Thomas Joseph WHITE, O.P., Jarosław KUPCZAK, O.P: Thomism and the Evangelisation of Culture

Thomism and the Evangelisation of Culture

Photo of Thomas Joseph WHITE OP

Thomas Joseph WHITE OP

American Dominican and theologian. Between 2008 and 2018, he was a Director of the Thomistic Institute he founded in Washington, D.C. In 2018, he was appointed a Director of the Thomistic Institute in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum). He has been serving as a Rector of this university since 2021. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

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Photo of Jarosław KUPCZAK OP

Jarosław KUPCZAK OP

Dominican priest, theologian, professor of theological sciences, academic teacher at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow.

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We need to return to the philosophical and theological tradition of the Church

.Father Jarosław KUPCZAK, O.P.: Rector, please tell us about your path to religious life and 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 secularised 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 by Christian mystics, and that led me to the Catholic Church.

I discovered that this 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 belong to the Province of St. Joseph, the oldest province in the United States, which covers the country’s east coast with its major metropolises, including New York. Many observers find the unusually dynamic growth of this Dominican friar – manifested, for example, in the high number of vocations – a great mystery.

Indeed, in the last 20 years, we have been blessed with many vocations; a lot of very talented young people are joining us. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise reasons for my Province’s dynamic development; I certainly do not aspire to offer an exhaustive explanation. But I do believe there are two things my Province has done correctly. Firstly, it has preserved a deep care for serious intellectual life and its two goals: theological practice at the academic level and evangelisation. Importantly, we believe that competent theology always goes hand in hand with staying true to the magisterium of the Church. Secondly, my province has renewed its decision to follow traditional religious observances, such as wearing the habit and caring for the liturgy and communal life, both particularly important in modern, secularised culture. These outward signs serve a valuable purpose as they help young people find their spiritual orientation. Following the tradition of the Church is not defensive; it entails openness and invites other people to discover the richness of the Catholic tradition.

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. Alle these great Thomists attempt to show how Aquinas explains the mysteries of the Christian faith – in accordance with the nature of 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 at the Thomistic Institute at Angelicum, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Rome offers even greater influence opportunities than Washington.

In Rome, the Thomistic Institute supports the main objective of the University of St. Thomas, which is to train priests, conventuals and lay people for work in Catholic universities, colleges, seminaries and other institutions of the Church all over the world. To make this possible, we must, naturally, think also about the prospect of serious research, as without them, there is no teaching at a high university level. The aim of such research is to address the gravest 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 a human person. We are also trying to adapt our Washington way of working in Rome. COVID slowed us down, but we already have several branches of the Roman Institute in secular universities in various cities in Europe: Lisbon, Paris, Cracow, 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 around 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 extremely beautiful and magnificent that a Dominican university can help them bring the truth of Christ to all the cultures and countries they come from.

At the centre of our academic curriculum is the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, through which we achieve philosophical and theological unity of our lecturer’s work. To this, we add a serious historical study of Scripture and the patristic tradition, along with a confrontation with the philosophical and theological challenges of the present day. The St. John Paul II Institute of Culture and the Faculty of Social Sciences play an important role in this last task, tackling a whole range of issues related to human rights, human dignity and problems of more specific economic and political solutions. 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 current goals of the Angelicum is a reflection on inter-religious relations. Through this, we want to help our students from countries with Hindu or Buddhist cultures to think not only about the peaceful coexistence of different religions but also to create an intellectual horizon for the evangelising mission of the Church.

The best-known graduate of the Angelicum is Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. In 1946-48 he wrote his doctoral thesis in the field of theology there, under the tutelage of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., one of the most eminent Roman theologians of the time. For many years, the Angelicum did not seem to give this fact much prominence. That has recently changed thanks to the founding of the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture in collaboration with Warsaw’s Political Theology organisation and its director, Dariusz Karłowicz.

There is no doubt that St. John Paul II was our greatest alumnus. We are very grateful to God that he was our student and that our environment acquainted him with the Thomistic tradition, which visibly marked the intellectual achievements of his entire pontificate. Today, lecturers and students at the Angelicum are deeply attached to John Paul II’s legacy and achievements. From a personal perspective, John Paul II had a very strong influence on me as well.

The St. John Paul II Institute of Culture at the University of St. Thomas is set not on historical work on the legacy of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II but rather on looking into the future. Using the great intuitions of the Polish Pope, we want to confidently approach the evangelisation of contemporary culture, especially in Europe.

A Polish interlocutor is very pleased when an American Dominican and a distinguished theologian speaks so positively about St. John Paul II. Please, allow me to conclude this conversation with questions related to national identities. I have been visiting the Angelicum regularly for a dozen years or so, and I have noticed a large increase in the number of American professors and students. As one who teaches at the Angelicum, I am impressed by them, both in terms of their intellectual prowess and certain life integrity, an earnest approach to faith and their Christian identity. In Europe, we tend to think of the United States as an exporter of shallow pop culture; at the Angelicum, the renaissance of American Catholicism is a clearly visible phenomenon.

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 affluence 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 hundreds 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 it comes to Europe, we are dealing with cultures that have been Catholic for hundreds of years and are now radically disputing their roots, aiming to deconstruct them. That is why the missionary life of the Church in Europe must be renewed. And it cannot be done by bishops and priests alone who – which is completely understandable – often view the life of the Church only through the lenses of participation in sacraments. It is the task of brave lay people with proper intellectual preparation to look at the Church’s evangelising mission from a broader perspective, that is, to see it as a transformational force impacting the whole culture – in its high aspect and the everyday one, that shapes our daily choices while also being their first result.

In recent decades, the important contribution of Polish Dominicans to the renewal of the Angelicum has become noticeable.

In recent decades, the contribution of Polish Dominicans to the creation of Angelicum has been very significant and varied. Two of the university’s rectors belonged to the Polish Dominican Province – recently deceased Father Edward Władysław Kaczyński, O.P., who held the position during the pontificate of John Paul II, and my immediate predecessor, Father Michal Paluch O.P. Both were very creative and energetic university leaders. Today, the Polish Dominican faculty at the Angelicum is the largest national group of our lecturers. We are grateful for that.

.Thank You very much for the interview. 

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., Jarosław Kupczak, O.P

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