Richard A. McCormick, S.J.
by George G. Higgins
Jesuit Father Richard A. McCormick, a noted moral theologian, died on February 12 at the Jesuit infirmary, Colombiere Center, not far from Detroit, Michigan. His death was not completely unexpected, for he had suffered a severe stroke some months before and remained almost completely paralyzed on his left side until double pneumonia claimed his life.
From the Woodstock Theological Center Website at Georgetown University
Father McCormick was probably best known for his annual Moral Notes published in the Jesuit quarterly, Theological Studies, from 1965 to 1984. We are fortunate that these Notes, surveying year by year, all of the most important literature on moral theology in all modern languages, are available in two carefully indexed volumes published in 1981 and 1984 respectively, by University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland.
Father McCormick exemplified the kind of dialogue called for by Pope Paul VI in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam. The Pope singled out dialogue as the preferred—indeed the indispensable—form of relationship between Church and society. This type of relationship, he said, is characterized by "courteous esteem, understanding, and goodness on the part of the one who inaugurates the dialogue; it excludes the a priori condemnation, the offensive and time-worn polemic and emptiness of useless conversation."
There is a striking parallel between Pope Paul VI's eloquent espousal of dialogue and that of Dr. Reubel L. Howe, an American Protestant theologian whose excellent little book, The Miracle of Dialogue, was published, by happy coincidence, just a few months before the encyclical appeared. Dialogue, according to Dr. Howe, is absolutely essential in every human relationship, but especially in the search for truth. Unfortunately, he said, religious people are especially prone to speak the truth which they profess monologically—with predictably negative results. "The monological thinker," he points out, "runs the danger of being prejudiced, intolerant, bigoted, and a persecutor of those who differ from him. The dialogical thinker, on the other hand, is willing to speak out of his convictions to the holders of other convictions with genuine interest in them and with the sense of the possibilities of agreement between them."
In my judgment, Father McCormick ranked at the very top of the list, among his peers in the American theological fraternity, in his mastery of the art of scholarly dialogue as defined and extolled by Paul VI and Dr. Howe.
Father McCormick's two volumes of Moral Notes totaled approximately 1,300 pages. Every page reflects courteous esteem, understanding, and goodness on the author's part, together with a genuine interest in those who hold to other convictions and a strong sense of the possibilities of agreement between them. In short, McCormick was the dialogical theologian par excellence.
Father McCormick's scholarly irenicism did not inhibit him from stating his own reasoned convictions on controversial issues with fearless but responsible candor, even or especially when he felt constrained, as a qualified theologian, to disagree with the Magisterium on matters which are properly open to dissent. He was genuinely respectful of legitimate ecclesiastical authority.
I must leave it to Father McCormick's academic peers to assess the pros and cons of his carefully stated views in those areas of moral theology which are clearly beyond my personal competence. On the other hand, because of my own training and background, I feel confident in saying that on all matters of social ethics and social morality he was consistently on target and, again, consistently dialogical and unpolemical in his approach to controversial issues.
Father McCormick's acknowledged competence, at the level of moral theory was happily combined with a finely tuned pastoral instinct and deep compassion. To a remarkable degree, he had the capacity so strongly endorsed by the Second Vatical Council in its Decree on Priestly Life and Ministry "to reason with other people and to open his heart in the spirit of charity to the various circumstances of human need." Father McCormick, a very sociable person and the best of company, has left behind him a host of dedicated friends and admirers not only in his own academic fraternity but in all walks of life. We will miss him as a friend and boon companion and the Church in the United States will sorely miss him as one of its most distinguished moral theologians. May God reward him for his dedicated theological and pastoral service for so many years. May he rest in peace.
Monsignor George G. Higgins served for 36 years in the Social Action Department of the United States Catholic Conference, 25 of those years as its director. He is a former lecturer at The Catholic University of America and author of Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a Labor Priest (Paulist Press, 1993). He served for many years on Woodstock's board of directors.
Click here to return to News Page