Are the Dominicans Bringing Orthodoxy Back to the Academy?

In an article published by the UK’s Catholic Herald on June 8, Michael Davis lauded the way that the Dominicans are “bringing orthodoxy back to Academia”, focusing specifically on the way that the Dominican order is “challenging the secular consensus at elite universities”.

The basis for Mr. Davis’ optimism is the work of the Thomistic Institute, which was founded ten years ago by the Dominican House of Studies (DHS) in Washington, D.C., and today has student-run chapters on thirty campuses. According to Fr. Thomas Petri, the dean of the DHS’s Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, as quoted by Mr. Davis, the Institute encourages “intellectual formation on substantive topics and issues at play in society today.”

“Contemporary secular universities don’t always do a good job at addressing students’ most important existential questions,” Fr. Petri told Mr. Davis. “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.”

Mr. Davis was particularly impressed by a Thomistic Institute symposium that he attended at Harvard in March on the subject of “Liberalism and Christianity”. The secret of the Institute’s success, says Mr. Davis, is their “gentle-yet-intellectually rigorous Catholicism.” According to Fr. Thomas Joseph White, who served until recently as the Director of the Institute, students often come to their university’s chapter to ask questions 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.”

Mr. Davis sees the role of the Thomistic Institute in heroic terms, comparing its work with “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,” writes Mr. Davis. “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.”

This is all very well, and we can all join Mr. Davis in praising the work of the Thomistic Institute, but its work does not, unfortunately, reflect the role of the Dominican Order in the wider academy. The Thomistic Institute “should be applauded”, says Patrick J. Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, “but it seems to me only the good part of the story”.

The other part of the story is the abject failure of the Dominicans to serve as faithful guardians and custodians of the many Catholic colleges and universities which the order founded. Readers of the Journal will be well aware of the shenanigans at Providence College, which have included the victimizing of faithful Catholic faculty members and the persecution of a student who had the courage and temerity to defend the Catholic Church’s position on marriage. In the latter case, the college administration refrained from taking any action against violent anti-Catholic students who had threatened to rape the student as punishment for his pro-life position. Considering the nonsense going on at Providence College, how can it be true that the Dominicans are bringing orthodoxy back to academia?

Of the many Dominican colleges around the country only one, Aquinas College in Nashville, is in The Newman Guide. These are all the Dominican colleges in the United States:

  • Albertus Magnus College (New Haven, Conn.)
  • Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
  • Aquinas College (Nashville, Tenn.)
  • Barry University (Miami, Fla.)
  • Caldwell University (Caldwell, N.J.)
  • Dominican College (Orangeburg, N.Y.)
  • Dominican University (River Forest, Ill.)
  • Edgewood College (Madison, Wisc.)
  • Molloy College (Rockville Centre, N.Y.)
  • Mount Saint Mary College (Newburgh, N.Y.)
  • Ohio Dominican University (Columbus, Ohio)
  • Providence College (Providence, R.I.)
  • St. Catharine College (St. Catharine, Ky.)
  • St. Thomas Aquinas College (Sparkill, N.Y.)
  • Siena Heights University (Adrian, Mich.)

It is indeed an indictment of the Dominicans in Catholic education that only one of these fifteen colleges qualifies as a model Catholic institution, according to the empirical criteria which The Cardinal Newman Society employs to analyze Catholic colleges and universities in accord with the stated expectations of the bishops and the Vatican. This is not a good track record!

Seen in this context, the Thomistic Institute should be encouraged, but is it an anomaly?

Patrick Reilly is guardedly positive, insisting that we should give “due praise for the institute and for the Dominican Fathers who at least have stayed rather strong relative to the Jesuits”. Among the sisters, it should be noted that the one Dominican college in The Newman Guide, Aquinas College in Nashville, is run by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia; nor should we omit mention of the great work being done by the Sisters of Saint Cecilia and the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist at K-12 schools around the country. “The Dominican House of Studies in D.C. is also a wonderful apostolate that has done some great work bearing much fruit,” says Mr. Reilly.

There is, therefore, much to praise about the role of the Dominicans in contemporary Catholic education, and much that is encouraging. It’s merely a case of seeing that which is praiseworthy in its proper context. Many good things are happening, but many good things still need to happen before the Dominicans as a whole can truly be said to be bringing orthodoxy back to the academy.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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