You teach at DePaul University and are a scholar-in-residence at St. Gregory's Hall. What is it that you teach at both of those places, and how did you come to teach it?
I'm an associate professor in the Catholic Studies department at DePaul, where I teach classes in Catholic Theology, Church History, and Religion and Literature. The scholarly work I do is primarily about early Christianity, specifically how folks in roughly the first seven centuries of the church interpreted the Bible and what that meant for the life of the Church.
When I was 15, I read Augustine's Confessions with a high school teacher, and I said to myself: “I want to keep doing this, and be around people who are interested in this.” In college, the best way to do that was by studying philosophy and classics. And then I realized that the kinds of questions I was interested in were best explored in a theology department.
I went to Williams College in Massachusetts, and when I was at Williams, I majored in philosophy and classics. Thanks to Williams, I got a fellowship to go to Cambridge University in the UK where I switched to studying Christian theology. From Cambridge, I decided to do a Ph.D., and I went to the University of Notre Dame for that. There I studied the history of Christian theology.
After I was at Notre Dame, I taught at Villanova University for about five or six years, where I taught a Great Books program, which I really enjoyed. Then this opportunity opened up at DePaul and I was excited to be in a Catholic Studies department, where I would not only teach kind of Catholic-y stuff but also be able to teach literature things and history things as well.
One of the things I like about Catholic Studies and about Christian theology is that in a deep way I can study everything, whereas if I were to do classics, the response could be "Well, that wasn't written in Latin, so it doesn't really count." Or if I were to do history: "Well, that's not in your historical period, so it doesn't really count."
The nice thing about Catholic Studies is that you can really make a case for teaching everything, because the goal of teaching undergraduates in large measure is to expose them to how interesting the world is. And that's a very Catholic view of things, that, alas, not everybody shares.
Your title at St. Gregory's Hall is “scholar-in-residence.” There’s a different dimension that a scholar brings to looking at the Church or the Church Fathers than, say, a priest. Why is it important that the lay faithful have an exposure to this way of thinking? What does it bring that is different from a theologian, or a priest, or a parish ministry leader?
Every human being, by virtue of being a human being, asks himself or herself really deep questions all the time. Such as: What's the best way to act right now? How should I treat people? Is doing this worthwhile?
As human beings, we ask these questions all the time, especially when we're little kids. I think sometime around middle school or high school, we're told that we're not supposed to ask them anymore, and that they're longer important questions, and that we have to get on to the real business end of things, literally and metaphorically.
I think that deeply denies who we are as human beings, and it certainly goes against what we believe as Christians. To say that we're created in the image and likeness of God is to say that we are endowed with the ability to seek the truth, and we're endowed with the ability to love. It's really important for us to figure out three things: First of all, what is it that we love? Second of all, is that thing worth loving? And third of all, if it is worth loving, how best should we love it?
This is a bit of a simplification, but only a bit to say that one way to think about the history of Christian thought from the time of the apostles forward is: It's a group of people who have gotten together to try to figure out what it is that they love, whether or not what they love is worth loving and then thirdly, how best to love that. If you believe–as Christians do–that God is love, then it's essential for you to get straight in your own head, as much as you can, what that means.
The best way to do it is to do that is with other people, so it's really exciting to be part of a community that takes that question seriously and lives that out liturgically and socially. When I say socially, I mean the kinds of stuff that the Canterbury House folks do and in conjunction with the Catholic Worker folks and then artistically, in artist-in-residence Sarah Crow's work.
My hope is that I can provide an intellectual angle on that question. Getting to know all the different folks in the different ministries at St. Gregory’s Hall, I think if I were to say to each of them: “When it comes down to it, aren't you guys doing what you do out of love?” I think all of them would say yes.
If I were to follow up with: “Isn't it good for us to spend some time figuring out in our own heads–not just in terms of our actions but in our own heads–isn't it good for us to think about what we love and why we love it?” I think they would all say yes too.
That is a great segue into the course that you're teaching, which is on Faith, Hope and Love in the encyclicals of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI. Can you talk a little bit about how and why you came up with this course?
There are a few reasons. First, there are a decent number of folks in the U.S. who tend to think that Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are at odds, and that's wrong. It’s worth exploring why that's wrong, and disabusing people of that notion. Second, the six encyclicals that the two of them have written thus far actually really get at these questions: What do we love and why do we love it and how should we best love it?
For Christians, following Saint Paul, in the first letter to Corinthians, the three theological virtues are Faith, Hope and Love. So what do those three words mean?
I have taught Pope Benedict's encyclical “God is Love” pretty regularly, and the students are always really into it. I've also not so much taught in the classroom, but read with students, Pope Francis' encyclicals “Laudato Si’” and “Fratelli Tutti.” So I’m interested in tracing out in my own head, with everyone else's help, how these six fit together.
In both Catholic and in secular circles, there does seem to be a tendency to play Francis and Benedict off each other or to pit them against each other. How has that shaped like your approach to this course, the fact that people are coming in with this assumption that they don't go together?
Some of my best friends are Catholic journalists, let me start with that! I think that I'm always keen to discern the difference between what Catholic folks in the media say and what folks who go to church on Sundays–or don't go to church on Sundays–think. So I suppose there's a part of me using this idea that Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are at odds as a kind of foil.
But when it comes down to it, I don't think there are very many people who actually spend much time thinking about this. I don't think people think much about the popes in general, and I think that's healthy. But Catholics and all people can read these six encyclicals and find a lot of worthwhile stuff and learn from two smart guys, who know a lot about Scripture and tradition, what they think about these particular issues. And I think that's a cool way to spend your time.
One of the great blessings is the friendships that get developed. Thinking about what we love and why we love it is not something you can do that by yourself. You have to do that in community, and the people who came to the classes in the fall, the people who are coming to classes now, they're a nice community of people who want to talk about interesting stuff.
What I find helpful and salutary is that people don't come at it with some agenda. People don't have pointed questions. People just want to try to figure this stuff out. Why? Because it's worth figuring out, and because we don't have a lot of opportunities to just talk about cool stuff. This is an opportunity for people to have this intellectual experience for about an hour or so a week, and it's kind of cool.
Why is it so important to encounter this in a church context, in a parish context, as opposed to a university context, or even a digital context? We have things like open online courses, and there's a lot of learning out there that's available for free digitally. So why do this in the context of a parish and the context of community?
On the one hand, it is 100% the case that there has never been a time in the history of the world where access to really interesting learning opportunities has been greater. You can listen to amazingly high-powered podcasts learning about all sorts of amazing things. There are really good Catholic resources where people can like learn about the Catechism or the Scriptures or whatever. I think it's precisely people who missed out on that in their colleges who are the most interested in it.
The problem is that these questions weren't meant to be considered by yourself. These questions were always meant to be considered within a community of people. If we take seriously the Eucharist, and if we take seriously the communion of saints, which the church has always been concerned about, then we are most ourselves when we're with other people. And we're most ourselves when we're joined in a Eucharistic community. In some way, there's no better place then discussing these issues that are important to you, then in a broadly conceived Eucharistic community.
I also think too often we divide ourselves. We think "Well, I'm not an 'intellectual' or I can't work with my hands, or I can't be an artist or I can't sing. Let other people do that." What I like about the whole Mary, Mother of God world, and St. Gregory's Hall specifically, is that it allows people to come and explore these aspects of themselves, which really exist and which are really important, but we have for whatever reason–in the name of commerce, or something–denied ourselves. It reminds people that they all have these aspects of themselves.
Insofar as colleges and universities today fail, and they do, they fail because they neglect to educate the whole person. I hope through the classes at St. Gregory's Hall that people get to explore the goodness of creation, through this important aspect of themselves: their reason, their ability to communicate, their ability contemplate beautiful things.
So people should feel more than welcome to come to this course; no experience is necessary. No background is necessary. We've had people from kind of all walks of life come. We’re big enough with that we have good conversations, but small enough that everyone who wants to say something can say something. And we could certainly even have more people.