Enda McDonagh obituary: A theologian scholar with a towering intellect

The theologian’s contribution to intellectual life of Christianity in Ireland equalled by few in his generation

Dr Enda McDonagh, who has died at the age of 90, was a theologian and churchman who – despite a life and career often marked by official suspicion and even disapproval – made a contribution to the intellectual life of Christianity in this island equalled by few in his generation.

He would, of course, have been the last to claim such a distinction. His good-humoured, easy-going manner embodied an ironic, self-deprecating humility which no flattery could puncture; but it also concealed a towering intellectual presence, combined with a deeply-rooted sense of service to others, which made an ineradicable impression on all who knew him.

He was born in the small Mayo village of Bekan, to a family of teachers-cum-politicians, and into a society characterised by rural poverty in its most classic form. Out of his class of 24 in primary school, only three went on to secondary education, and only two of those ended up working in their native country. It is not difficult to see, in the predilections of his later life, a burning sense of the need for social justice which was informed by the experiences of those early years.

Enda McDonagh received his secondary education at St Jarlath’s in Tuam, and then went to Maynooth: the classic pattern for a bright country lad with a strong vocation. Even at Maynooth, however, he started to diverge in some respects from this traditional norm. For one thing, he took his primary degree not in any of the customary arts subjects, but in science. This relatively uncommon choice already said something about his student mind: fascinated by the scientific method, open to questioning, regarding the unknown as territory to be explored rather than as a no-go area.


He took his BSc in 1951. His doctorate in theology came in 1957, to be followed by further qualifications, including a degree from the Angelicum in Rome and another doctorate in Munich in 1960. The latter qualification broke important new ground: formally in canon law, it was in fact an innovative and challenging study of the relationship between church and state in the Irish constitution, an area in which he was to make many important contributions in the years that followed. His influences in this area included the great American Jesuit, Fr John Courtney Murray.

He had already been appointed, at the age of 28, Professor of Moral Theology and Canon Law at Maynooth, a post he was to hold for 36 years. To hold such an important appointment at such an early age was a sign of rare distinction. In the traditional pattern of preferment in the Catholic Church in Ireland, it would have been seen as a staging post on the way to a bishopric. He never took the final steps along that particular, well-trodden path; but the episcopate’s loss was Ireland’s, and the wider world’s, gain.

Debate and controversy

It was his, and Maynooth’s, good fortune that his talents flowered just as the Catholic Church was going through its most radical transformation in more than a century - the series of changes heralded by the Second Vatican Council. Throughout the 1960s, when Catholic Ireland was awakening from what seemed like torpor into a ferment of new ideas and controversies, he was at the forefront of debate and controversy, although in a context in which his basic loyalty to his church was never in question.

The reason for this was largely that his vision of the church was itself a thoroughly Conciliar one – a vision of the church as a whole, not just as the institutional creature of, and vehicle for, a hide-bound clerisy. He was as concerned to persuade those impatient for renewal away from the pitfalls of a jejeune anti-clericalism as he was to nudge other priests, and indeed bishops, into greater contact with, and confidence in, the sensus fidelium.

He and a number of other priests had considerable difficulties with the Church’s ruling on contraception in 1968: Humanae Vitae had its positive aspects, but they were as nothing compared to the bluntness with the anticipated change in attitude had been rejected. In 1971, he went as far as to publicly suggest that the law should be changed. This was courageous for its time: the hierarchy as a whole, and Archbishop McQuaid in particular, were fulminating against the allegedly ruinous social consequences of a draft Bill put forward by Mary Robinson in the Seanad at that time.

Four years later, his candidacy for the vice-presidency of Maynooth was as brusquely turned down. Twice, he was passed over when he might have been president of the college. As it became increasingly obvious that he would remain indefinitely at the end of any ecclesiastical queue, this paradoxically released further energies rather than dampened his spirit. He had nothing to lose.

He threw himself into a wide range of organisations, each of which was enriched by his eirenic spirit, his capacity to reconcile differences, and his energy even in the face of frequent over-commitment of his physical resources.

He was twice elected president of the Irish Federation of University Teachers; in 1972, he was elected to the senate of the National University of Ireland (NUI), where he served for many years. One of the founding figures of the Irish Theological Association, he became involved, with Robinson and others (including members of other denominations) in a 1972 committee of that association which produced a far-sighted report on possible constitutional change.

In 1979, he was offered a three-year contract by the University of Notre Dame. In fact he was offered a permanent position there, but to leave Ireland would have been a betrayal of all he stood for.

After his return to Ireland, he again became involved with a wide range of organisations, including serving as a member of the Higher Education Authority from 1985-1990.

The nature and significance of his engagement was appropriately signalled in 1990 when, after Robinson’s election as President, he became her official chaplain. This largely honorary position did not hinder his other activities, including his presidency of the National Conference of Priests of Ireland.

He was the author of a considerable number of books and articles on theological topics, the most recent being The Risk of God. He was one of an impressive array of writers, assembled by Canon JG McGarry, whose writings in The Furrow were indispensable to the tasks of reflection and renewal of Irish Catholicism in both the pre-Conciliar and post-Conciliar periods. His own major published works included Gift and Call: towards a Christian theology of morality (1975); The demands of simple Justice: a study of the church, politics and violence (1980); Immersed in mystery: en route to theology (2007); and Theology in Winter Light (2010).

His retirement from teaching did not mean an end to his work, and indeed he warmed to a number of themes which he had made peculiarly his own. One was the need for renewal in the church – a church which he described in 1995 as “disturbed and distressed” and in which, he said, things would have to get worse before they got better.

Northern Ireland

He was deeply concerned about the ongoing crisis in Northern Ireland, about the way in which the churches had contributed to the problems there – and about ways in which they could help to redeem the future. And he constantly stressed the need for the church to come to terms with the 50 per cent of its members who are women, not only in the sense of encouraging them to share fully in the church’s life, but in the more important sense that the church needed to listen to them and learn from their human and theological experiences.

In 1999 he was invited to chair the Governing Authority of University College Cork: it was an honour delayed, but none the less significant, in the world of Irish higher education, and in itself marked a major precedent in the NUI, one which would have been unthinkable even a decade earlier. Another appointment, as an honorary canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, was a testament to his standing in the ecumenical movement.

Less well known, but equally important both to him and to the organisations concerned, was the way he threw himself into work with non-governmental organisations on behalf of Aids victims, especially in Africa and Asia. He travelled tirelessly in support of this cause, sometimes at noticeable cost to his own health: a sense of this vast human crisis became palpable, through him, to many who had no first-hand experience of it.

His later concerns included the environment, on which he contributed yet more original ideas, and a call to arms, based on his own unique fusion of theology and humanistic values.

His long retirement was not marked by any measurable diminution of his gifts for intellectual exploration and, until his recent translation to a nursing home, his rooms in Maynooth served continually as a kind of oasis in which an ever-changing assembly of friends, contemporaries, and kindred spirits of all ages were welcome, catered for, and supported or challenged as the occasion demanded.

A theologian scholar, always open to what is new, Enda McDonagh was also an inheritor of the great traditions of Western civilisation – humanist, scientific and Judaeo-Christian.

In him they combined to create a specifically Irish witness to, and participant in, the great changes at the latter end of the twentieth century and, indeed, well into the twenty-first.

He was also, as anyone who has benefited from his friendship can testify, someone who was uniquely generous with his own warm personality and with his gentle but perceptive, and always illuminating, advice and good fellowship.