Centenary of the death of controversial Maynooth theologian, Walter McDonald (1854-1920), founder of Irish Theological Quarterly. Professor Thomas O'Loughlin, University of Nottingham, reflects on his legacy


Posted 02nd May

Saturday 2 May 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Walter McDonald, professor of Theology at Maynooth College, and founder of the international peer-reviewed journal, Irish Theological Quarterly.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Walter McDonald (1854–1920) was born in June 1854 in the parish of Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny. He was educated at Loum national school and St Kieran's College, Kilkenny (1865–70) where his uncle was president. He then studied for the priesthood at Maynooth College between 1870 and 1876. He was later critical of the education he received there, especially what he saw as a ‘timeless’ neo-scholasticism pervading the curriculum, which suggested that the Catholic Church had remained utterly unchanged throughout its history.

McDonald was ordained to the priesthood on 14 October 1876. At that stage he had already been appointed to teach philosophy, theology, and English literature at his alma mater, St Kieran’s.

In October 1881 McDonald was appointed professor of dogmatic theology at Maynooth and in June 1888 was appointed prefect of the Dunboyne establishment, Maynooth's postgraduate institute.

In 1895 McDonald played a significant role in establishing the Maynooth Union, made up of those who had graduated from the national seminary. In 1906 he founded the Irish Theological Quarterly and served as its chief editor until 1909.

He would have served longer in the position were it not for a major controversy that erupted surrounding his 1898 work, Motion: its origin and conservation (see Thomas O’Loughlin’s article below) on which he clashed with his colleague, Daniel Cohalan (later bishop of Cork). His resignation from Irish Theological Quarterly arose from a concern that the journal itself might otherwise suffer from any fallout from his difficulties.

When the book was subsequently condemned and placed on the Index Librorum as contrary to the doctrine on free will, he agreed to withdraw it from circulation, while silently waiting for his eventual vindication.

A Parnellite Home Ruler by political persuasion, McDonald published Some ethical questions of peace and war in 1919, which argued against any theological justification for the separatist movement of independence and the use of force to achieve it by employing Catholic just war theory.

He died on 2 May 1920. His Reminiscences of a Maynooth professor was published in 1925, five years after his death. It remains an important work for the history of Maynooth College and late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Irish Catholicism more generally.

The following article on McDonald, by Thomas O’Loughlin, professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, will appear in an edited collection marking the 225th anniversary of the College. We Remember Maynooth: A College Across Four Centuries is edited by Salvador Ryan and John-Paul Sheridan and will be published by Messenger Publications later this year.

A Time and Motion Study: A Reminiscence of Walter McDonald

Thomas O’Loughlin

In early 1990s the Jesuit Library in Milltown was being catalogued on computer. In the process many lost items were found, duplicates and dross eliminated, and much merriment caused at morning coffee by some of the older titles or the curious decisions of earlier librarians as to where books belong. It was while the librarians were working through the Eucharist section that one day it was remarked that among works on Eucharistic controversies they found a book on physics! How could such a blunder have occurred? Someone expressed the opinion that Homer nods and another a sigh of simple disbelief. ‘Yes,’ replied the librarian, ‘it was there indeed: a book on motion and kinetic energy!’ I was not taking much part in the conversation having just come from class but at the word ‘motion’ my ears picked up: could it be? Surely not, they were all destroyed! At once I checked that the book had not been binned and asked to see it. Five minutes later I held in my hands a copy of Motion: Its Origin and Conservation, published in Dublin in 1898 by Walter McDonald, a Maynooth professor. I realised at once that the older librarian had not erred: this was a book that was shelved correctly and it should be returned to its place or, more properly, placed in the strong room with other precious or unique items. Why such excitement?

When McDonald died in 1920 he knew that this book – his magnum opus – had been condemned by a unpublished decree of the Holy See as dangerous heresy and was convinced that every copy had been consigned to the flames. After a judicial process it was decreed that not only was it to disappear completely, but even the memory of the fact that a Maynooth professor had strayed into heresy was to be obliterated.

But McDonald was dauntless and had written an autobiography of sorts, his Reminiscences of a Maynooth Professor, which set out his side of the story, all the secret decrees, and a summary of his position and arguments. Moreover, he had arranged that Denis Gwynn, an Anglican, would carry out his wishes and have Reminiscences published posthumously. He had asked an Anglican to do this for him because, as such, he was a not a canonical subject and so could not be prevented in the task sub poena peccati (for heretical disobedience) nor by excommunication latae sententiae (for uttering secret documents of the Holy See). McDonald himself could not be punished as he also was, by then, no longer a subject of canon law (due to death) and this was his last chance to vent his theological vision. In the pages dealing with Motion (pp. 111-66) there is a note of bitter sadness that not only did those around him – all the way to Rome – not understand what he was trying to do, but that even if they banished his work, that one day, some day, his work would be vindicated. Just as Galileo had replied to his tormentors that ‘but it still moves!’; so McDonald knew every time he heard the whistle of a steam train passing Maynooth that the kinetic theory of motion was a cornerstone of modern physics no matter what Roman congregrations decreed.

But what is the problem? Today we cannot even fathom the assumptions of the paradigm within which McDonald lived, taught, and was condemned. Put simply, if one starts from an assumption that all ‘change’ (e.g. from Fido alive to dead) and all ‘motion’ (e.g. from being here to being there) are linked to so-called Aristotelian ‘substances’ (not what we mean by ‘substance’ in everyday life) then change and motion (to add confusion both words are usually rendered as ‘motio’ in Latin) must behave parallel ways. But modern physics thinks of energy being transferred from mass to mass without an Aristotelian ‘agent’ (who brings the motion into existence), and so eventually Einstein could conclude E=mc2. But what about the Eucharist when there is a change with one ‘substance’ becoming another – without energy being transferred (for that would mean that wine had a natural potency to become a divine substance) – and this motion was caused by an agent (the priest) who had the potency to truly and really cause the change (and metaphysical ‘potentia’ is almost the opposite of physical ‘energy’). Since this latter motion was certain (defined by Trent however it be labelled) and this change took place in the real world of things (e.g. the wafer on the paten) it had to conform to the laws of physics. So if the students of physics (e.g. the scientists whom McDonald was reading) could not explain this motio during Mass within their theory, then they must be the wrong-headed followers of a corrupt modern theory. Consequently, any theologian who took them seriously – as distinct from the Neo-Scholastic theories just then being brought back into fashion – must be guilty of error.

The reason we today cannot enter this debate, except as curious travellers back in time, is that we recognise that both McDonald and his opponents assumed that theological explanation – which is, after all, seeking to express a mystery in words – is a different kind of pursuit to that which underlies empirical science. Moreover, we realise that taking any statement of a religious truth and expecting that it behave as an axiom across the board is the very kernel of fundamentalism. Catholics often snigger on hearing of nineteenth-century Protestants using the Book of Genesis to counter the evidence of geologists that there was no Flood or using the Book of Ezekiel to calculate the end of the world, but McDonald and his critics were engaged in a struggle with the exact same epistemological parameters. If one cannot ask the weight of a human soul nor measure with a theodolite the depth of someone’s love, then one cannot address the eucharistic mystery with a physics of change: even if this had been done for centuries. McDonald was condemned as the outsider, but reading Motion today we can see that he was as much locked within this univocal system as those who silenced him.

So was McDonald an original theologian? A paradigm is only replaced when the contrary evidence becomes so overwhelming that is it seen to be absurd. In a world of theological repetition, Walter McDonald had the energy, insight, and courage to bring the problem to a head. This fearless confrontation of problems is McDonald’s claim to be the only original theologian Maynooth produced in its first century. Sacrosanctum concilium would not appear until 42 years after his death.

The crisis over Motion rattled on with occasional articles for nearly a decade, and though he remained a teacher in Maynooth and made other contributions to research, notably Some Ethical Questions on War and Peace, he was a man under a cloud. He tells us that he wrote other theological textbooks but they were not passed by the censor, and that he had deposited them for safe keeping in the hope of future publication in more open times. Where are they now? Perhaps we will get some nice surprises one day!

He died, according to his grave marker, on the feast St Athanasius [i.e. 2 May] 1920: how appropriate for a theologian who in his own time was contra mundum.

(Incidentally, for those who wish to discover what all the fuss was about, McDonald's book can now be downloaded here: https://archive.org/details/motionitsorigin00mcdogoog/page/n7/mode/2up).


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