Thomism and the Evangelisation of Culture – An Interview with fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.
We need to return to the philosophical and theological tradition of the Church
This article originally appeared @WszystkoCoNajważniejsze (article has been slightly modified, and published with permission)
Father Jarosław KUPCZAK, O.P.: Can you please tell us about your path to religious life and the priesthood?
Father Thomas Joseph WHITE, O.P.: I come from the state of Georgia, in the southeastern part of the United States. My family wasn’t religious – my father is a non-practising Jew, and my mother comes from a Presbyterian family. I studied at Brown University in New England. There, in a very secularized academic environment, I began to consider questions of a philosophical and religious nature. Thus, my journey of seeking answers began. I read various books, including those by Christian mystics, and that led me to the Catholic Church.
I discovered that the Church has a deep understanding of human existence and spiritual life and a well-established tradition of philosophical reflection. I was 21 and in my final year of college when I decided to go to a retreat at a Benedictine monastery. There, I discovered the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and decided to become a Catholic. Shortly afterwards, I went to Oxford to study the Church Fathers. At Oxford University, I met the Dominicans and thought for the first time that I might have a monastic vocation.
How did Your family receive Your decision to live a religious life?
My parents were very generous about my decision to study Catholic theology. I think they were intrigued by the idea of me learning about these matters at a high academic level; they certainly wanted me to find my own path and be happy. My decision to become a monk and my preparations for ordination were a major test for them; on the emotional level, they were initially disappointed with my choice. Over time, they began to appreciate the Dominican Order’s respect for serious intellectual life devoted to caring for other people; they started to appreciate my vocation and became companions in my religious journey. By now, they have not only accepted my choice but have come to consider it a part of a divine plan. (…)
You are well known in the Dominican Order for your studies on the concepts of St. Thomas Aquinas. How did your fascination with St. Thomas and Thomism’s legacy begin?
I see two key inspirations in my encounter with Thomas Aquinas. As far as his philosophy is concerned, I have always been impressed by the two French Thomistic centres associated with Toulouse and Fribourg, Switzerland, and their significant representatives: Charles Journet, Servais Pinkaers, O.P., Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. and Gilles Emery, O.P. All these great Thomists attempt to show how Aquinas explains the mysteries of the Christian faith – in accordance with the nature of the human mind but taking into account the supernatural character of human reflection. The anglophone analytic tradition in philosophy has been a second source of my inspiration. I am particularly indebted to Alasdair MacIntyre, who brought to light the urgent need for Aristotelian thought and the scholastic tradition in today’s culture in the face of a post-modern epistemological crisis. A return to the Thomistic philosophy of nature, metaphysics and ethics could provide a point of orientation in times when university studies lack coherence. It was MacIntyre who gave me the courage to think that classical forms of scholastic education can benefit the modern world.
After the Second Vatican Council, the interest in St. Thomas Aquinas went through a crisis, including in the Dominican Order. In 2008, You founded the Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C., at the Dominican Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies, and You served as its first Director for the next 10 years. That decade was a time of remarkable flourishing for the Thomistic Institute and the increase of its influence in many academic centres across the United States.
Certainly, the Council Fathers did not intend to abandon the thought of St. Thomas; we see this, for example, in the Council’s Decree on Priestly Training that recommends paying special attention to studying Aquinas’ legacy. Nevertheless, the cultural atmosphere following the Council did indeed encourage abandoning the defensive forms of reason-based apologetics characteristic of the pre-Council era and replacing them with more contemporary forms of philosophical reflection, such as phenomenology and existentialism.
Looking at these choices today, we realise their naïvete – continental philosophy began to incline towards post-modernism on the one hand and a rediscovery of scholastic metaphysics through the analytic tradition on the other. However, due to the epistemological crisis and the lack of unity among the academic disciplines in the English-speaking world, interest in Aristotle and Aquinas in university circles is now being revived. In the absence of unified human knowledge, Aristotelianism and Thomism offer an interesting coherence option for the various disciplines of knowledge within the broader framework of metaphysical reflection. Along with that, a conviction is emerging in the academic world that even the natural sciences need some sort of metaphysical justification of cognitive realism so as not to become merely a form of reality taxonomy. A similar tendency is observed, for example, in consideration of human rights. To avoid turning into yet another cultural convention, these rights require a philosophical and metaphysical reflection on human nature. The lack of a coherent metaphysics and theory of a person in the present-day academic world opens up a new opportunity to demonstrate the attractiveness of Thomistic thought and, more broadly, the thought associated with the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has been recently missing many such new possibilities. On the one hand, the Church is naïve in its belief that secular culture will provide fundamental epistemological convictions to which everyone will agree. At the same time, it underestimates the significance of its own intellectual tradition. In the Church, we are dealing with a problem of intellectual and cultural amnesia. In the face of a strange lack of confidence in our own heritage, it is naïve to believe that inspiration will come from outside. Reading Nietzsche will not help us if we abandon Aquinas. We must return to the philosophical and theological tradition of the Church.
The Thomistic Institute in Washington undertook a fresh initiative of establishing its branches in secular universities in the United States.
The Thomistic Institute in Washington began operating in 2008. Its primary activity is setting up branches at various secular universities in the USA. They aim to promote the Catholic intellectual tradition in a secular culture, with a particular focus on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The institute opens a new branch when there is a sufficiently large number of students willing to organise systematic intellectual work: joint discussions and seminars, lectures and conferences.
The Thomistic Institute facilitates contacts between these student groups and 200 lecturers from the United States, England and Ireland. Those academics can be invited to the universities’ campuses to give a lecture and participate in seminars and discussions. Currently, such branches of Washington’s Thomistic Institute operate at 83 universities in the United States. Every year, about 30,000 students and lecturers at these universities participate in various events. We try to ensure that they are also recorded and available online so the number of people who listen to them reaches 5 million a year.
In 2018, You moved to Rome to assume the position of Director of the Angelicum Thomistic Institute, at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Rome offers even greater influence opportunities than Washington.
In Rome, the Angelicum Thomistic Institute supports the main objective of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is to train priests, religious and lay people for work in Catholic universities, colleges, seminaries and other institutions of the Church all over the world.
For this to be possible, we must obviously also think about the prospect of serious research, without which there is no teaching at a high university level. The aim of such research is to address the most serious problems and questions that each era poses to the Church. That is why the Thomistic Institute in Rome, currently managed by Simon Gaine, O.P., a member of the International Theological Commission, is now focusing on the problems of the relationship between science and religion and the contemporary philosophy of the human person. We are also trying to move our way of working from Washington to Rome. We have been slowed down by COVID, but we already have several branches of the Roman Institute in secular universities in various cities of Europe: Lisbon, Paris, Krakow, Barcelona and Zagreb.
In 2021, You became a Rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most recognisable Catholic universities in the world.
The Angelicum now has about a thousand students from one hundred countries from all over the world. They will all become missionaries and evangelisers of the next generation. Despite all their differences, they share a motivation to assist in the intellectual mission of the Church and evangelisation of contemporary culture. It is something extremely beautiful and sublime that a Dominican university can help them in this mission of bringing the truth of Christ to all the cultures and countries they come from.
Central to our academic curriculum is the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, through which we achieve philosophical and theological unity in the work of our professors. To this we add a serious historical study of Scripture, the patristic tradition and confrontation with today’s philosophical and theological challenges. In this latter task, the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture and the Faculty of Social Sciences play an important role, addressing a whole range of issues related to the themes of human rights, human dignity and problems related to more specific solutions in the field of economics and politics. The influence of the Faculty of Social Sciences has proved to be crucial, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe; a number of this faculty’s graduates now play a significant role in various kinds of institutions that greatly affect the shape of this part of Europe.
One of the important goals of the Angelicum today is to reflect on interreligious relations. In this way, we want to help our students from countries with Hindu or Buddhist cultures not only to reflect on the peaceful coexistence of different religions, but also to create an intellectual horizon for the Church’s evangelizing mission.
The best known graduate of the Angelicum is Karol Wojtyla – John Paul II, who received his doctorate in theology here in 1946-48 under the guidance of one of the most eminent Roman theologians of the time, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP. For many years, the Angelicum did not seem to attach much importance to this fact. This has changed recently thanks to the founding of the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture in cooperation with the Warsaw Center for Political Theology, led by its director Dariusz Karłowicz.
There is no doubt that St. John Paul II is our greatest alumnus. We are very grateful to God that he was our student and that through this environment he came to know the Thomistic tradition, which after all was very present in the intellectual achievements throughout his pontificate. Today, both faculty and students at the Angelicum are very much attached to the legacy and achievements of John Paul II. As far as I am concerned, John Paul II has had a very strong influence on me.
The task of the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas is not to work historically on the legacy of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, but rather to look to the future. Using the great insights of the Polish Pope, we want to think boldly about the evangelization of contemporary culture, especially in Europe.
The Polish interlocutor is very happy when it is an American Dominican and well-known theologian who says such positive things about St. John Paul II. I would like to end this conversation precisely with questions related to national identities. I have been visiting the Angelicum regularly for about ten years now, and I have noticed a very marked increase in the number of American professors and students. As a professor at the Angelicum, I am impressed by them, both for their intellectual level and for a certain integrity of life, a seriousness of approach to faith and to one’s Christian identity. In Europe, we often think of the United States as an exporter of superficial pop culture; at the Angelicum, the resurgence of American Catholicism is also clearly visible.
In terms of statistics, the Catholic Church in the USA is shrinking. The number of practising Catholics continues to decline despite the significant influx of immigrants from the South. Simultaneously, over the recent decades, the Church has been experiencing the influence of deeply believing young lay people and priests well-prepared to speak confidently about faith in the public sphere. As a result, we can observe a healthy counter-cultural dynamic in the present-day American Church. It is not about a reactionary and defensive attitude but about a certainty – coming from the faith experienced in earnest – that one ought to go out to people living in a secularised world and help them find meaning in life, guide them towards existential landmarks. Thanks to such a courageous attitude of the faithful, there are tens of thousands of conversions every year in the United States. Today, many of the converts occupy important roles in academic life, culture, politics and economy. I worked as a priest in Washington, D.C., for ten years. I witnessed many conversions of young people; I was often impressed by the level of their intellectual and moral life. There are many priestly and monastic vocations among them.
When we think of Europe, we are dealing with cultures that have been Catholic for hundreds of years and are now radically undermining their roots, trying to deconstruct them. Therefore, a renewal of the missionary life of the Church in Europe is needed. This cannot be the task of bishops and priests alone, who often think about the life of the Church – and this is perfectly understandable – only through the prism of participation in sacramental life. It is the task of courageous and intellectually prepared lay people to see the Church’s evangelizing mission in a broader sense as a transformation of the whole culture, both the high and the everyday culture that shapes our daily choices and is also its primary effect.
In recent decades we have also noted the important contribution of Polish Dominicans to the renewal of the Angelicum.
In recent decades, the contribution of Polish Dominicans to the establishment of the Angelicum has been very significant and varied. Two rectors of the university belonged to the Polish Dominican province: during the pontificate of John Paul II, the recently deceased Father Edward Władysław Kaczyński OP, and my immediate predecessor, Father Michał Paluch OP. Both were very creative and energetic leaders of our university. Today, Polish Dominicans teaching at the Angelicum constitute the largest national group among our faculty. For this we are grateful.
Thank you very much for the interview. fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P. interviewed by fr. Jarosław Kupczak, O.P.