The Angelic Doctor’s Orders

It’s a year of significant anniversaries at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.

The school turns 35 just as Thomas Dillon marks his 15th year as its president.

In an e-mail interview, Dillon discussed the college and Catholic higher education — and the rightful role of both in the New Evangelization — with Register correspondent Jeff Ziegler.

What are the highlights of the past 15 years, and what are the college’s major plans for the next few years?

During the past 15 years, our student body has grown to its maximum size, and we have significantly built out our campus. At the same time, we have stayed true to our mission of liberal education undertaken in the light of the Catholic faith. Moreover, we have added faculty members who are committed in mind and soul to our understanding of Catholic liberal education and to the importance of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas to the Catholic intellectual life.

We are now constructing two major buildings: a faculty building and Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. These projects will require great attention and effort over the next few years, but their completion will profoundly enhance our community life.

What evidence have you seen that a “great books” curriculum — no textbooks or lectures, just readings and discussions of the classics — is practical for Catholics in today’s world?

Catholic liberal education is ordered to the discernment of truth and the formation of good judgment. These ends are good in themselves and befitting the dignity of human beings made in the image of God — at any time, in any century. Our program, therefore, is not ordered to any particular practical end.

It turns out, though, that a Thomas Aquinas College education is eminently practical for Catholics in today’s world, so in need of leaders who are well formed in the intellectual and moral virtues.

Our graduates excel in nearly every field — education, law, journalism, medicine, military service, public policy and so on. Time and again, we hear from graduate-school professors and employers that our graduates are some of the most well prepared they know because they have learned how to think well, to analyze and to form good judgments. For those graduates who are called to the priesthood, to religious life or to marriage, the intellectual, moral and spiritual formation they receive here has a profound influence on how they live out their vocations.

Four decades ago, many older Catholic universities began distancing themselves from their religious identity. And yet, over the past several years, some have seemed eager to reclaim their Catholic heritage. What is your prognosis for the future of Catholic higher education in the next decade or two?

Without fidelity to the magisterium, a school simply cannot retain its Catholic character or foster real wisdom. Even when institutions have good presidents, it may still be very hard indeed to effect substantial improvements. Many are like large ships adrift in the wrong direction and particularly difficult to turn around.

I have much more hope for some of the smaller Catholic institutions, where the number of faculty is not so unwieldy, and fidelity to the faith, while never guaranteed, is more easily inculcated. There are, indeed, many signs that the faith is vibrant at these schools.

Thomas Aquinas College, as an example, is regularly commended by secular organizations for its academic excellence and thereby enjoys a kind of worldly prestige. This year, it again made U.S. News & World Report’s top tier of national liberal arts colleges, and it is the only Catholic liberal arts college in the country on their list of 40 “best values.”

Likewise, The New York Times recently published a list of the 106 top colleges and universities in the nation that admit “the country’s best students” (all colleges, not just liberal arts colleges). Thomas Aquinas College is one of only four Catholic institutions on that list and the only “new” Catholic college or university so named.

At the same time, Thomas Aquinas College is widely recognized both in the United States and in Rome for its fidelity and for the way in which the Catholic faith informs not only the moral and spiritual life of the community, but its intellectual life as well. Thomas Aquinas College is proof that it is indeed possible to excel academically while remaining faithful to the teaching Church.

A few months before you became president, Pope John Paul wrote that “the moment has come to commit all the Church’s energies to a New Evangelization. ... No institution in the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” How is Thomas Aquinas College preparing is students to evangelize the world?

Thomas Aquinas College is making a noteworthy contribution to the New Evangelization. We now have 41 priests, 20 fully professed religious, and 30 seminarians among our alumni, all directly involved in the endeavor to change the world for Christ. In this year’s graduating class alone, there are six who will enter the seminary.

In addition, we have numerous graduates involved in Catholic education at all levels. Some are teachers in seminaries. One is the president of a Catholic college. Another is the head of a philosophy department in a Catholic university in California. One is the founding president of the International Theological Institute in Austria, devoted to the study of marriage and the family, expressly established at the request of the late John Paul II. Still another is the vice president for academic affairs in charge of four colleges, the law school and the graduate school at the Pontifical Catholic University in Puerto Rico.

There are, in addition, scores of our graduates who teach at, or are administrators of, faithful Catholic secondary and elementary schools. Others evangelize through their publications. One has co-edited a book on St. Thomas Aquinas and the natural law; another, at the request of [St. Louis] Archbishop [Raymond] Burke, has produced a high-school text on the social teachings of the Church. Another has written a book on the ethical principle of the double effect, to be published in June by Oxford’s Clarendon Press. Yet another is the president of the Catholic Schools Textbook Project, which is turning out the first authentically Catholic textbooks in 40 years.

Other graduates are journalists and still more work in public policy. And the list goes on and on.

Thomas Aquinas College graduates are reaching, quite literally, tens of thousands of souls. In their various capacities, they are truly helping to change the world for Christ.

Jeff Ziegler is based in

Ellenboro, North Carolina.