New CUA President Peter Kilpatrick Discusses His Conversion, Catholic Identity and Engineering Through the Lens of Faith
The 16th president of The Catholic University of America discusses his faith and what makes a university Catholic.
WASHINGTON — Peter Kilpatrick, a chemical engineer and convert to Catholicism, has been named the 16th president of The Catholic University of America. Kilpatrick, 65, has decades of experience in academia and will take on the role after serving as provost at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago for the past four years. Prior to that, he was the Matthew H. McCloskey Dean of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame from 2008 to 2018. The Catholic University of America will mark its 135th anniversary April 10.
Kilpatrick will succeed President John Garvey July 1. He spoke with the Register Tuesday on Catholic University’s campus about his new role, what he sees as the key elements of a Catholic university, his conversion to Catholicism and how his chemical-engineering background relates to his faith.
You’re a convert to the faith. How did you arrive at the faith, and what has shaped and deepened your faith?
I was baptized as a Methodist when I was 10. I had an early conversion to Christ, and one of my best friends was the son of a Methodist minister on the Air Force base where we were. I always had a deep affection and love for the Bible and for Jesus. We moved around a lot, and then I really sort of lost touch with my faith.
When I got married to my wife — we met in college — I was not a practicing Christian. She was a cradle Catholic. She wanted to get married in the Church, of course. I went to the priest, and I said “My name is Peter Kilpatrick. My wife-to-be, Nancy, is a parishioner here. We’d like to get married here in the church.” He said, “Great! I need you to sign this form that says you promise to raise your children Catholic.” I said, “Father, I can’t do that. My children need to make up their minds for themselves.” He said, “Well, that’s fine. I can’t marry you in my parish.” We went back and forth for a little bit, and then finally I signed the form a little under duress. Fast-forward three years later; Nancy’s pregnant with our oldest child. We go to the local parish in Minneapolis at that time to arrange to have the child baptized, and we were not attending Mass. The priest says, “I don’t believe you’re parishioners here, and I can’t baptize a child of non-practicing Catholics.”
So we started going to Mass. The very first Mass, the priest gave a really moving homily on the sanctity of life, and I was so touched by that I almost immediately converted. I went through RCIA. I was conditionally baptized, received all the sacraments, and for 41 years, I’ve never had a crisis of faith. I attribute that to the Holy Spirit. It’s hard to understand it otherwise.
I was a RCIA catechist for about 10 years, and I read a lot because I knew I had no formation. So early on, I discovered that the imprimatur and the nihil obstat really meant something; and then I started listening to a lot of Scott Hahn tapes, and I got hungrier to know things that I didn’t know. I feel like I’ve had an education in theology and doctrine and philosophy, but it has all been self-taught. One of the things I was going to do if I didn’t take this president job was go back and get a Ph.D. in theology. I might still do that at Catholic University if I can pull it off, but I think this job is just going to be a little too busy.
You have a chemical-engineering background; how do you relate that to your Catholic faith?
The Church documents on Catholic education say every discipline relates to our faith; every pursuit of truth relates to the Truth. Chemical engineering is all about using chemistry and engineering to make human life better, to enhance society, to improve the condition and the lives of people through new drugs, through consumer products. There are so many things that chemical engineers make that help people’s lives, and I think that’s intimately related to our faith and to our belief.
Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate that God gave people the ability to develop technology specifically so that we might exercise the dominion that he gave us in the garden to help the world be better. I view chemical engineering as just a natural part of God’s gifts to us to help us make life better for other people.
What is your vision of a Catholic university, and what are some of the things that make it distinct from secular universities?
Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a book in 2009 called God, Philosophy, Universities, where he said universities are in grave danger of devolving into multiversities because the disciplines are becoming so disconnected from each other that people who study in those disciplines don’t understand the grander context of knowledge and how it relates to society.
I think the special role of a Catholic university is to reintegrate all the disciplines so that students who go to your university understand, when they study chemical engineering or nursing, that there’s a grander context and that the nursing or the engineering only makes sense in the light of philosophy and theology and God’s plan for our lives.
Catholics invented the university. The first universities were the University of Paris, the University of Bologna. These were all Catholic universities; and in those original universities, it was clear that knowledge was completely integrated. Most universities in the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th century were all based on the liberal arts. They were all based on the Trivium and the Quadrivium, and it was clear to those students how knowledge was integrated. Today, you study a discipline, and it’s not clear how this is integrated to all knowledge. I think that’s a special role that Catholic universities have to play.
I think another role that we have to play as a university is to integrate faith and reason. St. John Paul II said, “Faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” and how can you understand the truth if you don’t have both wings? Birds don’t fly with one wing; they need both.
In terms of integrating faith and reason, what are some challenges to that in our day and age?
The biggest challenge is that our culture, our society says, “Your faith is a private thing; it’s not a public thing, and you need to keep it private.” And that’s nonsense. Your faith is an integral part of who you are as a person, and you can’t divide your person into pieces and say that part of my person will only exist on a Sunday morning. That’s the biggest challenge: the resistance of our society to a public expression of our faith. And we have to resist that because there is such a thing as religious liberty in this country.
Another issue with integrating faith and reason is that people have lost a sense of the sacred in their lives. And the liturgy and public expressions of faith are really important to recapturing that sense of the sacred. Those are a couple of the key challenges, but I know we do it well here at Catholic University, and I’m looking forward to being a big part of that.
How would you strengthen the Catholic elements of CUA’s technical programs like engineering?
When I was at Notre Dame, a big way that we did that was we built a chapel in our engineering building, and we started celebrating Mass and being a community of believers in engineering. We started a lecture series when I was at Notre Dame on “how do science and religion talk to each other? How does a faith-filled Catholic understand science?” There have been some great thinkers out there: John Polkinghorne, Michael Hanby, Stanley Jaki — thinkers who understand how to help scientists and engineers talk about creation, talk about their faith, talk about religious values in the context of science.
I think it’s important to help our faculty here at Catholic University understand that world of ideas that relates to how you integrate faith and science. People think that somehow science and religion are in opposition to each other, which is silly. They’re actually very complementary; and, in fact, existentially, you can say that without God and without religious faith, there is no science there because he [God] is the architect of everything.
What are your thoughts on President John Garvey’s legacy regarding the connection between academic life and the practice of virtue that was behind decisions like instituting single-sex dorms?
President Garvey and I actually talked about that Sunday night, and he told me that he teaches an honors course to first-year students on virtue. It was quite remarkable because I told him I’ve been wanting to do a course just like that. President Garvey and I think a lot alike, with regards to the importance of virtue.
If you ask the question, “How does a person build a worldview of ethics?” and you look at the philosophical underpinnings of ethics, there are precious few opportunities here. Bentham and Mill had utilitarianism and consequentialism, and they really don’t work well for human persons. Kant had deontology and rights arguments, and rights arguments don’t work very well unless you have a hierarchy of rights and you understand duty. So, really, one of the few philosophical frameworks for understanding moral reasoning is virtue. It’s virtue ethics. I’m a huge believer in that. And that actually goes back to Aristotle and The Nicomachean Ethics. I look forward to picking up the baton from John and doing what I can to help in that regard.
What aspects of your presidency do you share with your predecessor, and what are some of the ways you’ll expand on his approach?
John has been a wonderful president for 12 years. He has done so much for the institution. I’m just a little humbled to be trying to fill his shoes because they’re mighty big shoes. I do think there are a few areas that probably need some attention. These are some of the more practical elements of the health of the university, like our enrollment growth, but he did a wonderful job with fundraising. We’re coming off a really fantastic campaign. I want to continue the good work there.
During your time at Notre Dame, you received a pro-life honor from the university. You also spoke to the Catholic Medical Association about how to build a culture of life at a Catholic university. How did you become engaged with the pro-life movement, and what do you believe is most important in terms of building the culture of life on Catholic campuses?
Early on in my baby Catholic-hood, many years ago, I became compelled that all life is sacred. I would say that David Walsh, one of our politics faculty here at Catholic University, has really helped me understand that even more deeply with his latest book called The Priority of the Person.
When you buy into the notion that every human life has infinite value because it’s immortal then, as Moses says, you have to choose life and to be consistent. in that you have to be opposed to all forms of taking life away. I got to that point emotionally, intellectually and spiritually 40 years ago; and once you’re there, it’s really hard to not support the pro-life movement. It’s just that simple: Life is sacred.
My wife and I were going to pro-life marches in North Carolina, and then eventually, when I moved to Notre Dame, we started going to the March for Life in Washington. I was happy to support the pro-life movement at Notre Dame. We were really proud. My last year there we brought 1,000 people to the pro-life march in Washington, which I’m pretty sure was the biggest group from any school or university.
How do you see Catholic University fitting into the intellectual culture of Washington, D.C., and the local Church in the Archdiocese of Washington?
Thomas Aquinas really taught us how to be in dialogue with people with whom we don’t always agree, and he was the master of that, and I think that’s a great model. His model was: You try to understand their arguments, as well or better than they understand them, and you support their arguments to the degree that you can without violating the truth; and then you contrast that with your arguments. It’s really an elegant way to be in conversation with people, and when people are in dialogue with each other, particularly when it’s from a place of goodwill, you have the opportunity then for mutual understanding. We don’t have enough of that going on in this country.
In terms of the universities here and the Church, I look forward to working closely with Cardinal Gregory in any way that I can to help build up the Church in Washington, D.C.
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