Richard McCormick, R.I.P.

Richard McCormick, SJ, died last month at the age of seventy-seven. Widely regarded as the most influential contemporary American moral theologian, McCormick’s work was a model of intellectual precision and integrity. Famous for his resonant smoker’s voice, ready laugh, and unpretentious manner, McCormick was a beloved mentor to dozens of younger colleagues. From 1965 to 1984 he wrote the influential "Notes on Moral Theology" for the scholarly journal Theological Studies, and in doing so was always careful to present the best arguments of those with whom he disagreed. After years as a Jesuit seminary instructor, he taught at the Kennedy Center for Bioethics at Georgetown, finishing his academic career as the John A. O’Brien Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. He was a nationally recognized authority on bioethics, an articulate defender of the church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia, and a pioneering figure in the renewal of Catholic moral theology in the aftermath of Vatican II. Commonweal readers have been familiar with his byline since 1964, when he first appeared here writing on the question of "marital morality." His last piece for the magazine (August 14, 1998) laid out, in his customarily direct and succinct style, his principled opposition to "punishing dissent" in the church.

McCormick was an outspoken defender of "conscientious dissent" from church teachings on contraception, certain aspects of sexual morality, and prohibitions against in vitro fertilization. Steeped in the church’s tradition, deeply devoted to the priesthood, he was commited to honest debate on disputed questions. Never eager to pick a fight with the magisterium or the conservative Catholic activists who made him an object of their scrutiny, neither did he shy away from one. He believed, above all, that church teaching had to be defended in rational argument, not merely by appeals to authority. He exhibited on all occasions that very Catholic conviction that reason and faith need not contradict one another. In the last years of his life, McCormick spoke out bravely about what he described as the "coercive atmosphere" in which Catholic moral theologians must now work. In his 1998 Commonweal article, he quoted John XXIII on how the church should best deal with the possibility of theological error. "The church," John wrote, "has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations."

Few theologians were as proficient at demonstrating the validity of the Catholic moral tradition as Richard McCormick, and fewer still, perhaps, as good at applying the "medicine of mercy" to the intellectual challenges we face. He will not soon be replaced, but, we trust, his work-that conveyed his spirit-will continue to bear much fruit.

Published in the 2000-03-10 issue: 
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