The University of St. Thomas launched the first Catholic Studies program in the United States in the spring of 1993. Since that time, over 50 new programs have been created not only in this country but also around the world. The emergence of these programs roughly coincided with the publication of John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in which the Pope insisted that Catholic higher education has both a unique ability and a compelling obligation to disclose the essential unity of truth and the ultimate complementarity of faith and reason. At a time in which the claims of religious faith were increasingly marginalized to the realm of private life and choice, and academic disciplines were increasingly specialized and isolated from any integrating vision of their larger significance and mutual relations, the Pope reiterated the classic claims of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the central role of the modern universities that emerged out of that tradition.
At St. Thomas we sought to ensure that interested students could explore the comprehensive intellectual tradition of the Church in its rich and complex expressions in the arts, the social sciences, history, literature, theology and philosophy as well as professional studies. From the outset we encouraged students to combine their work in Catholic Studies with a concentration in another field, and the vast majority of our students do double major in another discipline, ranging from finance to pre-medicine to social work to philosophy to physics. In this way, students seek to integrate not only their undergraduate studies but also their future careers in the light of their Catholic faith.
The broad expansion of Catholic Studies programs in this country was recently described by Thomas M. Landy, associate director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross, in his article “Catholic Studies at Catholic Colleges and Universities,” published in Enhancing Religious Identity: Best Practices from Catholic Campuses:
While the programs may have different strengths and weaknesses, they all aspire to give students broad exposure to Catholic culture, imagination, heritage and traditions. Unlike programs that focus primarily on theology or pastoral ministry, Catholic Studies programs cast their nets more broadly. They aim to introduce students both to Catholicism’s place in the history of ideas and – more concretely and sacramentally – to manifestations of Catholic life in art, literature, music and everyday culture.
In the same article, Landy describes the significance of Catholic Studies at St. Thomas: “The developments at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota … indicate even better the potential that well-organized Catholic Studies programs have. St. Thomas’ program has become the largest and perhaps most successful of the programs now in place, and is growing into a multifaceted Center for Catholic Studies.”
The growth in both St. Thomas’ undergraduate and graduate Catholic Studies programs has been for me somewhat unexpected since it was not clear when we began the programs that there would be a large number of students interested in a sustained investigation of the intellectual tradition of the Church. In fact, we now find a broad and deep interest in Catholicism, its doctrines, its liturgical and devotional practices, its comprehensive concern for the common good and for social justice, its sustained commitment to beauty, its continuing efforts to engage the worlds of politics and diplomacy, and its insistence on a truly authentic Christian humanism. An increasing number of students come to St. Thomas in order to pursue Catholic Studies, while many others encounter our program after they arrive on campus. Still others realize the range and beauty of the Catholic imagination in the Catholic Studies program in Rome where students live at the St. Thomas Bernardi campus and study at the Angelicum University.
When students choose a Catholic Studies major, their parents and the students themselves often wonder what kind of career this course of study will enable them to pursue. We answer that a Catholic liberal education prepares a student not for a particular profession but, as Cardinal Newman once stated, for any profession. At the same time, we recognize the value of training in a specific discipline, whether that be marketing, biology or philosophy, and we see the Catholic Studies concentration as a comprehensive foundation for such focused studies. Our graduates are now working in major corporations and law firms, pursuing doctoral degrees in a broad range of disciplines at major universities around the country, teaching in Catholic schools and working in parishes, involved in Catholic media, serving in religious communities, studying in major seminaries and serving as diocesan priests, and serving in the armed forces. There is, in fact, no professional career that is closed to the interests and skills of our Catholic Studies graduates.
Perhaps as never before, the Church in the United States requires a new generation of articulate and committed young Catholics who are prepared to provide leadership in every area of public life and professional responsibility. But preparation for leadership is formed not only in the classroom but also in community living and spiritual formation. In the last three years, our undergraduate students have worked with faculty to develop retreats, eucharistic adoration, service projects, a leadership internship program, and community living options, including two Catholic Studies men’s houses on Summit Avenue and the Catholic women’s floor in the Dowling Hall residence. In Rome our students participate in an integrated program of academic preparation, spiritual formation and service through volunteer work with the Missionaries of Charity or the Sant’ Egidio movement.
John Henry Newman insisted that intellectual freedom and the fullness of religious life “ought to be found in one and the same place and exemplified in the same persons.” The Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas, as well as all those now established throughout this country and abroad, offer new hope that this goal might be realized in modern Catholic universities.