Wednesday, January 28, 2009


January 28, 2009
Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Msgr. William Smith, August 4, 1939-January 24, 2009

"The 'new morality' is nothing more than the old immorality"—Msgr. William Smith

Today is the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest theologian the world has ever known. Not unfittingly, today also the Church buried one of the greatest medical ethics experts of the twentieth century.

I am personally rather sad about this because my husband and I used to moderate some marriage preparation sessions at St. Joseph's (Dunwoodie) Seminary in Yonkers. Msgr. Smith always offered the Mass and the final talk for couples attending the classes. We got to know him fairly well and were edified and frequently amused by his no-nonsense approach to moral theology, his devil-may-care attitude about what people thought, and his deadpan sense of humor.

His tall, austere figure and rafter-rattling bass voice would have been kind of scary if you hadn't had the pleasure of enjoying his effortless appreciation of good things and small children, or hearing him casually toss off one of his legendary verbal granades—and then watch while yet another fascade of fashionable stupidity would be reduced to rubble—as he strolled through the beautiful marble halls of Dunwoodie on his way to deliver a lecture.

On more urgent matters, whenever an ethics or moral theology question would come up, if you wanted the real answer you'd know to pick up the phone and dial Msgr. Smith. That went for reporters, lawyers, television personalities, priests and ordinary folks. He would in perfect clarity explain the Catholic position, and it always made sense. Perfectly.

In an age of increasing fascination with frankenstein experiments (the usefulness of which is growing more questionable daily) he was instrumental in creating the field of medical ethics as a distinct science.

If I could sum up his personality in one word, I would use the word "integrity."

I am glad I got to know him at all, and as usual with the great men who walk around in our midst, I regret that I didn't know him better. Our kids always loved him, and from the choir loft, laughed at his sermon (it was more or less the same each time, but like a favorite story, that didn't stop it from being funny). He chose his words precisely, and sometimes punctuated his points with an ironic stare or cough that was enough to bring down the house.

I shudder to think of the "theology-lite" that we may be stuck with now that he's not just a phone call away. It wasn't just his expertise, but also his strength of character that was so gratifying. You wanted to be on his side if you had any brains at all.

Lately it seems that the most vocal moralists are all too full of opinions and lack the intelligence, time, or freedom from self-interest necessary to back up those opinions with diligent research and historical insight. I consider this effort part of basic intellectual maturity.

On the other hand, I can't begrudge Msgr. Smith his reward. I would guess he is up there now, possibly sharing a few jokes or talking shop with Thomas Aquinas over a hot-toddy.

In honor of these two great men, I recommend anyone interested in the fine points of moral theology read "A Tour of the Summa" by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn. This book is a very good short form of the Summa Theologica, and covers the main points of Catholic doctrine.

As Msgr. Smith put it, the moral life is not a set of prohibitions arbitrarily imposed from without, but rather freely chosen actions which determine who we are.