In 1993, a group of St. Thomas faculty conceived a new way of integrating intellectual, personal and professional development across academic disciplines for students. It took the shape of Catholic studies and became one response to the rapidly changing landscape of the modern university. Today, after 25 years of program development and maturity, Catholic studies faculty are able to better see what works, what can be done better and consider it anew. In fall 2018, St. Thomas took the Catholic studies major and minor program to the next level. With a newly refined curriculum, St. Thomas Catholic Studies continues to be the leader and standard-bearer in Catholic studies.
In a traditional interdisciplinary program, a student takes different courses in different departments and figures out how they connect together. “We had elements of that in our previous Catholic studies major and minor programs,” says Dr. John Boyle, current Department of Catholic Studies chair and program co-founder. “There were a handful of Catholic studies designated courses, and then students would take courses in art history, social analysis, philosophy and other subjects.” The re-conceptualized major and minor fully moves the interdisciplinary approach of Catholic studies from the overall program level to the course level.
The new approach to the degree was developed through two years of intensive brainstorming with the aim of better serving students, led by former chair Dr. Robert Kennedy. “We were eager to build upon what we had learned from our 10 years of teaching our curriculum,” says Kennedy. “We wanted to create a program of study that would break free from old ways of designing courses and enable students and faculty to engage the Catholic tradition as a unified whole.”
“Instead of a smattering of information from many different places, students cultivate more easily a habit of mind through which they can integrate all they are learning. You learn this by seeing it done and then doing it yourself,” says Boyle. “This now happens intentionally in all of our classes.” Throughout their time at St. Thomas, neuroscience and Catholic studies double majors, for example, are developing and honing the skills needed to naturally integrate faith and a Catholic worldview within the field of neuroscience.
Catholic Studies first-year students still start their journey by taking The Search for Happiness (CATH 101), which provides the basis for the rest of a student’s learning – not only for their four years at St. Thomas, but throughout their lifetime. The Search for Happiness and The Catholic Vision (CATH 301) remain staples and perennial favorites within the Catholic studies curriculum.
A new Catholic studies core course, Crisis and Development in the Church (CATH 205), examines the impact of the Incarnation through the dynamic reality of the Church. As well as providing a grounding in the history of Catholicism, the course considers how the Catholic Church has responded to crises throughout the centuries. Students examine how the Church has not only interacted with the world, but how it has survived and flourished amidst great challenges, which are no less present today. The course is also meant to serve as academic preparation for studying abroad in Rome, where students experience “the entirety of the Church in one city,” says Boyle. Instead of looking at a church building and thinking, “This is from 1600,” a student can look at a baroque church and understand the reality and culture of the universal Church during that period.
The individual elective courses in the program reflect different ways of studying the Incarnation’s impact on human thought and culture through authentic categories: time, the intellect and the example of individuals.
In the 200-level Traditions courses, students focus on the study of the Church and its intellectual and practical dimensions. They explore and reflect critically upon the reality of the Catholic Church as a community situated in time and place. The Catholic Literary Tradition (CATH 222) and Paths, Expressions and Practices in Catholic Spirituality (CATH 210) are among the Traditions courses.
With this framework, students are then prepared to explore important themes and ideas in the life of the Catholic Church through the 300-level Concepts courses. Woman and Man (CATH 308) and Church and Culture: Social Dimensions of Catholicism (CATH 340) are included in the Concepts courses.
The final level of courses focuses on the work of one individual person, or on a group of persons who are of significance to the Catholic tradition. These 400-level Persons courses could include persons whose work is in dialogue or tension with that tradition. John Henry Newman (CATH 405), Dante’s Divine Comedy (CATH 402), and English Writers in the Catholic Tradition (CATH 410) are examples of Persons courses.
Boyle stresses the sequence of Catholic studies coursework is not difficulty-based. Rather, it shows a reasonable sequence but can be taken in any order.
“It remains a remarkable program,” Boyle says, “and it’s due to our phenomenal faculty.” Boyle and other Catholic studies faculty recognize that an emphasis must remain on personal faculty advising, since faculty relationships are essential to helping students tailor their studies and cultivate a unitive way of thinking with a professional degree. “I am ever more confident of the strength of our program and our ability to remain at the forefront of Catholic higher education,” says Boyle. “I look forward to the next 25 years of teaching young people to discover Christ in all they do.”