Moral Ascent in the Alps

In 1995, Michael Waldstein had it made.

After years of graduate studies and teaching, he had become a tenured professor at Notre Dame University, providing him with a permanent job to support his wife and six children.

But at the invitation of Cardinal Christoph Schˆnborn, archbishop of Vienna, he left the job and South Bend, Ind., moving his family to a small Alpine town in Austria.

Pope John Paul II had asked the Austrian bishops to set up a papal institute for the study of theology, and Cardinal Schˆnborn wanted Waldstein to be the founding president. That school is the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family (ITI, for short).

Located in Gaming, Austria, it occupies a recently restored medieval monastery, which it shares with Franciscan University of Steubenville's overseas program. Since its founding, which was assisted by Steubenville, ITI has attracted students from more than 15 countries, including a significant number of Americans.

Asked why he left a permanent position for the uncertainty of a new initiative, Waldstein replied that it seemed a “truly great thing” to build up the kind of institute he and Cardinal Schˆnborn had discussed: one studying marriage and the family in the light of the whole of theology, reading the great sources of theology and discussing them in seminars. Cardinal Schˆnborn’ s support moved him: “The more I know [Cardinal Schˆnborn] the more I love him and would walk into fire for him.” The cardinal serves as grand chancellor of ITI.

The Holy Father expressed his support during a visit to Austria in 1998: “May God grant that [the institute] grow into a strong tree that bears many fruits of increased awareness of the value of marriage and the family.”

ITI offers degrees in theology and in theological studies, the former being an in-depth academic program and the latter a postgraduate professional program. All the degrees include a specialization in marriage and the family. Waldstein said the study of marriage and the family has developed greatly in recent years.

“In many respects,” he explained, “one can call our age an age of marriage and the family. On the one hand negatively: There is a culture of death that rivals the worst of the late Roman Empire. Marriage and the family seem threatened as never before. On the other hand, positively: In philosophy — Martin Buber, Dietrich von Hildebrand, etc. — as well as in theology — de Lubac, Balthasar, etc. — one finds increasing attention to interpersonal relations, particularly the relation between man and woman.”

Returning to the Roots

An understanding of human relations, Waldstein said, sheds light on central truths of the faith, such as the Trinity and the relationship of Christ and his Church; conversely, those truths illumine human relationships. For example, we first know what a father or a son is by seeing human fathers and sons, and so our understanding of the first and second persons of the Trinity is drawn from a human relationship. But studying the Trinity helps us see more clearly how a human father and son should love one another.

The institute is quick to point out that this specialization is not affected by a narrow focus on marriage and the family only, but by putting them in the context of theology as a whole. Although several specialized courses on marriage and family issues are offered, the primary focus of the school, said professor Peter Kwasniewski, “is on the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, on the study of Catholic dogmas as a whole, and on seeing marriage and family topics in this context.

“One flaw in marriage and family studies has been an overemphasis on these domains in their particulars ... people often reject the Church's teachings because they do not understand what they are rooted in and what their ultimate purpose is. We need to take the discussion back to first principles, back to the roots of our faith — and no one has done this better than the great theologians of our tradition.”

ITI's course for a master's in theology is 10 semesters long, although students with a degree particularly strong in philosophy and theology can start at the seventh semester. Its licentiate program (a license is the Church degree between master's and doctorate) is four semesters long, as are the master's and doctorate programs in theological studies. Tuition is $18,000 a year. Once a student is accepted, the institute is committed to making studies financially possible for that student, including the cost for spouses and children.

The student body has included both married and single people, as well as seminarians and priests. Of the 54 currently enrolled students, most are in their late 20s.

Beth Swiney, of Tulsa, Okla., now in her third year at ITI, said the institute “far surpassed any expectations I might have had.”

She came to Austria after studying under Michael Waldstein at Notre Dame, impressed with his teaching on objective truth. She came not specifically for the emphasis on marriage and family, but “to study theology in a classical way — relying on a liberal arts approach that considers how all areas of learning are related to the one Truth, and reading the works of Fathers, Doctors and saints of the Church, rather than those of theology professors.”

Growth in Virtue

But Swiney said that during her studies at the institute she's developed an appreciation for the “surprising” ways in which marriage and family theology is important. She praises the institute for a focus on God that is not confined to the classroom, saying, “Theology that remained a purely academic pursuit would have failed, because by its nature it must be something that pervades one's whole life.”

The institute's motto is from the Psalms: Sicut Cervus Ad Fontes (as the deer to the sources of water). At ITI the sources are the writings of great theologians, from early Fathers of the Church such as St. Athanasius to recent authors such as Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Greek Fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas are given special attention in the curriculum. The students read the actual writings of the authors, rather than textbooks, and discuss them in classes. “We want our students to have the occasion for growing in the virtues of careful, searching reading, which raises questions and pursues them to the end,” said Waldstein.

This method of teaching, and the curriculum, are largely derived from the Great Books movement in the United States, especially from Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. (where both Waldstein and Kwasniewski did their undergraduate studies), and the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame. This use of original texts and the seminar method constitutes the main difference between the institute in Gaming and the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., which has asked ITI to permit its licentiate candidates to do coursework in Gaming.

Classes are conducted in English. Students come from many different countries, and especially Eastern Europe, to whose formerly communist countries the institute has a special mission.

The diverse student body and geographical proximity of the institute to the great cultural centers of Europe make for close contact with other cultures, cited by students as one of the advantages of the school.

ITI has won praise from prominent educators. R. Glen Coughlin, dean of Thomas Aquinas College, called their course of study “a rigorous and orthodox Catholic program in theology.” Janet Smith, noted speaker and professor at the University of Dallas, commends ITI as a “much needed initiative” which “promises to renew Catholic moral theology by educating students in the fundamentally important primary texts of Western civilization.”

Wendy-Irene Grimm writes from Ojai, California.