On Saturday, September 27, more than 100 people filled St. Francis ballroom in San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral to celebrate a champion of human rights and the Catholic faith, Professor Raymond Dennehy. Dennehy, who turned 80 this year, was being honored on the occasion of his retirement from the philosophy department at the (Jesuit) University of Sam Francisco.

Those in attendance included Father Joseph Fessio, SJ and John Galten, who partnered with Dennehy in the creation of USF’s legendary St. Ignatius Institute; Michael Torre, Dennehy’s colleague in the department of philosophy at USF; and pro-life speaker Mary Beth Bonacci, who studied with Dennehy at the institute.  Many alumni of the institute were present, as were bay area pro-life activists. The speakers were unanimous in praising Dennehy for his courage, his learning, his wit, and his courtesy.

Professor Dennehy, a native San Franciscan, was born into a working-class family in the city’s Mission District—a place where, said Galten one “either learned to fight or to run fast.”  He attended a diocesan elementary school, then Sacred Heart High School. Following high school, he joined the navy. According to Galten, it was during his four-year stint on a naval cruiser that Dennehy was first exposed to the world of ideas and philosophers, through discussions with the officers. Following his military service, he enrolled at USF, which became his professional home. Every reader of scholarly Catholic and pro-life publications will be familiar with his books, papers, and debate appearances. For over 40 years, he has been one of the preeminent scholarly voices combating the ideological justifications for legalized abortion. Father James Schall, SJ, of Georgetown University once wrote, “The most articulate and forceful voice in the United States to explain and critique the abortion question in all its ramifications is that of Professor Raymond Dennehy.”

Dennehy’s academic career is so bound up with the St. Ignatius Institute that one could not separate one from the other. Following dinner, speakers recalled their experiences with Dennehy. Father Joseph Fessio began by asking the question: why are we all here? He noted that many, perhaps a majority, of those present were alumni of the St. Ignatius Institute. He recounted the genesis and early history of the St. Ignatius Institute, the days when the only place the organizers were able to meet was in a room that had been the women’s bathroom at Loyola Hall. He asserted that the real beginning of the institute was in 1975, when he, Dennehy, (now Father) Frank Filice, Father Cornelius Buckley and others spent the entire spring semester in prayer–praying for the recovery and renewal of the 400 year-old Jesuit tradition of Ratio Studiorum, which had been scrapped. Ratio Studiorum, a Jesuit document written in 1599, specified the classics as the primary texts grounding liberal education and developing cultured persons.

In 1976 the St. Ignatius Institute began. It was a seminal moment of Catholic revival right up through its suppression by the USF Jesuits in 2001. Father Fessio noted that despite the suppression, the movement itself continued: “Nothing can take away that 25 years of formation” that the institute provided.  He said that many of the alumni filling the room in honor of Dennehy now have children attending similar schools:  Thomas Aquinas College, Ave Maria University, Benedictine College, etc.  Father Fessio closed by saying “Ray was faithful to the Church. He was faithful to Jesuit spirituality. He was just as funny, witty, and incisive then as we know him to be today.”

Michael Torre, from the USF department of Philosophy said Dennehy was proud of his blue-collar SF roots. “He was happy to be a warrior. He was happy to defend tradition. And he was happy to tell people that they weren’t defending tradition!”

Catholic speaker and the founder of Real Love, Inc., Mary Beth Bonacci, another institute alum, recalled her first sight of Dr. Dennehy “There was this very dapper guy walking across the campus in a white suit. I wondered: how does he keep it so clean? And then somebody told me, that’s a professor!” But she went on “Dr. Dennehy’s class and the institute changed my life.” Her experience there, she said, inspired her to “spend my life defending the life issues.” Dennehy’s manners, she said, taught her that it is possible to change hearts.

John Galten said that when Dennehy first attended USF, there still remained a residue of Ratio Studiorum, until “the collapse after 1965.” But since then, Galton said, there has been “a fundamental shift in the culture in American life” which has led to an “unlimited, no quarter intellectual war.”

The basic point of contention, Professor Galten said, and one to which Professor Dennehy always returned in his teaching, writings, and debates, is “What is the human person?”  Dennehy, said Galten, never tired of taking on those who would deny the dignity of the human person. Such a denial, said Galten, amounts to a “left-handed swipe at the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.”

Dennehy’s work, Galten continued, was an effort to keep alive a 400 year-old tradition. “The Catholic Church has and continues to save Western Civilization. Ray Dennehy fought the good fight. He stepped into the breach. He is a beacon of light. The Church has a title, A Defender of the Faith. Ray is a loyal champion, not just of the faith but of reason. I propose a new title: Defender of Reason.”