Thomas’ Promises

Christopher Wolfe co-directs the Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies at Notre Dame. But now he is setting off on a new venture: starting a college that will give students a “unified, integrated conception of reality” based on the scholarship of Thomas Aquinas. By Monta Hernon.

Christopher Wolfe, a long-time professor of political science at Marquette University, has dreamed of founding a university in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 2004, he connected with Fulvio Di Blasi, an Italian professor who taught for a time at the University of Notre Dame.

The two began working together the following year as co-directors of the McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies in conjunction with Di Blasi’s Thomas International (both are at It will serve as the cornerstone of the planned university, targeted for opening in 2011. The center operates from Washington, D.C., but will relocate. Possible sites include St. Louis and South Carolina.

Wolfe spoke with Register correspondent Monta Hernon about his Thomistic vision, the McInerny Center, the state of higher education and his university dream.

How did you become an Aquinas devotee?

I think in some ways I absorbed Aquinas just from ordinary Catholicism. I was raised on the Baltimore Catechism in the years just before the Vatican council. In many ways you can view the Baltimore Catechism as a way of reducing a highly complex theological body of knowledge, deeply informed by St. Thomas, into questions and answers that immigrant children could learn, memorize and grow to understand. … For whatever reason, Aristotle and St. Thomas have always appealed to me very strongly.

One of the reasons I majored in government at Notre Dame was that I knew I’d have the chance to study Plato, Augustine, Aristotle and St. Thomas. Second semester my freshman year, I had a philosophy introduction with a graduate student who was a very good teacher and my admiration for Aristotle really crystallized.

I’m not a Thomistic scholar, really. My background is more in political philosophy and over the years in Constitutional law and contemporary political theory … but St. Thomas’ intellectual system certainly provides the kind of broad framework for my thinking in life as well as for my scholarship.

You also have described yourself both as a conservative and a John Paul II Catholic. What does this mean?

When I was coming of age spiritually at Notre Dame, I often would see two kinds of people. You’d meet some old cranky conservatives who thought the world was going to hell in a hand basket. They were very solid and orthodox in Catholic doctrine, but kind of grouchy about the world.

Then you’d have young, dynamic attractive people, who loved the world and who were just off the wall doctrinally. I was fortunate enough to come into contact with people who were young, dynamic and very orthodox doctrinally. That is a lot of what John Paul represents for me — this tremendous openness to the world, a love for what is good in the world, a desire to help the world reach its potential and a deep recognition that we have to hold out to the world so much of what we have to offer them.

We have the answers to a lot of questions the world is asking. The world may not be immediately receptive to that, or many people in the world may not be receptive but it still is kind of a vibrant optimistic vision, rather than a cranky “let’s withdraw from this bad world” vision.

The McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies is named for Notre Dame philosophy professor Ralph McInerny. How did it come about?

Fulvio Di Blasi, my colleague [and co-director] was at Notre Dame as a fellow … and also taught there a couple of semesters and got to know Ralph McInerny very well. So when Fulvio conceived of the Thomas International project he came up with what I think was a very prudent and insightful idea of beginning a center for Thomistic studies that would be the core or the nucleus of what would eventually be a new university.

Ralph McInerny is certainly one of the great Thomists of the last part of the 20th century. Fulvio conceived of naming the center after him.

How did you get on board?

Fulvio knew someone who was a former student of mine at [Notre Dame]. As he was talking about this idea of a new university, this former student of mine said, “You know, if you are interested in starting a new university you ought to contact Chris Wolfe.” He knew that Chris Wolfe had been thinking about starting a new university for many years if the circumstances arose.

We met in Chicago in November 2004 and immediately, as we were talking, realized we were on the same page and agreed to join forces to work on the new project.

Have you been thinking of starting a university for a long time?

I have been thinking about it since the mid-1980s partly [from a] dissatisfaction with the character of current education, both secular and to some extent Catholic higher education as well. It is ironic that many people say that what distinguishes Catholic education from secular education is Catholic colleges have a concern for value questions, for moral questions.

When you think about it, it is ridiculous. Shouldn’t secular institutions have just as much a concern for questions of morality or ethical questions?

In fact, I think they don’t have as much a concern because certain notions of positivistic science carry too much weight. They have too much influence at secular institutions and that tends to result in value questions being considered non-scientific, not real, serious knowledge.

What lessons have you learned as you created the McInerny Center, and how will its existence help you as you go forward and incorporate it into the new university?

We are already beginning to try to do different activities and to publish the fruits of those activities. So, for example, last March we had a three-day conference on the philosophical foundations of human dignity. We are producing a book on that subject.

The book draws on people from different intellectual traditions, but all of them share this interest in trying to figure out what the grounds of human dignity are. In that sense, it is [an] example of the kind of intellectual work we want done in our own university.

In a way, the McInerny Center involves activities that give examples that reflect the spirit of what we are doing. In some sense, I guess you could almost view them as an advertisement for or a down payment on what we hope the university will be like.

Monta Hernon writes from

La Grange Park, Illinois.