The Justice and Peace Studies department began with a question put to the University of St. Thomas by Archbishop John Roach. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops had just completed their 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." So how would the university respond? Archbishop Roach asked the university to take a leading role in charting a meaningful response to "the challenge of peace."
Fifteen years later, in 1998, the U.S Catholic bishops issued another document, "Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions." In it they cited an urgent need to unite the Catholic commitment to education with the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching in all Catholic institutions. Theirs is not a mere suggestion. Rather it is an essential call to the Church to engage in action-based education concerning its social teachings, which serve after all as the defining measure of true Catholic education. The call is "for a renewed commitment to integrate Catholic social teaching into the mainstream of all Catholic educational institutions and programs." Such a commitment requires more than abstract principles, catalog statements or isolated courses. To integrate Catholic social teaching into the mainstream of the university requires that it become an overall moral framework that permeates all facets of the curriculum and classroom experience.
UST's Justice and Peace Studies department teaches these topics and principles in ways that grew out of research by the founding director, Fr. David Smith. Building on the work of an interdisciplinary faculty committee, Fr. Smith used his 1987-88 sabbatical time to travel around the world and view model peace studies programs at other Catholic institutions. From the beginning the goal was to create a program that had a strong spiritual dimension, as well as significant research, writing and discussion components. Over time, it became clear that in order to accomplish all of these goals the program needed substantial experiential and internship opportunities for students.