ROME – When one enters the office of Dominican Father Thomas Joseph White in Rome’s Pontifical Angelicum University, several things are bound to catch one’s eye: From the incredible view of some of Rome’s historic landmarks, to a black and white baseball cap reading “Bourbon, Bluegrass & the Bible,” courtesy of his own music band, The Hillbilly Thomist.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a Jewish father and Presbyterian mother, White will in September become the first American to be rector of one of Rome’s most significant universities, with many saints and a pope, St. John Paul II, in the list of alumni.
What follows are excerpts of White’s conversation with Crux.
Did you see the appointment coming?
The appointment to the rectorship at the Angelicum was not a complete surprise because there’s been a long deliberation process internal to our faculty and the Dominican order for the past four or five months. It was a possibility. That being said, I feel a little daunted by the new responsibilities and also honored by the trust shown to me the friars by asking me to do this.
What do you think you can bring to the Angelicum as an American Dominican?
The first thing that an American Dominican should bring is humility, because the European Church continues to be a center of culture, vitality and theological learning for the whole Church, and it’s important to acknowledge and receive that.
That being said, I do think that the American Catholic Church has an important role to play in the universal Church. There’s a vibrancy to the evangelical and public life of the Catholic Church in America, and a wonderful array of public intellectual figures in the American Church. Young American Catholics exhibit a healthy confidence in presenting the Catholic faith without fear in the face of modern, secularized society, with hope and charity, inviting people to consider the faith. There’s also the typical American organizational spirit and sense of efficiency, which are not the primary value but a real one all the same.
Especially at a university that is several centuries old, in Italy. Many observers have said, at one point or the other, that if the Vatican was in Switzerland, we wouldn’t be having the usual money crisis. Projecting that into virtually all institutions in Italy, it’s safe to say you will be facing some monetary challenges, making it more efficient. Or perhaps this is a task undertaken by your Polish predecessor…
My predecessor, Father Michal Paluch, as done an enormous amount of work to strengthen the academic core and the professionalism of the university. And I think we can say that the university does provide a really wonderful academic resource to the Church and to formation in Rome in our present time.
The next rector does definitely have to confront some economic challenges, and more importantly I think, continue the trend of recruiting great faculty and expanding our offerings. We need to fortify and consolidate our excellent formation in dogmatic, spiritual and moral theology, which has always been a traditional strength of our institution. But we need to expand our offerings in canon law and Biblical exegesis, as well as in historical theology. We also need to recalibrate a little bit more towards courses in Italian, not only English, and we need to intensify the conversation between the university and other institutions of higher learning, particularly in research sectors where both Catholic and non-Catholics alike confront major intellectual problems or questions today. I’m thinking in particular about the relationship between modern sciences and religion, Catholic ethics and the larger issues of social justice.
We also need to be involved in the larger conversations about the big questions with contemporary theologians and philosophers. One of the main problems in our world today is that it offers a supermarket variety of world views and in that context, there is a tremendous amount of confusion and a lack of perspective, especially among young people, regarding ultimate explanations of the world. Priests, religious and lay people who will be involved in teaching, academic research and evangelization in the coming generation have to address this fundamental issue of existential disorientation. Our academic formation needs to also engage with the vibrant questions of our contemporary moment.
The Angelicum today has some 1,000 students from 100 different countries, but as you said, an important curriculum in English. What would you say to an American, an Australian or a British person, who’s interested in what the Angelicum teaches, regarding why they should come to Rome, and is it actually affordable?
The Angelicum is the only bilingual pontifical university in Rome and it offers complementary studies both in English and in Italian in theology. Naturally, it’s a place where many people come to study from the English-speaking spheres of the world. We have a very large representation from America, but also many students from South-east Asia, India and Africa.
The English language is of course, a doorway of conversation between the Church at large and international culture today. In addition, we have courses that act as bridges where people can learn to listen to Italian, follow Italian courses and have the safety net of possibly being examined in English. It allows true bilinguality, going in both directions. And in this sense, it gives you access to the Roman ethos and the wonderful culture of Italian Catholicism, which is very rich in terms of intellectual learning, the arts, and literature.
It’s a tremendous opportunity to study in the Angelicum and it’s a great place to study. The university provides an environment in which one can experience personally the universality of the Church. Not only our students but also our professors are also from all over the world, which allows for a visible representation of the universality and unity of the Church.
The University also is very inexpensive because it charges typical Italian tuition fees which are extremely low compared to U.S. universities. And happily, during COVID times, we’ve had generous foundations and benefactors make it possible for many people to receive tuition scholarships.
The challenge then is finding resources for living expenses in Rome, but it’s less expensive than many metropolitan cities.
You mentioned the COVID crisis. How are you planning, if at all, to adapt to the “new era” we might be walking into, for instance when it comes to e-learning?
We’ve learned a lot in the last 18 months under the circumstances of COVID about education. One thing we’ve learned is that the students themselves strongly prefer in person learning, which we’ve tried to provide as much as possible.
However, we’ve also learned that online classroom services provide us with a great deal of efficiency and communicative transparency, and a certain moderate use of hybrid systems has proven helpful in my own work in the Thomistic institute. In the past year we’ve put on a series of lectures in a variety of languages – Italian, French, Spanish, English and Mandarin – and we found that there are thousands of people around the world interested in this. Our goal is to not compromise in-person teaching in its unique quality and value, and we’re committed to it as the fundamental way of learning, but we’re also interested in seeing how our conferences and special events can be made accessible to a broader audience, so as to invite others to participate in their own way in our community of learning.
You’ve made it your life’s mission to make St. Thomas Aquinas better known, or renew his popularity. What would you tell to those who wonder why should they care about a philosopher who died eight centuries ago?
There’s a widespread mentality today that sees St. Thomas as a great example of the pursuit of harmony between faith and reason, but that sees his actual philosophy and theology as less relevant, since we live in a very different world. It’s true that we need to be careful about an intellectual narrowness that would refuse to consider contemporary problems and take refuge in a bygone era due to misbegotten medieval romanticism. But actually, living Thomism is not about that at all. The idea is that Aquinas does achieve insight into the very nature and structure of reality, and so he’s a teacher who allows us to see something about our human nature and the universe around us, as well as the mystery of God. In that sense, he’s a pedagogue who invites us not to a slavish dependence on the past but an autonomous understanding of our present world.
Examples include his very profound vision of the human person as a substantial unity of body and soul, so that we’re neither just material nor spiritual soul somehow divorced from our body, but a subsisting compound of the two. This is an idea that has a lot of consequences for how we understand the findings of biology and the neurosciences, which we can receive as telling us deep truths about the human person even while holding to the idea that each person has a spiritual soul and is characterized by immaterial acts of the mind and will. We don’t have to sacrifice scientific or spiritual realism, but instead can hold the two together.
Aquinas philosophy actually holds the keys to untying potential knots of misunderstanding in our own era that block people from access to a deeply engaged religious life. A lot of the challenges to religious belief in the world today come from mind, not the heart. And Aquinas’s view of the cosmos, the human person, creation, the mystery of the incarnation, continues to have tremendous resonance, even today, as a way of explaining the world reasonably in the light of God and Christian teaching.
We live at a time in which social media is beginning to be perceived as key when it comes to the Church’s efforts in evangelization. Which social media platform do you think he would have excelled at?
I’m not sure I have the historical and cultural insight to answer that question. But what is interesting about him is that for years, he wrote different books each day, simultaneously, by dictating to different secretaries while each one copied. In that sense, he would have done well to have the dictating resources offered by the contemporary internet. However, I think that instead of learning from Google and Alexa, he will have been sending the information in the other direction.
Several experts or intellectuals argue that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were theology-based pontiffs, while Pope Francis is not. Do you agree?
I think it’s an error to strongly bifurcate between theological and pastoral pontificates. If you look at the treatment of creation and the knowledge of God in Francis’s Ladauto Si’ encyclical, the employment there of the classical Catholic doctrine of creation as well as even the detailed references to Aquinas and the spiritual references to St. Francis of Assisi, show us that we’re in the great theological tradition which is employed as a resource to enter in the heart of a contemporary topic of controversy.
To respond to the concern that the human being is a menace to the order of creation today, the encyclical promotes an understanding of the human being as made in the Image of God, thus having a particular dignity within the framework of creation but also therefore a particular responsibility, neither being subordinate to the larger ethos of nature nor as being independent of it, but serving as steward to the who of the visible world. That very deep Catholic vision is doctrinal, and at the same time has a very practical application. More generally in terms of continuity, it’s expressing something like the aim of the Church speaking to the modern world which we also see in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes and in John Paul’s encyclicals aimed at contemporary political and social problems.
There is greater emphasis in this pontificate on the existential viability of Christianity as a tangible practice of mercy, spiritual life, love, human vulnerability, and there’s a strong pastoral and moral concern that animates Pope Francis’s pontificate.
But if you look carefully, there is also a continual record of doctrinal teaching. At the same time, we can also acknowledge that Benedict was an academic theologian, and the way that he decided to teach as Pope by writing theological books about Jesus was very particular in the history of the Catholic Church, since it’s rare for a pope to compose theological texts while in office. There’s a certain flexibility of style that is rooted in the diversity of persons. And the Church is a Church of persons, not simply of institutions.
One final question, which I like to ask to theologian interviewees. What’s your reaction when Pope Francis’s calls for theologians to be locked on an island, so that they do less harm to others, particularly when discussing ecumenism and interreligious dialogue?
My father is Jewish and my mother is Protestant, so I’ve lived in a very real way the common engagement with people who are not Catholic theologians. And I’ve also engaged for years in rather intense protestant-Catholic dialogue. My doctoral director in Oxford was an Anglican theologian. As a result of that, my view is that when theology is done rightly you ally the search for the truth in Catholic Christianity with the love of God and other persons. Truth without love risks becoming hardened or judgmental. But there’s also something very powerful in communicating the truth with love and in love.
When we’re learning to be with and understand people who think differently from ourselves or who are outside of the Catholic Church, it’s also very important to also be attuned with their search for the truth as a dimension of loving them. The Holy Father is clearly right to emphasize the risk and danger of the weaponization of the truth. Those who have a zeal for the doctrinal life of the Church have to love more if they want to be effective in being with and communicating that truth to others.
At the same time, the vocation of the Christian intellectual is so noble and difficult because it’s a vocation to love the truth in its fullness and then from that comes the true love of other persons, and the search to communicate the truth to them in charity, clarity, gentleness, and mercy.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma