as a vocation, saw in his own discipline a Christian calling. One significant reason why Catholic scholarship has not had greater impact on our society is the failure of lay and clerical Catholics to appreciate the vocation of the intellectual. The genuine Catholic tradition insists that the intellectual life should be as authentic a vocation as priesthood or marriage. It goes back to third-century Origen, with his rich recognition of the rights of reason, his insistence on comprehensive knowledge, his call for critical confrontation of reason and revelation and his profound yearning to include all the scattered fragments of discovered truth under what a later pupil called "the holy Word, the loveliest thing that is."

McCormick’s decades-long life as an ethicist/moralist was not something that simply coexisted with his priesthood, side by side with it. He recognized that he was engaged in priestly activity as long as he was responding to the needs and call of the church at a given moment in history. His involvement as a practitioner of moral theology and ethics was part and parcel of his vocation to ministerial priesthoodnot indeed necessary to that vocation, but in fact the primary path his vocation had taken. Hence his infectious enthusiasm for his field, the kind of "passionate love affair" that Barbara Tuchman had with history: "to be enthralled one’s self," she said, "and to feel a compulsion to communicate the magic." It was a response in faith to an invitation from God: to open up the wonders and challenges of the moral life, the genuinely "good" life, what it means to share with Christ in what is authentically human and simultaneously divine.

Second, Richard McCormick recognized that a Catholic scholar is not simply a scholar who is Catholic, who "keeps the faith": accepts what the church teaches, obeys church law, shares in liturgical worship. Our continuing challenge, not generally recognized, is a more intimate integration: How integral is my Catholic existence to my scholarly profession?

McCormick recognized the challenge, accepted it: not Catholic and scholar, Catholic scholar. Not only did faith motivate his scholarship; the substance of his research was a moral theology that would commend itself to reason and revelation. The basic problem that confronted him in the 60’s? Moral theology was changing radically. "For quite a few years now," he wrote in 1965, "theologians have, without disowning casuistry, disowned an excessively casuistic approach to the moral life." In the 40’s and 50’s, he recalled in 1989, Catholic moral theology, though "very pastoral and prudent, critically respectful, realistic, compassionate and charitable, well-informed," nevertheless "was all too often one-sidedly confession-oriented, magisterium-dominated, canon law-centered, and seminary-controlled."

In the forefront of what Daniel Callahan in 1964 called a theological "revolution," McCormick described 10 new "ages" in matters theological: the age of settling (a combination of consensus, stand-off and boredom), of specialists, of justice, of experience, of cultural diversity, of technology, of holiness and witness, of theological anthropology, of ecumenism, of women. Here McCormick was ceaselessly in search of moral method, of fundamental norms. He commanded a rare control of the literature, not only English, but French, German, Italian and Spanish. He kept close contact with Protestant ethiciansnot only read them, but ate and drank with such as Princeton’s delightful Paul Ramsey and hundreds more. He jousted with adversaries firmly but courteously, invariably presenting their views fairly. He was genuinely open to opposition and contradiction, to revision, revaluation. And he put his scholarly life on the line in countless lectures and seminars, in a handful of significant books and hundreds of articles.

This effort to fuse revelation and reason, weld tradition to progress, meant occasional clashes with authoritynot because McCormick arrogated to himself a power given to Peter alone; only when he saw faith and the faithful poorly served. In his opposition he was no less respectful than was Paul when he "opposed [Peter] to his face" (Gal 2:11), no less respectful than was Catherine of Siena when she told Gregory XI that if he would not use his power to correct injustice, "it would be better for you to resign what you have assumed." I recall how unwavering was his response to a highly positioned Roman prelate who wrote to reprove him for publishing a critical ethical article in a journal read by the laity...America.

Third, Richard McCormick realized that for a moralist to integrate Catholicism with professionalism, it was not sufficient to be proficient in a particular segment or moment of Catholic belief and morality. Catholic experience, he was convinced, must be catholic; individual experience must be contextualized by the community experience that spans ages and continents. He knew the Catholic moral tradition, and much of our broader theological tradition, from Scripture through medieval scholasticism to the 20th century. And his expertise in matters medical grew with the years.

Moreover, McCormick possessed a quality that keeps tradition from degenerating into traditionalism, into the vapid "this is the way we’ve always done it." I mean historical consciousness. Holding fast to the nature of truth as objective, he was not interested in classicism’s truth as something "already out there now" (to use Bernard Lonergan’s phrase), existing apart from its possession by anyone, apart from history, formulated in propositions verbally immutable. He was concerned with the possession of truth, with our human affirmations of truth, with the understandings contained in these affirmations, with progress in the grasp and penetration of what is true. He realized that, whether in Rome or South Bend, theology must be a ceaseless struggle in each age to grasp the Gospel anew. And so he took the best of our past, infused it with the insights of the present, with a view to an increasingly richer future.

Fourth, Richard McCormick was aware that Catholic scholarshipmoral theology includeddares not remain mired in the sheerly rational. The life of the mind must be fired by what the Jesuit William F. Lynch saw as the Christic imagination. It is the world of intuition and wonder, of amazement and delight, of festivity and play. For Catholic scholarship to come alive, the clear and distinct idea, rich as it is, is often not rich enough. There are areas where we need the image, more open-ended than the concept, more susceptible of different understandings. It is the gift of a Teilhard de Chardin, what Cardinal Maurice Feltin of Paris called his seductive "vision of the universe wherein matter and spirit, body and soul, nature and supernature, science and faith find their unity in Christ."

McCormick had an uncommon ability to see beyond the obvious, beneath the surface of things. It was a creative qualitytaking, for example, the elements of past moral reasoning (object-end-circumstances as determinative of moral evaluation) and shaping them into a fresh pattern, a new synthesis. It included a consistent, but not pollyannish, openness to the future, to what tomorrow’s technology and theology might bring. It showed in the fascination he felt with the uncertainties and possibilities of his discipline, in the freedom the Gospel and his faith lent his scholarship. I found it even in his ever-fresh love for life, experienced it time and again in his sensuous pleasure in a savory meal with friends, marveled at his delight in what friend John Courtney Murray called "civilized conversation." In this context it makes imaginative sense to me that among Richard’s dearest friends was Balanchine’s ballerina Suzanne Farrell, at whose marriage he officiated.

Fifth, McCormick’s scholarship was not embowered in an ivory tower. His word written and spoken, his involvement with government and health care, with sacred congregations and secular leaders, were built around the human person, with an almost fierce focus on justice. The areas were amazingly many: dignity of the human person, contraception, civil disobedience, business morality, heart transplants, political protest, genetic engineering, ecology, death and dying, divorce and remarriage, abortion, sexuality, nuclear warfare, homosexuality and women’s liberation. And never forget, this scholar sat at the bedside of the comatose Karen Ann Quinlan.

Ideas have consequences. But, as I said when I preached on his 50th anniversary as a Jesuit, only God knows fully the consequences of this scholar’s ideas: how many fetal lives have been spared and how many of the terminally ill have died with undefiled dignity; how many good people have ceased to rape God’s good earth and how many of the powerful have ceased to manipulate their sisters and brothers; how many physicians have learned not simply to cure but to care, and how many lawyers have added to their love of law the law of love; how many health care administrators can serve their communities with a more sharply honed conscience and how many confessors now counsel more compassionately. If the powerful of this world, from the laboratories for genetics to the halls of Congress, are willing to listen to Christian reason, it is largely because Christian reason has been incarnate in moralists and ethicists such as Richard McCormick.

I know I speak for untold thousands when I thank God for Richard McCormick: for a mind chiseled with uncommon clarity; for a priest of consummate compassion for the less fortunate; for a friend who shared life and love and laughter; for a man of the church even in his inevitable role as critic; for a Christian of courage who spent his last months rejoicing with St. Paul that he was privileged to suffer for the body of Christ he had served so selflessly. Ever so many of us are more intelligently Christlike for his presence among us.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024