James Mackey obituary: theology professor with ecumenical sympathies

Liberal Catholic theologian and author was open to insights from other faiths

Born: February 9th, 1934

Died: January 25th, 2020

The death has taken place of James Mackey, eminent professor of theology and author of several scholarly books on Christianity. Born in Co Waterford, Mackey began his academic career in the philosophy department at Queen's University, Belfast (QUB) but it was as professor of theology at Edinburgh University that he left his greatest mark.

On his appointment as Thomas Chalmers professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh in 1979, he became the first ordained Roman Catholic theologian to hold the chair of theology since the university was founded in the 16th century. This caused great controversy in the general assembly of the Church of Scotland which spilled over into the national press.


However, after Mackey arrived he quickly showed himself to be a theologian with great ecumenical sympathies who regarded theology as a discipline in which the old confessional boundaries were largely irrelevant. His PhD at QUB on the nature of evil in modern philosophy and theology had, after all, been supervised by a notable Presbyterian theologian, Prof James Haire.


Five years after arriving at New College at the University of Edinburgh, Mackey became the dean of the faculty of divinity, negotiating the transfer of key scholars to the University of Edinburgh from the centre for the study of Christianity in the non-western world at the University of Aberdeen and the department of religious studies at the University of Glasgow. During his time as dean, he was affectionately known as James Machiavelli, such was his shrewd ability to grow the faculty during the Thatcher years when public funds for universities were under threat.

Born the eldest of three children to Peter Mackey and Esther Morrissey, James Mackey attended the Christian Brothers school in his home town of Dungarvan before completing his secondary school education at the Cistercian College in Roscrea.

He studied philosophy and theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, finishing his doctorate in theology in 1960. He moved to Belfast to lecture in theology at Queen's University where he also did a PhD in philosophy. He returned to Waterford to teach philosophy at St John's College seminary from 1966 until 1969. It was during his time there that he met his future wife, Noelle Quinlan. Receiving a dispensation from the Catholic Church, Mackey and Quinlan were married in 1973. By that time, Mackey had already moved to teach theology at the University of San Francisco where his wife later joined him. The couple went on to have two children, Ciara and James.

Described by his contemporaries as a liberal Catholic theologian following Vatican II, Mackey was alert to the historical criticism of the Bible in natural sciences and open to insights from other faiths. As a lecturer, his style was informal, laced with a dry sense of humour. He challenged students with conservative opinions. He had a memorable turn of phrase which students would often quote years later.

Mackey organised many conferences and wrote 14 books spanning his interests in systemic theology (the study of doctrines of Christian faith in relation to each other and other faiths and fields of knowledge) and Celtic Christianity. A practising Roman Catholic throughout his life, he was nonetheless critical of some of that church's practices and doctrines. He found his strongest sense of the presence of God in Celtic traditions and believed Catholic theology had overstated its doctrine of "original sin" and the sacramental remedies that only the church could offer.

Mackey's early works include The Church: Its Credibility Today (1970), Jesus the Man and the Myth (1979) and The Christian Experience of God as Trinity (1983) and Introduction to Celtic Christianity (1990).

Television series

In the 1980s, he presented religious television series for ITV and Channel 4 entitled Hall of Mirrors and the Gods of War. He also wrote occasional articles for The Irish Times. In 2004, he co-wrote a book with Irish theologian Enda McDonagh, Religion and Politics in Ireland: At the Turn of the Millennium. His later publications include Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and Its Future among Religions (2006) and The Scientist and the Theologian: On the Origin and End of Creation (2007).

Although he spent most of his academic working life abroad, he never lost touch with his home place, returning to Waterford every summer with his family. The family purchased a holiday house in Clonee where Mackey sailed regularly with a lifelong friend, passing on to his children and grandchildren a love of sailing. Having played hurling in Waterford and rugby when at the Cistercian College in Roscrea, he maintained a strong interest in both the Irish rugby team and the Waterford hurling team.

Upon retiring from the University of Edinburgh, he returned with his wife to Waterford, continuing to work as a visiting professor to universities in the United States and for many years at Trinity College Dublin. During these years, he also returned to his earlier passion for fostering interdenominational understanding in Northern Ireland by becoming a member of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland, which sought cross-community consensus following years of conflict in Northern Ireland.

James Mackey is survived by his wife, Noelle, his son, James, his daughter, Ciara, his grandchildren Seren and James and his sister, Maria, a Dominican nun in South Africa. His brother, Brendan, predeceased him in 2008.