Father Kevin Augustyn, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, closed the debate with an appeal to John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio
. In Father Augustyn’s words:
"Reason can lead to the threshold of faith, and once across that threshold of faith, then reason still has a role for us to understand God's word and God's ways in our lives. The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought exists for that reason, for the search for truth."
How little, I wondered, had Pope John Paul II’s words been mentioned in a University of Colorado Auditorium. That night, it was referenced before an audience of hundreds.
Father Augustyn later talked to me about the institute’s mission:
“The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought is basically our arm for outreach to both Catholic students that come to us, and the university at large. We're trying to engage an important secular university with the Catholic faith. How do you do that? You begin with dialogue, and what we have in common, and we believe reason is on our side.”
Father Augustyn described the lecture series, of which the debate was a part, as a first phase in expanding the campus parish mission. He mentioned the institute aspired eventually to issue certificates, though I am unsure of their subjects.
The January issue of First Things examined the mission of such institutes in Robert Louis Wilken’s essay Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools. Describing his visit to the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, he outlined the ideal to which the Thomas Aquinas Institute doubtless aspires:
In that setting, I sensed a freedom about what could be said. It was possible to deal with the topic in an explicitly Catholic way and from a Catholic perspective. Yet it was still a university lecture, and the audience certainly expected it to be as scholarly as other lectures given in that same room under different auspices. In fact, I knew that there would be persons in the audience who were experts on the topic and would most surely have different views than my own. A Catholic institute is no less a forum for debate and argument than is the rest of the university. Catholic tradition is a living thing to be contested as well as upheld, not a genteel legacy to be perfumed and powdered.
Father Augustyn mentioned as his models the St. Lawrence Catholic Center at the University of Kansas and the Institute for Catholic Thought at the University of Illinois, the latter of which is mentioned in Wilken’s essay.
Some Christians only speak of higher education with harping disdain. At the same time, some of these contemners wistfully pine for academic respectability without effort.
While God’s gifts are unmerited graces, men give respect only when earned. I saw that respect last Friday in the closing remarks of Dr. Boonin, the head of the philosophy department.
“There is something quite extraordinary about the fact that the Aquinas Institute invited me to speak this weekend, giving me equal time with a national representative of the views that obviously they are passionately committed to,” he said.
A post-debate reception took place at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center, in operation for only a few years(if that). A former Nazarene church two blocks from the campus Catholic parish, the center is quite spacious. A respectable library occupies the former worship space, while a kitchen and dining area provides a good venue for gatherings. I discovered a door saying that the room it served had been donated by a generous man named Carrigan. I wondered if he was related to Michael Carrigan, the only notable CU regent. To my supreme envy, I entered the Carrigan room to discover a recreation room featuring several leather couches, a movie poster of The Passion, and a large flat-screen television.
The center itself is on “The Hill,” a neighborhood of fraternities and sororities that was briefly famous for its drunken riots around 2000. The center’s furnishings can certainly compete with the average frat house. As a simulacrum of a distinguished alumnus, I made sure to lecture students about how spoiled they were.
The best contents of the Aquinas Center that night were its people. At least 75 students, alumni, and interested parties had accepted the invitation to the reception, where for a modest fundraising fee they could more informally speak with the two professors who had talked that evening. Two of my alumni friends and I spoke with amazement at the energetic life that had invigorated Boulder Catholicism. Comparison to the tenure of the laid-back Paulist Fathers, who left a few years ago, was not favorable to the Paulists. We all wished we could have enjoyed such facilities, events, and staff during our undergraduate years.
Wilken, writing about the low profile of Catholic academics, says, “On university campuses, Catholic faculty are largely invisible. They are seldom known to students, and, though many are accomplished scholars in their academic disciplines, few have the formation in Catholic culture or history to serve as mentors to students.”
Hoping the center had some friends among the faculty, I asked a senior whether she knew whether any Catholic professors were involved with the parish. Her answer was an embarrased “no.” We got to talking about the sad ignorance of Western religion that blights the campus, and we laughed as she recounted how a history professor in her class on Spanish colonialism in the New World taught that Paul was the first pope.
When I walked to the campus parish around the turn of the millennium, I often passed through “The Hill” feeling its spiritual emptiness, and my own. It was a despondent time for me, and that sadness has tainted many memories.
Leaving the St. Thomas Aquinas Center that night felt quite different.
Reflecting upon the debate and its after-party, I realized I had just witnessed that hopeful confidence which the “first pope” took to Mars Hill.