St. Thomas Aquinas Comes to the Ivy League

How an institute brings a taste of Thomism to secular campuses.

A Naval Academy midshipman speaks with Michael Gorman after his lecture entitled, 'True for Me but Not for You? Moral Relativism and Public Life.'
A Naval Academy midshipman speaks with Michael Gorman after his lecture entitled, 'True for Me but Not for You? Moral Relativism and Public Life.' (photo: Courtesy of the Thomistic Institute)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — One speaker took a “deep dive” into the Thomistic view of civil punishment. Another explored how St. Thomas Aquinas helps us to think about the possibility of life on other worlds. A third lecturer untangled the textual history behind the Hebrew word for God in the Old Testament.

It might seem like the kind of speakers one might see at a faithfully Catholic college — except this was the lineup of events this past spring at Brown University, an intensely secular Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island.

The events are hosted by the Thomistic Institute, a research institute of the faculty for the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Over the last three years, the institute has quietly made inroads on secular college campuses across the country, from MIT in Massachusetts to the University of California at Berkeley, introducing students to depths of a Catholic intellectual tradition in places where many people consider that to be an oxymoron.

“It’s been a witness to how powerful it is when students realize that it’s possible to be a thoughtful intellectual person who is also deeply faithful,” said Father Dominic Legge, a Dominican who is the assistant director of the Thomistic Institute. He is to take over as the director June 1 from Father Thomas Joseph White, a fellow Dominican.

At its inception, about a decade ago, the institute existed mainly to enhance the intellectual climate at the Dominican House of Studies.

“We bring in people from the outside. We have them interact with our faculty and our students as a way to engage contemporary questions with the resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition more broadly, and more specifically the Thomistic tradition within Catholic philosophy and theology,” Father Legge said. “But the more we did this, the more we realized that there was a real hunger among students on campuses all over the country for some of the ideas that we were talking about here.”

But they also realized that it would not be feasible for the institute to plan speaking events at other campuses. That’s when Father Legge — in conjunction with Father White — came up with the idea of organizing student chapters.

“That was the key realization for us: We wanted to empower students to do this for themselves, and that has borne enormous fruit,” Father Legge said. In just three years, the program, which includes both undergraduate and graduate student chapters, has taken root on about 30 campuses. “It’s grown like wildfire,” Father White said. “We’ve seen that there are a great number of students on these secular campuses who have a vivid desire for contact with the Catholic intellectual tradition but they don’t have the means.”

Students take the initiative to organize events, but they choose from within a network of scholars who have demonstrated both academic rigor and faithfulness to the Catholic Tradition. One of the most popular topics across campuses, according to Father Legge, is how a belief in the soul is compatible with contemporary neuroscience.

The lectures are typically steeped in the Thomistic tradition, but not exclusively so. Some also engage directly with the Church Fathers or Scripture. But Aquinas remains the institute’s “touchstone,” according to Father White.

“Aquinas is popular with young people today because he represents such a profound and coherent approach to the Christian intellectual tradition,” Father White said. “In general, I think people feel like their education doesn’t give them a sufficiently unified vision of reality.”

At Yale University, the undergraduate student chapter sought out events that would answer fundamental questions students were pondering. “In general, there is a hunger on campus for these sorts of events,” said Daniel Gordon, who was an officer in the student chapter. “The students I’ve been in touch with are all on fire to learn more deeply about the relationship of faith and reason in an intellectually serious way. The Thomistic Institute answers that call.”

The student chapter at MIT has aimed for a variety of topics that often tie in with what students are studying. “These range from Catholic economic theory to the mysteries of the cosmos to bioethics,” said Cory Frontin, a graduate student who is a founding member of his local chapter. “Though each topic is different, they tend to unite some technical area of interest for an MIT student with ethical, philosophical and theological thought that has some bearing on that area.”

At Brown, students selected events based on a number of factors. Interest in the debate over the death penalty drove students to invite philosopher Ed Feser to talk about the Thomistic underpinnings of the issue. One philosophy student proposed having another philosopher, James Madden, talk about neuroscience and the soul.

Another lecture on confession was timed for Lent. “We intentionally planned it for Lent in order to encourage people both to attend the talk and to receive the sacrament during the season,” said Emily Salemi, one of the student organizers. Students become “intellectual leaders and evangelizers,” Father White said. “Not only do they benefit from the speaker being on campus,” Father Legge added, “but they also themselves enter into a kind of apprenticeship for how to speak publicly about their faith and how to engage in a secular context with people from very different perspectives.” So far, the Thomistic Institute has had an “entirely positive” reception on Brown’s campus, according to Salemi. “There has been no backlash on any of our talks, and we’ve not faced any protests, though we were preparing for them before our talk on the death penalty. As I mentioned, we’ve had a few interesting discussions during the Q&A sessions, and there’s been a lot of pushback on premises and conclusions in that setting, but it’s all been entirely civil,” she said.

Attendance at events ranges from 10 to 70 people, according to Father Albert Duggan, a Dominican and the Brown campus Catholic chaplain.

At MIT, Frontin said student leaders initially were hoping for a typical audience of 20 students for their events. “Nowadays, we consider 60 students a small turnout for one of our talks, and we have easily broken audiences of 100 people at our talks,” Frontin said.

In all, an estimated 200 events have reached nearly 15,000 people. But the number that has been listening to the podcasts — available on SoundCloud or the Thomistic Institute’s website — is far greater, nearing 400,000 a year, according to Father White.

The Thomistic Institute’s campus chapters have made a qualitative impact, as well. Some students have switched majors to philosophy or theology or gone on to seek graduate degrees in theology. (Gordon, for one, is currently a master’s student at the Dominican House of Studies.) The institute also has seen a “surprising” number of student chapter members pursue vocations to religious life.

Seeking truth is at the root.

Frontin said his involvement in the MIT student chapter emerged out of his own spiritual journey. “As a young Catholic person, I had many questions about why Catholicism preaches what it does. ... Like many people before me, the quest for answers led me to the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and the tradition of the Dominican order.”

Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.

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