Dominicans are challenging the secular consensus at America’s elite universities
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 Center, 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 Marxist mantra: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
Christians struggle to confront this looming leftward tilt – not least because the new academic culture increasingly shies away from debate, for fear of offending one party or another. Few institutions are willing to risk their reputations by speaking out.
But the Order of Preachers is redoubling its 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 chapters on more than 35 campuses, including at Oxford. Those chapters are student-run, though they’re supported with funds and logistics from the DHS. According to Fr Thomas Petri, 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 go hand-in-hand 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. “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 were asked if orthodox Christianity was compatible with secular democracy, and they weren’t afraid to say no. Among those invited to speak was Adrian Vermeule, professor of constitutional law at Harvard and the institute’s faculty adviser. Vermeule’s strict interpretation of Catholic social teaching (called “integralism”) has earned rebukes even from conservative Catholics such as Ross Douthat of the New York Times and RR Reno of First Things.
I expected disruptions, or at least protests. Harvard is no exception to the pervasive culture of political correctness on campus. (The university is considering renaming Mather House, which honours its third president, because Mather owned a slave.) 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 the secret? The Thomistic Institute doesn’t need to rile left-wingers in order to generate a buzz. Its 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 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 other than, 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 says. “We try to give introductions to theology pitched to their level. This has proven quite popular.”
Indeed, the Thomistic Institute’s rigour is 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 the opportunity to encounter this aspect of John Henry Newman’s idea of a university. In his book by the same name, Cardinal 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”.
The intellectual Catholic renaissance these Dominicans are leading is indeed astonishing. It could well prove a working model for Catholic universities, too: not watering down the faith, but embracing it with thoughtfulness and charity.
So long as the Thomistic Institute remains in the fray, the battle for America’s campuses will continue.