End Notes: Clio’s Cleric

“This is the worst novel I’ve read all the way through.” Thus began a review by Father Marvin O’Connell some years back. Woe to the sloppy writer who has such a reader—luckily the work in question was not mine. O’Connell has not devoted much time to such ephemeral productions, his own or others. His Irish ire has limited the occasions for it. Years ago he reviewed Paul Johnson’s book The Jews for us and Michael Novak asked for a few changes. He has never written for CRISIS since. An editor at Notre Dame Magazine presumed to cut a commissioned article in half. He will never again appear in those benighted pages. He is, in a word, Irish. He is also far and away the best historian we have. As a newly ordained priest, Marvin O’Connell came to Notre Dame to study with the acclaimed Church historian Philip Hughes. Another recipient of a Lingard fellowship that year was the now Monsignor Eugene V. Clark. The two have been close friends ever since. O’Connell’s graduate work bore fruit in a book on the counter-Reformation figure Thomas Stapleton (Yale, 1964). He was assigned to teach history at St. Thomas College and he spent fifteen years there. His teaching became legendary, his rectorship of a residence hall was draconian, his weekend work was pastoral. These were the years when things fell apart, the center did not hold. Priests went over the wall like lemmings or disappeared on unexplained leaves. Imagine the annoyance this faithful priest doing three jobs felt toward such self-indulgence. When the call to Notre Dame came and his archbishop gave the go-ahead, Marvin O’Connell entered into what were to be his golden years.

Shortly before making the academic move, The Oxford Conspirators appeared (MacMillan, 1969). Those who thought they had understood Newman and the Oxford Movement were given a fresh and deeper look at both. When, in 1980, the novel McElroy appeared, I and many others read it all the way through with profound pleasure. This was O’Connell’s only venture outside history, but it revealed a talent that those who had known him since schooldays were well aware of. Fellow Minnesotans professed to see Eugene McCarthy as the inspiration of the main character, but O’Connell remained appropriately mum.

In the major works that have since appeared, O’Connell found his mature style as an historian. Few writers have the ability to locate the reader more surely in place and time, to give a sense of the human beings whose deeds and antics are the stuff of history. The historian dotes on the particular; the great historian makes it shine with a more than particular import. An historian like O’Connell becomes perforce a bit of a biographer, and there is always a soupçon of the novelist in his style now.

John Ireland, the life of the great churchman, Archbishop of St. Paul, appeared in 1988. It is neither hagiography nor demythologizing, putting the man and the times and the issues before the reader’s unblinkered eyes. Ireland might have winced a bit in reading it, but in the end would know he had fallen into good hands. Next came what is to date O’Connell’s finest work, Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis (Catholic University Press, 1994). Anyone wanting to know how we got to where we are must understand the theological turmoil and dissent at the beginning of the century. The modernists have been lionized by some and demonized by others; O’Connell gives them to us as almost sympathetic figures. Rare is the writer who can combine compassion for his subjects and judgment on what they did and said. There will never be a better book on the modernist crisis.

Last year, as if to exhibit yet another string in his bow, O’Connell published Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart (Eerdmans, 1997). As a subject, Pascal is perfectly adapted to O’Connell’s strengths as a writer. The frail and troubled prodigy, whose conversion experience was written out in the Memorial he always carried with him, as Descartes carried the record of a similar experience; Mere Angelique, all the figures at Port-Royal and beyond; the Jesuits; the spiritual and theological issues; the delicate dialectic of heart and mind—has anyone ever handled these with such deftness and authority as Marvin O’Connell?

We wait now for his next major work, the life of Edward Sorin, founder of Notre Dame. He is proceeding with the same sure and deliberate pace with which he has written all his books. Luncheon previews whet the appetite; dinner table asides make one impatient for the book. Much has been written about Notre Dame and his founder, but O’Connell’s life promises to be worthy of its subject and, dare I say, vice versa too.

There are those who may attribute my high estimate of Marvin O’Connell to the fact that we have been friends since boyhood. The Irish answer to that is, although I have known him since boyhood, I regard him as the premier Catholic historian of our time—and as my oldest friend in every sense. Ad multos annos.


  • 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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