National Catholic Register


Rebuilding the Cornerstone of Catholic Thought at the University

BY Justin Bell

April 6-12, 2008 Issue | Posted 4/1/08 at 12:54 PM


Robert Louis Wilken is chairman of the St. Anselm Institute for Catholic Thought, an independent entity that seeks to “promote Catholic intellectual life at the University of Virginia.”

In a recent article in First Things magazine called “Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools,” Wilken, history professor at the University of Virginia, wrote that since the 1950s Catholic thinkers have lost their influence at secular universities. Today, however, there is a revival of sorts by way of the establishment of independent Catholic institutes at secular universities.

In addition to institutes, chairs of Catholic studies established by universities are a way to promote Catholic thought. Wilken said their numbers are growing. But he believes in the need for independent Catholic institutes to complement these chairs.

Register correspondent Justin Bell spoke with Wilken by phone and e-mail about Catholic studies chairs and institutes.

How has the social and educational world of American Catholics changed over the last several decades?

In the year 1950, if you were brought up in the Catholic environment, you went to a Catholic parochial school and a Catholic high school. Then, if you went on to college, you went to a Catholic college. Today, most Catholics do not go to Catholic elementary or high schools, and very few go to Catholic colleges.

As a result, the kind of nurturing and intellectual formation that the Church was able to provide no longer happens because most people have little contact with Catholic educational institutions.

You wrote in First Things that the Catholic faculty on secular campuses is largely invisible because they keep a private faith and they are “divorced from the intellectual enterprise that is the business of the university.” Do you believe that it’s the lack of formation that keeps their Catholicism private?

Yes, I think it’s directly related to that. That is, if you don’t know much about the tradition other than elementary Catechetical matters, it’s very hard when any kind of moral or intellectual issue comes up to know how one would articulate and defend the Catholic position.

If you have never ever read any of the major Catholic thinkers, it’s very difficult to think or express oneself in a distinctly Catholic way.

Take such a thing as “gay marriage.” How would one go about making the case or defending the Church’s position on that without some understanding of how the Catholic tradition understands marriage?

So if you had to choose between endowing a chair of Catholic studies at a secular university or using the same funds to establish an independent Catholic institute directed by university faculty, you believe it’s better just to go for a Catholic institute?

No question. If one looks at the chairs that have been established, their impact on the university and on the faculty is minimal. The modern university views “Catholic studies” as just another specialty of which there are hundreds.

How do you believe these Catholic institutes or chairs should connect with other Catholic organizations on campus, such as a Newman center?

It is essential that they be closely related to a local parish or to the campus ministry.

At the University of Virginia, we have a Dominican parish adjacent to the campus. The St. Anselm Institute has a very good relationship with the pastor and other clergy. And so when we have fairs or we want to have Eucharist or we want to have prayer, we certainly invite someone from the parish. They come to our lectures and social gatherings and on occasion we’ve had lectures at the church.

The St. Thomas Aquinas University parish has what is in effect a baccalaureate Mass, a commencement Mass which occurs in May, usually the third weekend of May on Saturday afternoon before the commencement, what the founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, called the “final exercises.”

Catholic faculty are invited to process with the clergy dressed in academic robes. In the past, the response of the faculty has been minimal, four or five faculty. Well, as a result of the existence of the St. Anselm Institute, last year there was a good turnout of faculty for the Mass.

This year, we are going to push very hard to get as many faculty … because it’s a very public way in which Catholic faculty are identified by students and parents. This is an example of how the institute and the parish are working together.

There is a difference, of course. The mission of the parish is pastoral and sacramental, and our role is intellectual. The two are distinct, but they need to complement one another, providing moral, spiritual and intellectual guidance.

It is important for parents who send their children off to a secular college or university to know that there are Catholic faculty who are able to provide such guidance.

What are your hopes for the expansion of Catholic institutes, chairs and, in general, Catholic intellectual thought on the university campus in the future?

Well, what’s most required is that there are faculty who have a good sense of who they are as educated Catholics and that they are willing to do the reading and study to help themselves grow in that way. It means that they have to develop intellectual interests that are outside of their own specialized fields of study. This is a slow process that each person undertakes for oneself.

Of course, those who make this effort will always be a relatively small group, but you don’t need a lot of people. What is needed are faculty who can provide leadership.

Do you have any thoughts on Pope Benedict’s upcoming address to heads of Catholic universities and colleges in America?

Well, we’ve been getting reports — apparently, information is being leaked — but I don’t know anything other than what I have read in the newspaper. My guess is that because Pope Benedict is himself a man of the university, he will … speak to the presidents of the universities and the other educators in a language that they can understand.

He can speak from within, as one who has been on a university faculty and knows the necessity for intellectual freedom in the university and encouragement to explore new areas, but also a keen awareness that faculty in a Catholic university belong to a tradition of thought and understanding. Given his background, Pope Benedict is an ideal person to speak to the presidents of Catholic universities in this country.

Any plans for another book?

Yes. I’m writing a general history of the early Church, no footnotes, trying to write for the general reader. It’s going to be called aThe First 1,000 Years: A History of Christianity, to be published by Yale University Press. But I have a few more years work ahead of me. Right at the moment as you called I was writing the chapter on early Christian architecture and art.

Justin Bell is based in

Cambridge, Massachusetts.