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Harry McSorley (1931-2017)

by Professor Catherine E. Clifford

Harry McSorley was Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, from 1970 to 1997, where he guided many young scholars into the world of ecumenical studies. He died on May 1, 2017, in Naples, Florida.

Born in Philadelphia in 1931, the middle child in a family of five boys. The family moved to Atlantic City, NJ, Harry attended Bucknell University, a small undergraduate college in Lewisburg, PA, on an academic scholarship. In addition to being an outstanding student, he took great pride in playing guard on the school’s unbeaten football team. He then joined the Paulist Fathers, studying philosophy and theology in Washington, DC, California, and Germany. In 1959 Harry was among the first North American priests sent to study Protestant theology, rereading the theological works of Martin Luther with new eyes in the changing ecumenical context of the Second Vatican Council.

From 1960 to 1966 his doctoral studies took him to the Johann Adam Möhler Institut in Paderborn and to the University of Münich, where he studied with the likes of Karl Rahner and completed a ground-breaking thesis under the supervision of Michael Schmaus (both of whom served during this same period as periti on the council’s Doctrinal Commission), Luther Right or Wrong? An Ecumenical-Theological Study of Luther’s Major Work, The Bondage of the Will (Newman Press/Augsburg, 1967; Original German edition, Max Hüber Verlag, 1967). In this study into a work that Luther himself considered “the hinge” on which his entire theology turns, especially his doctrine of justification by faith, McSorley sought to look behind Luther’s unique language and thought world to discover his “deepest intention”, examining this work in historical perspective, and finding it consonant with the Catholic tradition. He showed how Luther’s primary concern is to defend “the biblical truth that the sinner can in no way break through the bonds of guilt and condemnation by any effort of [their] own.” Harry wrote with no little pleasure of how he learned “one morning during the final session of Vatican II … in one of the coffee bars in St. Peter’s” from the distinguished Lutheran observer, Professor Edmund Schlink of Heidelberg University, that his thesis had “passed his critical muster with flying colours.” These years of study prepared him well for years of service on the US Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue and for the formation of future ecumenists who would come to see dialogue as a way of seeking the truth of the gospel together.

In the late 1960s, Harry left the Paulist Fathers. He married Clare McGurk, with whom he had two children, Grace and Paul. In 1970 the family moved to Toronto where Harry would teach theology and religious studies until his retirement in 1997. His courses on the Reformation, the Second Vatican Council, on Protestant and Catholic Theologies in Convergence, and on the Petrine Ministry drew graduate students from across denominations and made him a much sought after thesis supervisor. Anyone who sat through his graduate seminars was sure to be impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge and mastery of the literature on a host of topics – all of it presented with great charm and wit.

Harry was active in the Catholic Theological Society of America and in North American and European networks of ecumenical scholars. Michael Vertin, a long-time colleague at St. Michael’s College, rightly notes that Harry’s usual demeanour was one of “radical hopefulness.” He took great joy not only in sharing his wealth of knowledge but in carrying out the tasks of research and teaching as forms of service – including his passionate service to the quest for unity.