Monday, May 19, 2008

What makes Catholic studies at St. Thomas so unique, and so popular?

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University of St. Thomas student Susan Slattery was listing aloud the errands she had to do that afternoon - stop at the mall, go for a run and find a way to convince airport security her large pillow was a necessary carry-on.
Slattery, 22, was leaving the next day for a semester in Rome, Italy, and she felt she still had a lot to do before boarding the plane.

A senior majoring in Catholic studies and biochemistry, Slattery had taken summer courses to make sure she could leave St. Paul for a semester. The Catholic studies semester in Rome is the pinnacle of her major, she said, and she didn't want to miss out.

Slattery came to St. Thomas from Omaha, Neb., because she was interested in pre-medicine studies and theology. She discovered Catholic studies in the middle of her freshman year and declared it her major.

And she isn't alone.

The number of students majoring in Catholic studies has jumped from five in its first year in spring 1994 to 214 today. Now, it's the fourth largest major in the College of Arts and Sciences, after biology, journalism/communications studies and psychology.

The University of St. Thomas' undergraduate Catholic studies program - which has grown into a university department - was the first program of its kind in the United States when it was launched in 1993.

By offering courses in theology, philosophy, politics, art history, business ethics, literature, psychology, history and other disciplines, the Catholic studies department seeks to unify the intellectual tradition in the Catholic Church.

"It's clear as students come to us, they are seeking a kind of integration of their life, their faith and their work," said Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies.

Problem of specialization

The trend in college education today is specialization among the disciplines, which can lead to a fragmented education, Briel said.

The Catholic studies program resists this trend. Father Michael Keating, a professor in the department, said his own education at the University of Michigan felt like a "grab bag" - that there was no coherence to the courses he took.

When he came to St. Thomas, he appreciated the Catholic studies program because it unified the disciplines and sought to form the whole person.

"There's been an unfortunate driving out of the classroom of the intellectual importance of faith," he said. "Is there a Christian way to think? Is there an intellectual context to the faith that changes the way you look at the world? The answer is yes." 

Catholic studies connects the life of the mind with the moral life, the spiritual life and the social life, Father Keating said. It also forms an informal community of Catholic students and scholars.

Catholic studies hopes to form a person who can integrate all aspects of his or her life, not just teach career-based skills, Father Keating said.

When in Rome

The Center for Catholic Studies houses more than just an academic department. It also coordinates the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought; the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy; and the quarterly journal, "Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture."

The department is the only one in the United States to offer a master's degree in Catholic studies. Master's degree students may also pursue a joint degree in Catholic studies and law.

The center also sponsors two houses - one for Catholic men and one for Catholic women - who want to experience life in an intentional Catholic community. Students pray, eat and study together, and their homes serve as a hub for Catholic studies social activities.

That type of community also is emphasized in the study abroad program. Students can study in Rome for one semester or for an academic year at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is called the Angelicum. St. Thomas is the only American university to have an affiliation with a pontifical university in Rome.

"Our students are not simply experiencing an American program in a foreign setting, but truly participating in the universal church at the Angelicum," Briel said.

About 34 students study in Rome each semester. They live together at St. Thomas' Bernardi Residence and are encouraged to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity and the Sant'Egidio Community. A Catholic studies' professor accompanies them and teaches one course.

National growth

Since St. Thomas began its Catholic studies program, several other colleges have added one.

There are about 60 academic Catholic studies programs at Catholic universities in the United States, and that number is increasing, Briel said. St. Thomas' program remains the largest in the country and serves as a model for other schools, he said. . . .

After college

While popular, the local Catholic studies program isn't designed to prepare students for a particular career, Father Keating said. However, from the program's inception, it offered classes that combined professional aims, like management and medicine, with the Catholic faith.

"We wanted to enable students who were thinking about a particular profession to consider the implications of their faith for that career," Briel said.

Some graduates have pursued work in Catholic parishes or have entered priesthood or religious life. Others have become teachers or are in the business field. Some are doctors, lawyers, journalists and musicians. Several have entered graduate programs. . . . Catholic Spirit


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