‘Re-evangelizing New England’—my next campaign

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 08, 2017

“Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion.”

Thus began an article by my friend Anthony Esolen, that appeared in Crisis last May, explaining his decision to leave Providence College and join the faculty of a tiny school in New Hampshire, the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

In that article Esolen explained how he found something that he had always wanted at Thomas More College: a genuine Catholic academic community, dedicated to learning and to the faith, confident in the knowledge that faith and reason are partners. After years of teaching in “mainstream” schools, Esolen realized that he had finally found a home. As I read that article several months ago, I realized that I knew how Esolen felt, because I had experienced the same feeling, at the same place.

To explain, I’ll have to take you back to my days in graduate school, back in the 1970s. I had enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Chicago, studying political theory and looking forward to a career teaching college students. I had even thought about the courses that I wanted to teach, helping undergraduates to understand Plato, to be suspicious of Rousseau, and to appreciate the remarkable achievement of the American Founding Fathers.

However, my dreams of teaching the ideal undergraduate seminar were interrupted by practical concerns. First, I surveyed the crowded job market in the field, and found that I would be fortunate to land any teaching job at all, and unlikely to be given a chance to teach the subjects that really interested me. Second, I realized that I enjoyed writing, had a knack for producing prose that people enjoyed reading, and could perhaps make a living with my typewriter. (Yes, my typewriter: a sturdy manual Smith-Corona; word-processors would come much later.) Third, and perhaps more important, I grew disenchanted with academic life. As I explained in my first book, Coughing in Ink (which only the most persistent readers will find in print today), I found it difficult to respect institutions that claimed to be dedicated to the search for truth, while in practice denying the very existence of truth.

So after two years I left graduate school and began looking for work as a journalist. But as I turned my back on the world of academe, I clung to a thread of hope that maybe some day I would find an institution that really embodied the ideal of Catholic education, and I might slip in through the back door to teach.

Several years ago I was invited to speak at Thomas More College, and found the atmosphere on campus congenial. I came back to hear other speakers, to attend a surprisingly good concert, and to be stunned by the quality of a play produced by undergraduates. I came to appreciate the balanced approach to faith and reason that prevailed on campus.

What finally sold me on Thomas More College, however, was a statement made by the president, William Fahey (who was fast becoming a good friend) at a fundraising dinner. Fahey said that as he saw it, the mission of the college was to pursue “the re-evangelization of New England.” Much has been said and written in the last few decades about the “New Evangelization.” But while we can all agree that a “New Evangelization” is needed, it’s not so easy to agree on how to go about it; the task is overwhelming. When you narrow it down a bit, and talk about the “re-evangelization of New England,” you can at least begin to make a practical plan. I was hooked. I wanted to be a part of this effort.

William Fahey and I began talking, off and on, about how I might join the team. So it was that in the spring of 2017, a bit more than 40 years after I left graduate school, I taught the class that I had always wanted to teach: a seminar on the American Founding. The experience—my first foray into formal classroom teaching—was entirely positive. The students were earnest, thoughtful, and wise beyond their years, having honed their intellectual skills on the classics. (They were also astonishingly polite. As they filed out of the room after a mid-term exam, every student in the class said “Thank you” to me! I’m quite sure I never thanked a teacher for a test.) Like Anthony Esolen, I felt that I had found something that had been missing, in my case, for 40 years..

In that Crisis article, Esolen explained that he no longer wanted to swim against the prevailing currents of a thoroughly secularized “Catholic’ university:

No, I’d prefer to be in on building something exciting for the Church and for sheer ordinary humanity: The Center for Cultural Renewal, at Thomas More College.

So would I. Beginning next Monday, in addition to my work on the Catholic Culture site, I will be joining Anthony Esolen and William Fahey to launch (what is now called) the Center for the Renewal of Christian Culture at Thomas More College.

This is an exciting new venture, dedicated to nothing less than the “re-evangelization of New England.” We see the Center as a natural outgrowth of the College, an institution where students and faculty and neighbors and guests can come together, not only to discuss and appreciate the principles on which our culture is founded, but to live those principles. The Center will support active involvement in the arts, in politics, in literature, in education, and above all in the life of faith.

Toward that end, the Thomas More Center will invite speakers, plan seminars, host concerts, and organize conferences. We will encourage both intellectuals and civic leaders to take part in discussions, exploring the practical applications of our ideas. The Center will act as a bridge, bringing together town and gown—always under the guidance of the Church.

Following the lead of its patron, St. Thomas More, the Center will focus its efforts in five areas:

  • Protection and encouragement of healthy family life;
  • Education of young people in the liberal arts;
  • Active involvement of Christians in civic life;
  • Preservation and enrichment of our cultural heritage; and
  • Loyal defense of the constant teachings of the Church.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Sep. 16, 2017 11:50 AM ET USA

    Good for you Phil, and good for STM. That is good news. May you be successful in re-evangelizing New England!

  • Posted by: Cory - Sep. 10, 2017 12:24 AM ET USA

    Envy is a sin but I must confess to feeling envy at the students and teachers alike at St Thomas More. St Thomas More look after everyone at this college dedicated to you that they may never in what matters. In your own words : God first!

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Sep. 09, 2017 9:37 AM ET USA

    Congratulations! It is refreshing to see that the faith is still strong in some of our colleges and universities!

  • Posted by: londoncfo2911 - Sep. 08, 2017 7:46 PM ET USA

    This lifted my heart to know there are wonderful Catholics prepared to share their time and talents for such a great effort.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Sep. 08, 2017 7:14 PM ET USA

    After I retired, some 20 years ago I was blessed to attend classes at Thomas More as an auditing student. It was then and I'm sure still is a wonderful place.I wish I could audit Professor Esolen's and Phil Lawler's new classes there! May God bless this new endeavor.