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New Model

University of Chicago’s Lumen Christi sets precedent for Catholic institutes.
by Justin Bell | Source:

Harrison Christian, 21, a junior at the University of Chicago, wanted to start a spiritually-oriented reading group on campus last year. Thomas Levergood, 45, founder and executive director of the Lumen Christi Institute there, thought this was good for an extension of undergraduate programming at the institute.

So now Christian’s group, called Sedes Sapientiae (Seat of Wisdom) Forum, draws 10-15 people to its weekly meetings with monks to supplement the texts they’re reading, which currently is the Rule of St. Benedict.

Founded in 1997, the Lumen Christi Institute has built and continues to build a model for other centers of Catholic thought on secular campuses. It holds lectures with titles such as “The Renewal of the Church in Pre-Famine Ireland: The Beginnings of the Parish Mission Movement, 1825-1846,” “Faith, Reason & the Eucharist: Music as a Model for their Harmony,” and “Church Authority and Scientific Inquiry: The Cases of Galileo & Darwin.”

This January, University of Virginia history professor Robert Louis Wilken wrote an article in First Things titled “Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools,” about the advent of Catholic intellectual thought on the secular university campus.

Catholic thought, which Wilken says had grown dormant from the 1960s, is experiencing a renewal and an added importance, as a vast majority of Catholics now attend secular universities.

Wilken cites the Lumen Christi Institute as the “most prominent” of Catholic institutes that are dedicated to fostering this intellectual ethos.

Said University of Chicago professor Stephen Meredith: “I’ve heard some outstanding lectures on diverse topics, some of which have been directly related to my own interests, while others have not been, so the latter have expanded my horizons. The LCI fills a gap by representing a religious orientation not otherwise widely represented at our nonsectarian, liberal arts university.”

Meredith is a professor in the departments of pathology, biochemistry and molecular biology and neurology. He also teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

At the time of the Lumen Christi Institute’s founding, Levergood was a recent convert and was discerning a religious vocation. He decided to postpone this to continue the idea of the Catholic institute at the University of Chicago. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was an early supporter.

“The institute provides a new paradigm for a serious Catholic academic and educational center at a secular university and is developing a national Catholic Scholars Program aimed at creating similar initiatives and mentoring the next generation of Catholic college professors,” the cardinal said in a recent letter of support. “The Lumen Christi Institute has already assumed a leadership role in reshaping the Church’s intellectual and academic presence at secular universities.”

Besides appearing locally, Cardinal George has also participated in events tied to the Lumen Christi model at Purdue University, the University of Virginia and in Sweden in conjunction with the University of Uppsala.

But it was more than the cardinal who supported Levergood and companions in their endeavors.

Herman Sinaiko, 79, professor of humanities at the University of Chicago for more than 50 years, was impressed by Levergood's idea of bringing Catholic thought to a secular arena.

“This struck me as a very smart thing to do,” said Sinaiko, who is Jewish and was once Levergood's professor.

Sinaiko assisted in sponsoring the burgeoning institute by sitting on a committee to review its lecture choices. A former dean of undergraduate students, Sinaiko cites Lumen Christi as a major addition to the intellectual culture of the university.

Studies on the Side

Senior Stephanie Rumpza, 21, a linguistics major, transferred to the University of Chicago before her sophomore year. She figured she could continue her Catholic intellectual education by reading books on the side.

What she found out in her participation with the Lumen Christi Institute is that she was able to participate in a “surrogate Catholic studies program” with the variety and depth of its programming.

“Generally, Lumen Christi kind of feeds the graduate student level; they don’t dumb it down,” said Rumpza, “which is one of the things I really appreciate about it.”

Rumpza is looking at graduate programs in theology and is attracted to further journeys in the world of Catholic intellectual thought.

The relationship between a Catholic institute of thought and a Catholic pastoral center at the same university is key to the Lumen Christi Institute’s model.

“Students and faculty alike need a first-rate Catholic intellectual dimension in their lives in addition to pastoral care,” says a document provided by Lumen Christi, describing this relationship. “The Lumen Christi Institute model provides precisely that, working in harmony with campus ministry and generally seeking to engage the whole campus community in knowledge and respect for the Catholic tradition.”

New Wave

Lumen Christi has three core programs: the University Program in Catholic Thought at the University of Chicago, the Catholic Scholars program and the Lumen Christi Cultural Forum. They also have a national and international outlook that has directly influenced other institutes of Catholic studies.

Levergood said one of the goals of the new wave of institutes is to “really work out the right paradigm.” Besides identifying a core group of faculty members at a given university and gaining support from the campus chaplain and local bishop, securing funds is vital.

“I mean, money can have a huge effect,” he said. “So ideally these things might be founded with a gift of $2.5 to $5 million.”

Levergood agrees with Wilken, as both believe independent Catholic institutions are a much better option to promote Catholic intellectual thought than the establishment of a Catholic chair on a secular campus.

“People are still making the mistake of creating these chairs, unfortunately,” said Levergood.

With such formal ties to a secular university, Catholic orthodoxy and intellectual quality can be eroded and comprised.

“It’s not the job of a secular university to decide who should represent the Catholic intellectual tradition at the university,” said Levergood.

However, the inclusion of Catholic intellectual thought in the secular environment is a core motivation of Lumen Christi. Levergood thinks one needs to “accept the [academic] secularity of the university and try to find a way to complement it” with a Catholic response.

Christian, who spent eight weeks at a Trappist monastery last summer, looks to flesh out the question of “how is love between people related to God” in his Fundamentals: Issues and Texts major, which is similar to a Great Books program.

He spoke on the dynamic on his campus: “It’s obvious, I think, to the people on the outside, that there’s a humongous intellectual presence at Chicago,” he said, “but there is also, because of Lumen Christi, this Catholic presence where they bring in these world class professors and have conferences on love, and conferences on Augustine.”

Justin Bell is based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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