Rediscovering Theology: A Truly Catholic College – Part 1

In the Middle Ages where Western universities were invented, theology was unchallenged as the “queen of the sciences.” Philosophy, the loving pursuit of wisdom, served as theology’s humble “handmaiden,” and arguments drawn from either could uncrown kings and change the fate of nations.

Today, even in Catholic colleges, theology is treated more like the madwoman in the attic. She is carefully locked away, so she cannot meddle in the lab or the dorm room, or embarrass herself with visitors. Indeed, a student could spend our years at a Catholic college, and never meet her at all, according to Msgr. Stuart W. Swetland, S.T.D., of The Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education at the Cardinal Newman Society. Msgr. Swetlund cites research by Prof. Kim Shankman of Benedictine College. “Of the 170 Catholic colleges and universities she studied, nearly all require some class they designate as ‘theology,’” he said. “But a closer look reveals that at 56 percent of those schools, this requirement can be entirely satisfied by studying non-Catholic subjects or comparative religion.” For instance, at the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., the single theology mandate can be fulfilled by “Theology of Homosexuality,” or “Feminist Perspectives in Theology.”

This theological vacuum makes itself felt elsewhere on campus; as one source told Choosing the Right College, “To a remarkable degree for a Catholic institution, the college features a considerable amount of gay/lesbian programming.” Holy Cross is far from unique; in recent years colleges such as Gonzaga University and Notre Dame have officially sponsored pro-choice speakers, radical feminist plays, and other events inconsistent with their Catholic mission. Increasingly, rules on inter-visitation between the sexes are repealed or disregarded, as Catholic schools embrace the same secularization that long ago turned Harvard and Yale from Protestant seminaries into utilitarian laboratories. As Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News and author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, told Communitas, “In far too many cases, theological instruction at once-great Catholic universities has become a matter of questioning, undermining, or even blatantly attacking the teachings of the Church. Time and again I have heard the advice, and given it myself: Take philosophy courses, but steer clear of theology if you want to preserve your faith.”

Thomas More College is part of the rising resistance to the auto-demolition of the Catholic educational tradition, and the role theology plays in Thomas More’s curriculum and campus life is nothing less than central. In 2009, the College unveiled a renovated curriculum in which theology classes and theological issues form the keystone of a four-year education in the liberal arts. As academic dean Prof. Christopher Blum explains, “With adequate preparation, the student has at least a fighting chance of understanding that his mind is an apt instrument for the apprehension of the order of a universe that preceded him and will endure after his death, a universe which he did not create, and which does not exist so much for his pleasure in using as for his pursuit of perfection through knowing.”

After a careful review of Thomas More’s theology sequence, Msgr. Swetlund said of the school’s approach, “It is carefully thought-out, robust, and very well incorporates the Classical approach to the Divine through multiple Transcendantals—such as truth, beauty, goodness, and unity—while remaining distinctly Christocentric.”

That’s an apt description of the whole of academic life at Thomas More College, according to College President Dr. William Fahey, who writes in the school’s mission statement: “For the Christian, human wisdom yields to divine as its completion and judge, as from revelation we receive the principles of Sacred Doctrine, and from the Holy Spirit the gift of infused wisdom, the inheritance of every confirmed Christian.”

Commenting on the theology and the mission of the College, Dr. Fahey remarks, “There was a time when many Catholic institutions could make such a claim. But theology was killed in the academy over the last century. Part of our mission is to rediscover theology. Quite honestly, the term inspires boredom today. And in a way, it should. Who wants to study about God? Let’s have union with God; the fear of God; the Glory of God! Can young people imagine past ages when men and women fought and died over the nature of God? The quest to seek and understand God and the Word of God must have something of romance about it. If you look at the way TMC approaches the subject, it is working back into the tradition through little- or un-trodden paths.”

Prof. Walter Jay Thompson elaborates: “We really do consider sacred theology to be wisdom and the highest wisdom—knowledge of the whole of things in light of its highest cause. Hence, the program of studies is directed to and culminates in the study of sacred theology. We spend much time preparing the ground for that study—acquiring experience of the natural and human worlds (whether immediately or through reading of the Great Books), familiarizing ourselves with the sources of theology in sacred scripture and sacred tradition, disciplining the mind through the practice of the liberal arts and the study of the philosophic sciences. We treat theology as ‘the science of the mysteries of the faith’—a genuinely systematic and rigorously reasoned-out body of knowledge derived from principles evident in the light of faith.

“We read Scripture as the inspired word of God, therefore within the heart and with the mind of the Church. We look to the Fathers, Doctors and Popes not only as teachers who instruct, but as models to imitate in both exegesis and theology,” Thompson says.

Msgr. Richard Soseman, who works at the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy and teaches for Thomas More College in Rome, adds, “Catholic liberal arts education produces broad, cultured people who can understand and embrace the life God gives to them, and live so that they may be happy with Him in the next world. Theological endeavors provide the proper center and context of those studies, for in addition to understanding our everyday world, we also need to understand those things which are invisible, those things which can only be seen through the eyes of faith.” Soseman’s course on St. Paul, which sophomores complete in the shadow of St. Peter’s, includes (alongside the scriptures themselves) Pope Benedict XVI’s book on St. Paul, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Old Errors and New Labels. (Msgr. Soseman is the postulator for the cause of Abp. Sheen’s beatification.)

This article, to which TMC sophomore Lux Kamprath contributed reporting, also appears in the 2011 edition of Communitas, Thomas More College’s magazine.

Be sure to check back for part 2 of this story, which will post tomorrow.

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