Where Theology Keeps Her Crown: Thomas More College

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 Increasingly, rules on inter-visitation between the sexes are repealed or disregarded, as Catholic schools embrace the same secularization that long ago turned Harvard and Yale from Protestant seminaries into utilitarian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.)

Students agree that the classroom at Thomas More College is ordered by the quest for theological truth. Senior Rosemary Seifert says, “All our readings reflect back to the Catholic Faith—even when we’re reading Luther. We went through the arguments of saints John Fisher and Thomas More. We saw the different strains of thought and cultivated an objective view of the Reformation. We learn how to defend the faith even though we aren’t persistently focusing on it. It’s not always the focus, but it’s at the heart of all our studies: the Bible and the Catechism.”

“I think I would see theology as the purpose of all the other courses. All the other disciplines here lead up to the knowledge of God,” said freshman Ian Kosko. His classmate Amy Green agrees that faith plays a key role in college life: “The president at convocation made an emphasis on the importance of the chapel: We come out of classes, the library, the dorms, and see the chapel. Its centrality is carried into the classroom, allowing us to talk freely with professors in open class discussions about the role of God in peoples’ lives.” Further, she notes, “The professors are role models of Christian virtue in the classroom and are always seen stopping by the chapel and at daily Mass, oftentimes with their families. The emphasis overall of our Christian faith is lived throughout campus 24/7.”

None of this is to say that the campus resembles a lay seminary, junior Molly Lloyd notes: “The atmosphere is very Catholic, yet it is at the same time what you make of it. It would almost be possible to come here just bum along and not involve yourself religiously. But Thomas More College is conducive to growing in the faith—offering liturgy of the hours, the rosary, and confession almost every day. The professors are all Catholic, most of them are seen at daily Mass, and what they give you in the classroom is orthodox. It would be impossible not to be influenced in some way.”

Courses that do not directly treat theological truths are also illumined by them. Prof. Blum says of his class in logic, “Theology, which may perhaps be thought of as a kind of measuring of the human mind by divine truth, requires that the mind be made suitable for that measurement: this is the task, in the first place, of the liberal art of logic. By inculcating the careful use of terms and strict attention to the requirements of valid reasoning, the art of logic makes our minds more apt to receive the light that Revelation offers.”

Senior Mary Monaghan notes that “Catholic principles affect all our classes—the pursuit of truth. I’m taking now ‘Contemporary Legal Theory’ and ‘Shakespeare.’ Those seem to be so different, but the concern in both is to find the truth—whether the question is ‘What is law?’ or ‘What is man?’ By making distinctions and really studying law or human nature, you are bound to find connections, and see that in the long run everything has to be ordered around one’s soul. That is where the Church comes in.”

Literature teacher Prof. Mitchell Kalkpagian reflects, “Teaching is an act of love and joy, and teachers must exemplify the virtue of charity in all their relationships with students. Students deserve the best that a teacher can offer: the best books, subjects taught with integrity, the accumulated wisdom of the past, and a life of the mind that leads from knowledge to wisdom to God. Every student matters and deserves the attention and interest of the teacher who is forming not only intellects but also nourishing souls. At a Catholic college, students should know their literary heritage and acquire a knowledge of great Catholic writers and thinkers—like Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, and Flannery O’Connor. Above all, a teacher of literature should lead students to discover the sacramental nature of the created world—how the invisible things of God are known by the things that are visible in St. Paul’s word or how the bluebell can lead a poet like Hopkins to exclaim, ‘I know the beauty of the Lord by it.’”

On that subject, all students begin their studies at Thomas More with the Way of Beauty sequence, in which Artist-in-Residence David Clayton explores the theological significance and structure of artworks throughout the Western tradition. Clayton also teaches students who enlist in the St. Luke Sacred Art Guild the principles of harmony and proportion that mark the work of the old Masters, and the entire process of icon-painting—along with the prayers and theology that underlie it. These courses prepare students for a full appreciation of the treasures and shrines of Christian Rome.

Even foreign language courses are infused with a Catholic sensibility, according to Classics teacher Prof. Fred Fraser: “Although I teach Classical Latin grammar, based on the prose of Cicero and Caesar primarily, the pronunciation is Ecclesiastical. The difficult grammatical training brings even average students to a reading level sufficient to comprehend the Gospels or St. Thomas Aquinas in Latin.  The ecclesiastical pronunciation facilitates the students’ participation in the liturgy here at the College, where the chant and hymns are often in Latin.”

Philip Lawler, who is a frequent visitor and speaker at the College, observes: “Students who work their way through the sequence of theology courses at Thomas More College should be well prepared not only to explain and defend their Catholic faith but also—far more important—to live it. The course descriptions clearly convey the underlying approach: not a dry academic exercise, but a genuine search for the ultimate truth, an active faith seeking understanding.”

Mary Monaghan recalls her favorite theological reading at Thomas More College, from the Bl. John Henry Newman: “’To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ This showed me that the changes I have to make often throughout life, though they may be painful, direct me towards Christ; and changing myself is really a reordering of myself and a renewing so that when I day I can actually say, ‘It was not I who lived but Christ in me.’ That’s the ideal. And I have to make that renewal or change every day in order to make it last eternally.” Her liberal arts education, she says, “taught me a greater sense of who I am now, and grounded me as a person. These lessons go deep and will root me, giving me a place wherever I am. This senior year has been very encouraging. I am enjoying this year the most; it makes me glad because it shows that things will get better and better. The longer you live the more ways there are that you can be joyful.”

 

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

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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