MacDonald, Walter (1854–1920), catholic priest and theologian, was born in June 1854 in the parish of Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny, son of a tenant farmer, and his wife, whose maiden name was Carroll. MacDonald's parents were bilingual but raised their children as monoglot English-speakers. MacDonald's father drank to excess and was financially irresponsible; his wife broke down under the strain. These experiences were behind Walter's lifelong teetotalism and firm belief in the importance of moral responsibility. MacDonald retained a strong attachment to Mooncoin throughout his life, spending holidays on the family farm and writing articles on local history, which were later collected by a nephew. His scholarly potential was identified early, and destined him for the priesthood. His family had strong clerical traditions. Two of his father's cousins were early missionaries to the Maori of New Zealand; a great-uncle and namesake (who as curate at Mooncoin administered the last rites after the affray at Carrickshock during the tithe war in 1831) endowed several bursaries for clerical education, of which Walter became a beneficiary. One of his brothers served as a priest in San Francisco and in the mid-twentieth century his nephew and namesake was parish priest of Fairview, Dublin.
MacDonald was educated at Loum national school, a school at Carrick-on-Suir, St Kieran's College, Kilkenny (1865–70), where an uncle was president, and St Patrick's College, Maynooth (1870–76). In later life he was extremely critical of the education he received at Maynooth for presenting a ‘timeless’ neo-scholasticism, which implied that the catholic church had been utterly unchanged throughout its history and ignored distinctively modern challenges to faith: ‘We were educated in a fool's paradise as if we were still in the eighteenth, or even the sixteenth century.’ His criticisms later extended to teaching in Latin, the syllogistic method of logic, and the denial of newspapers to seminarians. He was ordained to the priesthood on 14 October 1876.
In August 1876 MacDonald was appointed to teach philosophy, theology, and English literature at St Kieran's. His reading in preparation for these courses disclosed problems untouched in his formative years, and he remained a priest only by reinterpreting catholic doctrines to his own satisfaction. His primary doubts concerned the claims to divine inspiration of passages in the Old Testament endorsing genocide and other questionable behaviour, and the discrepancies between the Aristotelianism of scholastic theology and the framework of modern physics. He tried to resolve these by reference to the theory of John Henry Newman (qv) of the development of doctrine and St John Mivart's attempts to reconcile catholicism with biological evolution.
MacDonald was troubled by the land war of the 1880s; he instinctively sympathised with the tenant farmers, while his teachers (many of whom were staunch Gladstonian liberals rather than nationalists) inculcated what he called the ‘tory’ view that rebellion against lawful authority was never justified. MacDonald came to believe that the belated support given to the Parnell movement by the dominant faction in the Irish church (despite Roman endorsement of a more conservative view) had averted a serious risk that the Irish people could become alienated from the faith. This strongly influenced his later pronouncements on social issues, and underpinned his general view that bishops should not pronounce on matters – such as economics – that fell outside their sphere. In 1907 he caused controversy by producing a defence of cattle-driving, which he also intended as a veiled defence of trade unionism; although he later changed his views on cattle-driving, the last book he published in his lifetime – Some ethical aspects on the social question (1920) – defends most of the actions of the Dublin trade unions during the 1913 lock-out, is severely critical of Leo XIII's preference for medieval guilds over trade unions, and argues that not all aspects of socialism are incompatible with catholicism and that the matter should be worked out by experience rather than premature declarations based on abstract principle.
In October 1881 MacDonald was appointed professor of theology at Maynooth, where he spent the remainder of his career. In June 1888 he was appointed prefect of the Dunboyne establishment, Maynooth's postgraduate section, where he usually had no more than nine pupils. MacDonald was the only theology professor appointed between 1867 and 1904 who did not become a bishop. He had no interest in a mitre, and believed bishops wasted too much time on administrative matters which could be handled by salaried clerks, when they should concentrate on the intellectual challenges facing the church. His career was thus one of a scholar and academic, whose main interest lay in ‘advancing the frontiers of theological science’ – to the dismay of his episcopal contemporaries, who thought that the professors should supply seminarians with basic training rather than engage in abstruse and possibly dangerous speculation.
MacDonald believed that the average Maynooth student was of high quality but that even the best were weaker than they should have been. He attributed their quality to their upbringing rather than their training, and while he admired – even envied – the simple faith that underlay their pastoral virtues, he believed it could not surivive indefinitely under the pressures of modernity. MacDonald thought William Walsh (qv) should have remained president of Maynooth and published on canon law rather than becoming archbishop of Dublin and pontificating on socio-political matters. This view may have been influenced by dislike for Walsh's successors at Maynooth, whom he regarded as mere administrators careless of scholarship; Daniel Mannix (qv) was a particular bête noir. In 1895 MacDonald 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, serving as chief editor until 1909, when he resigned in apprehension that fresh condemnations of his views might lead to the journal's suppression.
MacDonald's reputation as stormy petrel of the Irish church was established by the controversy surrounding his magnum opus, Motion: its origin and conservation (1898). MacDonald believed that scholastic theories of motion were flawed by attributing supernatural causes to processes subsequently shown to be of natural derivation, and that modern science implied a self-moving natural universe whose processes did not require an external supernatural mover; although he sought advice from scientists, including G. F. Fitzgerald (qv), the depth of his understanding has been questioned. MacDonald attempted to rescue the concept of God as First Mover by attributing all motion to continuous divine intervention. From 1895 this was violently criticised by his professorial colleague, Daniel Cohalan (qv) (later bishop of Cork), a firm believer in neo-scholastic ‘manual theology’; he accused MacDonald of denying free will. Cohalan's condemnations of MacDonald, reinforced by violent personal antipathy, continued at least until 1908: at one point Cohalan published an attack on MacDonald disguised as a review of a non-existent French work, and MacDonald retaliated with a pamphlet, New journalism, published without an imprimatur.
Motion was sent to the congregation of Propaganda Fide for judgment, to the annoyance of MacDonald, who believed that it should have been debated by theologians and its implications worked out before such a submission; the Irish bishops, however, feared that public disagreements between Maynooth professors would undermine the authority of the church as a whole. The book was condemned in December 1898. MacDonald agreed to withdraw it from circulation and refrain from explicitly teaching his ‘kinetic theory’ to his students, but continued to believe it would one day be vindicated; he insisted on his right to employ elements of it when discussing other theological approaches with his students. He was refused permission to publish five subsequent works; the last of these rejections, in February 1913, provoked him to begin writing an apologia, published posthumously as Reminiscences of a Maynooth professor. MacDonald believed these refusals owed as much to institutional timidity and his ‘dangerous’ reputation as to the actual content of the books; in response he became more self-consciously a maverick and outsider.
MacDonald's survival derived from a combination of personal charm, friendship (contemporaries agree that he gave little outward sign of the tormented self-questioning revealed by Reminiscences, and was genial and courteous in company), a degree of intellectual respect even from some adversaries (such as Bishop Edward O'Dwyer (qv) of Limerick, with whom he conducted a cordial correspondence), and awareness on both sides that, if pushed beyond a certain limit, he would resign from Maynooth and precipitate a scandal. Stephen Gwynn (qv) thought his emphasis on individual conscience had protestant overtones; his self-image is perhaps hinted at in his paper ‘The manliness of St. Paul’ (collected with other essays in 1958). His self-respect rested on determination to make any sacrifice rather than teach as true something which he positively believed to be fallacious, and he felt considerable apprehension that at some point the church might define as infallible doctrine something unquestionably false. He was troubled by the idea that such thoughts might themselves be sinful.
MacDonald's support for the Irish Ireland movement reflected his belief that it encouraged individual self-reliance. He admired the GAA for encouraging ‘combination and self-control, what our fathers most lacked and we most need’, though he recalled a pre-codification hurling match he had witnessed in 1862 as a bloody free-fight and thought the clergy quite right to suppress such disgraceful exhibitions. His involvement with the Gaelic League led him into dangerous company; while some clerics supported the league as an adjunct to faith and fatherland, others saw it as threatening clerical supervision of entertainment and education. His dislike for ‘bricks and mortar’ catholicism extended to the view that catholic schools should be run by lay-dominated committees rather than clerical managers. MacDonald may have been an occasional anonymous contributor to the journal the Irish Peasant, edited by W. P. Ryan (qv) and suppressed by Cardinal Logue (qv) in 1906 for advocating the abolition of clerical management; he may also have been the anonymous ‘Sacerdos, D.D.’ who occasionally expressed similar views in the more conservative Leader of D. P. Moran (qv) – MacDonald respected Moran as an economic commentator. In Ryan's novel The plough and the cross a character based on MacDonald is presented as a representative of a ‘Maynooth movement’, diffusing modernism within the Irish church despite the reactionary hierarchy. MacDonald, however, always denied that he was a modernist and called the leading modernists dishonest for remaining within the catholic church when they no longer accepted its central doctrines. (MacDonald also appears as ‘Dr Donaldson’ in the novel Doomsland by Shane Leslie (qv).)
In 1909 MacDonald emerged as the chief supporter and adviser of Dr Michael O'Hickey (qv), dismissed from the chair of Irish for publicly and repeatedly implying that episcopal members of the senate of the NUI who opposed making Irish compulsory for matriculation were traitors to Ireland and personally corrupt. MacDonald encouraged O'Hickey to appeal his case to Rome in a process which lasted until 1915; in his memoirs MacDonald comments scathingly on the ability of the bishops to reduce the appeals process to a legal fiction by employing delaying tactics against an under-funded adversary, and by intimating to the Roman authorities that a judgment against them would damage the whole Irish church. He also criticised the Gaelic League for giving O'Hickey only half-hearted support.
In 1919 MacDonald published Some ethical questions of peace and war, which criticised the theological justifications for separatism advanced by writers such as Alfred O'Rahilly (qv). MacDonald argued that by recognised standards of catholic theology the British crown was the legitimate ruler of Ireland, entitled to impose conscription. The book excited considerable controversy and was widely misread as a straightforward unionist apologia; the Belfast protestant nationalist James W. Good (qv) remarked contemptuously that southern unionists were now reduced to sheltering behind the soutane of a Maynooth professor. In fact, as MacDonald clarified in the pamphlet, Comments on some criticisms received (1920), he was a Parnellite home-ruler. His central argument was that the process of historical development made original title irrelevant, and Ireland's course should be guided by economic rather than historical considerations. He argued that the failure of southern Ireland to industrialise was due to lack of initiative and organisation rather than British malice (a view held by Irish Irelanders like D. P. Moran as well as by unionists), that the progress of civilisation was advanced by the consolidation of small states into large federal ones, and that Irish farmers’ dependence on the British market dictated a continuing link between the two countries.
MacDonald's last works were published in the knowledge that he was terminally ill. He died 2 May 1920, having appointed Denis Gwynn (qv) his literary executor. His autobiography, Reminiscences of a Maynooth professor, was published in 1925 and remains a major source for the history of Maynooth and Irish catholicism. MacDonald anticipated dangers of which most of his Irish contemporaries were oblivious, and some of his criticisms of excessive centralisation and imposed uniformity were implicitly endorsed by ecclesiological developments after the second Vatican council; but he was as much an Edwardian maverick as a suffering prophet. His career reflects some of the characteristic crises of twentieth-century catholicism, notably the tension between the view that theologians should not be subjected to unnecessary restraints in synthesising traditional faith with modern thought, and the view that supervision by higher authority is a necessary safeguard for the witness of the church as a whole and not an external restraint on professional autonomy.