CHICAGO — The University of Chicago, home to more than 70 Nobel Prize winners since its founding by John D. Rockefeller in 1891, long ago established itself as one of the premier secular centers of learning and research in the nation.

What, then, accounts for the decidedly Catholic activities showing up there, at university-sanctioned events, these days?

E Workshops, lectures and symposia have focused on the encyclicals Fides et Ratio, Veritatis Splendor and Dominus Iesus and Sts. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Edith Stein and Augustine.

E Talks have been given on Newman and modernity, evolutionary science and Catholic thought, and Catholic faith and the secular academy.

E Francis Cardinal George has spoken on campus some half dozen times since his appointment to the archdiocese in 1997.

E This November, scholars will be joined by the bishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, in a conference on “Word and Image in Christian Prayer and Worship,” to be held off campus at Holy Name Cathedral.

And then there are the Catholic scholars arriving as visiting fellows, a new program in liberal arts and the Catholic tradition, a developing regional Catholic program on science and religion, ongoing campus lectures on the Church Fathers, and sacred study groups modeled on lectio divina, the practice of silent, prayerful contemplation of Scripture.

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This unlikely revival of the Catholic intellectual tradition in a profoundly secular setting is being spurred primarily by the Lumen Christi Institute, a group of scholars who, according to their charter, seek to promote “the study of Catholic faith, thought and culture at the University of Chicago and throughout the surrounding region.”

Formally established in 1997 as an independent institute of Catholic thought, Lumen Christi is the first of its kind and the inspiration for two similar new institutes, at the University of Virginia and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A Lively Experiment

In short, the Lumen Christi Institute works to engage top scholars and graduate students in an ongoing discussion of knowledge and truth. It began “almost by accident,” says its president, Paul Griffiths, formerly a professor at the university's Divinity School who has since been appointed to head a new program of Catholic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Back in 1997, a few graduate students and a couple of faculty at the University of Chicago were vaguely talking about the need and the opportunity to sponsor some events that would create a forum for Catholic intellectual life at the university,” says Griffiths. “At the time there existed nothing that presented the Catholic intellectual tradition as a lively option.”

From those conversations, there developed a slate of study groups and lectures, notable for their high scholarly quality, says Thomas Levergood, a co-founder and graduate of the University of Chicago who directs the Lumen Christi Institute from its offices at Calvert House, the university's Catholic ministry center.

Gifted with a small but symbolically meaningful grant from Cardinal George, who serves as its episcopal moderator, the Lumen Christi Institute receives no ongoing financial support from the archdiocese, choosing to be “a gift to rather than a beneficiary of” the local Church, says Griffiths.

The institute is also legally separate from the university but “culturally (is) deeply involved,” explains Levergood. One of the speakers at a recent symposium was Don Randel, president of the university and a scholar of the liturgical music of medieval Christian Spain.

The institute's time has come for three reasons, according to Levergood.

First, most Catholics who attend universities, perhaps as many as 90%, will attend not Catholic universities, but secular universities, both public and private.

Second, Catholics are present in these universities also as teachers and researchers.

And third, most Catholic professors are not going to be priests or religious, but laymen or women.

Counter-Cultural Catholics

Being dedicated to pluralism — the acceptance of all religious points of view — secular universities can be particularly good places for reviving the Catholic intellectual tradition, notes Griffiths.

“The Catholic voice can be one more voice among many,” he says. With a religiously diverse audience, there is usually a genuine interest in what that Catholic voice has to say, without the complication of internal “family politics,” he adds.

A different kind of freedom impressed Robert Wilken, a professor of Christian history at the University of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, who was invited by the institute two years ago to give a lecture about the influence in the Church on the formation of medieval culture.

“I was just impressed that here, right smack in the middle of the university, you had a lecture series where you could speak unequivocally as a Catholic but still as a university person,” says Wilken.

Wilken has since launched the St. Anselm Institute, named for the 11th-century monk whose motto was “faith seeking understanding;” it seeks to promote Catholic intellectual life at the university. Also inspired by Lumen Christi, Catholic faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have established the John Henry Newman Institute to enlarge the academic study of the Church and science, the Church and society, and the Church and culture.

At the University of Chicago, Lumen Christi has been welcomed but at the same time noticeably counter-cultural, according to John Whitehead, a recent graduate in classical studies who attended several lectures during his four-year undergraduate career.

“It's a popular view in academic circles that the period when the Church was ascendant was so much superstition and barbarism,” adds Whitehead. “The [institute lectures] made me very aware of the richness of the church's intellectual and academic tradition, which was extraordinarily systematic and comprehensive — a very learned, very clear vision of the world which had a lot of depth and dynamism to it.”

Father Michael Yakaitis, director of Calvert House since July, says the Lumen Christi Institute adds a unique and appreciated dimension to the life of the Church — and, in particular, his own pastoral and sacramental mission at the university.

“Lumen Christi represents the best of Catholic thought,” he says. “It makes our Catholic students on campus feel proud to be Catholic.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas.