America Comment

How the Dominicans are bringing orthodoxy back to academia

The fight for America’s soul is being fought – and, it seems, lost – on university campuses. According to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Centre, Millennials are more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans by a 20-point margin. An even more astonishing poll, conducted in 2016, found that only 37 per cent had a “very unfavourable” view of communism. Fully 64 per cent agreed with the Marxian mantra, “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.”

Christians struggle to confront this looming leftward tilt. The Evangelical Right has forged strong political alliances with politicians like Donald Trump (who can hardly be called a traditionalist) in the hopes of securing concessions on religious liberty. Others have advocated a retreat from mainstream society, as does Rod Dreher in his bestseller The Benedict Option.

But the Order of Preachers are redoubling their efforts to retake academia. Ten years ago, the Dominican House of Studies (DHS) in Washington, DC established the Thomistic Institute in order to bring their charism to American and British students. What is that charism exactly? “To share with others the truth about the God whom we contemplate in our hearts.”

And so they have. The Thomistic Institute has student-run chapters on 30 campuses, including Oxford, in partnership with the English Dominicans. According to Fr Thomas Petri, the dean of the DHS’s Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, the Institute encourages “intellectual formation on substantive topics and issues at play in society today.”

In fact, some of their most significant in-roads as of late have been in the Ivy League: those storied, elite universities that are ubiquitous with progressive politics. That doesn’t surprise Fr Dominic Legge, the Institute’s new Director. “Contemporary secular universities don’t always do a good job at addressing students’ most important existential questions,” he told me via email. “We’ve found that students feel very empowered when they can bring a speaker to campus who addresses the questions that other professors don’t touch, especially if it is done in an intelligent and responsible way, drawing on the riches of the Christian intellectual tradition.”

I attended a Thomistic Institute symposium at Harvard in March on the subject of “Liberalism and Christianity”. The speakers included some major (and controversial) names on the American Right, including R.R. Reno of First Things and Julius Krein of American Affairs. I expected disruptions, or at least protests. Yet the conference went off without a hitch. There wasn’t a single jeer – not one rude, pointed question during the Q&A.

What’s their secret? The Thomistic Institute doesn’t need to rile up left-wingers in order to generate a buzz. Their brand of gentle-yet-intellectually rigorous Catholicism is so foreign to the experience of many students that they can’t resist the chance to meet them. According to Legge’s predecessor, Fr Thomas Joseph White, students often come to their university’s chapter with to ask about the Faith. “Questions we typically encounter concern the compatibility of science and religion, and the nature of objective moral truth claims, but there is also a strong interest in basic Catholic dogma,” he told me.

The Dominicans – the most intellectual religious order except, perhaps, the Jesuits – are uniquely suited to evangelise in this climate. “Most students have little formal training in theology or in some cases even basic catechesis, but they are intellectually sophisticated,” Fr White continues. “We try to give introductions to theology appropriately pitched to their level. This has proven quite popular.”

In fact, the TI’s rigour is itself part of the appeal, according to Vermeule. “There is no comparable group, in my experience,” he told me. “No forum or venue comes close to the Institute’s unique combination of the highest academic and intellectual quality and the deepest, most vibrant Catholic faith. The only word for it is ‘inspirational’.”

So, even non-Catholic students are grateful for this remnant of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s idea of a university. In his book by the same name, Newman wrote that tertiary education “gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.”

We should note that Newman’s “idea” isn’t about discourse for its own sake. Those who decry left-wing biases on campus often do so in the name of a kind of relativism. Christianity or Marxism, conservatism or socialism – all should be treated as equally valid. It’s another thing entirely to provide a forum for debate whose goal is to shun error and affirm truth. Then the TI steps into the fray – like Xenophon, outnumbered in a hostile country – prepared to do battle on behalf of the Faith.

The intellectual Catholic renaissance these Dominicans are leading is indeed astonishing. It could very well prove a working model for Catholic universities, too: instead of watering-down the Faith, they may embrace it with thoughtfulness and charity.

But the Institute’s mission has implications for non-Catholics as well. Few other institutions are willing to stand against this new academic culture, which increasingly shies away from debate for fear of offending one party or another. So long as the Thomistic Institute remains in the fray, the war for America’s campuses will continue.