For the first time in its history, the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas will hold a conference in the United States. The conference will take place this weekend, October 17-19, in Houston, Texas, with the sponsorship of The Center for Thomistic Studies of the University of St. Thomas in Houston and The John Paul II Forum, also located in Houston.
The Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas was established in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII. The Academy was confirmed by Pius X in 1904, enlarged by Benedict XV in 1914 and reformed by John Paul II in 1999 with his apostolic letter “Inter munera Academiarium,” which he issued shortly after his encyclical “Fides et Ratio.”
According to the foreword to the Academy’s 2007 Yearbook, written by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the goal of the Academy “is both to research, explain and communicate the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, proposing him as a model Christian teacher, scholar of all learning and to encourage interaction between faith and reason, and foster increasing dialogue between the sciences philosophy and theology.” To carry out its task, writes Bishop Sorondo, “the Academy organises annual plenary sessions, international conferences and publishes its proceedings.”
To find out more about the upcoming conference in Houston, ZENIT spoke with John P. Hittinger, who is a corresponding member of the Academy, a professor at the Center for Thomistic Studies, the founder and director of the John Paul II Forum and one of the conference organizers.
ZENIT: This is the first time that the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas has held a conference in the U.S. Can you tell us how this came about?
Hittinger: Last year the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas held its annual conference at the Vatican on Blessed John Paul II’s new mandate or impetus to the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas (“Inter Munera Academiarum” 1999) in which he expressed his desire to see philosophy and theology serve the pastoral mission of the Pope and the Church. Many fine papers were given (published as “Doctor Communis,” 2012). Bishop Sorondo, the Prelate Secretary of the Academy, expressed interest in a fuller development of the Thomism of John Paul II, and my brother, Russell Hittinger, suggested that we hold a conference in the United States, where there is a growing interest in the thought of Aquinas as well as a deep devotion to Blessed John Paul II. I proposed Houston as a site for the conference because of the Center for Thomistic Studies and the John Paul II Forum. Cardinal DiNardo is a strong supporter of Catholic education, and these particular programs. So this conference is the fruit of the intellectual exchange between the members of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas. I should also mention that we hope that the Academy can find some patrons in the United States to help it more fully develop its mission.
ZENIT: The conference title is “Thomas Aquinas: Teacher of Humanity.” Why is this an important topic?
Hittinger: As is well known, Blessed John Paul II studied at the Angelicum and received a solid formation in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The main contours of his thought follow the fundamental lines of Thomistic metaphysics, ethics, and anthropology. In his mandate for the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas (“Inter Munera Academiarum” 1999) John Paul II bestowed upon St. Thomas Aquinas the accolade of “Doctor humanitatis” because St. Thomas was ready to affirm the good or value of culture wherever it is to be found. St. Thomas is a teacher for our time because of his “assertions on the dignity of the human person and the use of his reason” (§4). Cardinal Wojtyla as a philosopher ceaselessly pondered the question “What is man?” In his encyclical “Redemptor hominis” he proclaimed that man is the way of the Church. Therefore this designation of St. Thomas Aquinas as doctor of humanity indicates his esteem and preference for the philosophy of St. Thomas in the renewed philosophy of our day. The philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas seeks out the truth about the human person, the soul, the true human good, and the relationship to the divine. The Academy, as well as any forum for the study of St. Thomas, has a special place in the new evangelization. Blessed John Paul II in “Fides et ratio,” §43 cited with approval a curious formulation about the achievement of St. Thomas made by Pope Paul VI. “Without doubt, Thomas possessed supremely the courage of the truth, a freedom of spirit in confronting new problems, the intellectual honesty of those who allow Christianity to be contaminated neither by secular philosophy nor by a prejudiced rejection of it. He passed therefore into the history of Christian thought as a pioneer of the new path of philosophy and universal culture. The key point and almost the kernel of the solution which, with all the brilliance of his prophetic intuition, he gave to the new encounter of faith and reason was a reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order” (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Letter “Lumen Ecclesiae” 20 November 1974, 8: AAS 66 1974, 680).
St. Thomas Aquinas, in other words, embodies the attitude and principles needed for the sanctification of the world as envisioned by Vatican II. Philosophers must also respond to the universal call to holiness and help to form the laity in their proper apostolate, seeking the guidance of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Doctor humanitatis.” This conference titled “Thomas Aquinas: Teacher of Humanity” will explore the significance for the 21st century of Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on humanity. We shall explore such questions as: Is it still meaningful to talk about “humanity” or “inhumanity”? What challenges do evolution, eugenics, and the trans-humanist movement present for a concept of “humanity”? Is the “human” a viable standard in a world with many cultures and traditions?
ZENIT: Besides a number of scholars giving shorter papers, the conference will feature several plenary speakers. Tell us who the plenary speakers are and what they will be talking about.
Hittinger: The invited speakers are some of the top Thomistic philosophers in the world today. Rev. Lawrence Dewan, OP, will speak on “Thomas Aquinas, Wisdom, and Human Dignity: Philosophy and Beyond.” Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM, will speak on “Gender Reality vs. Gender Ideology.” Sister Allen is the author of some groundbreaking books on gender and the feminine. She holds the Charles J. Chaput, OFM, Cap. Chair of Philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. An address by Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., entitled “St. Thomas: Timeless and Timely” will be an important talk by the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, who was once himself a philosophy professor, as was John Paul II. We are very privileged to have the Hon. Prof. Rocco Buttiglione to lecture on “Humanity and the Crisis of Culture.” In my estimation, his book “Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II” (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997) is one of the very best books on the thought of Blessed John Paul II. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Secretary Prelate of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, will speak on “Pope Francis’ Thomistic programme according to the Beatitudes.” Bishop Sorondo studied with the great Italian Thomist, Cornelio Fabro. He has worked closely with both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. As an Argentinian, he is very familiar with the life and work of Pope Francis. It will be a privilege to hear his insights about Pope Francis’ particular approach to St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Steven Jensen will speak on transhumanism and the challenge of the new bioethics. Dr. Russell Hittinger will give the concluding talk on “John Paul II and the Crisis of Modern Times.” Professor Hittinger is doing tremendous work on Thomas’ natural law theory and papal social theory.
ZENIT: One of the sponsors of the conference is the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Can you say something about the Center and its mission?
Hittinger: The Center for Thomistic Studies was founded in 1975 at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic University founded by members of the Congregation of St. Basil and located in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. It offers the only graduate philosophy program (offering both MA and PhD) in the United States that uniquely focuses on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Center is founded upon the Church’s insistence upon the perennial value of the thought of Aquinas, with a commitment to meet the challenges and realize the opportunities pointed out by Pope John Paul II at the dawn of a new age in philosophy and intellectual culture. At the Center, a living Thomism is studied, both steeped in historical knowledge of tradition and engaged with contemporary culture in shaping the future. Dr. Mary Catherine Sommers, the director of the Center, played a key role in organizing the upcoming conference.
ZENIT: The other sponsor of the conference is the John Paul II Forum, which you founded and direct. What is the purpose of the Forum?
Hittinger: I founded the John Paul II Forum in order to promote the understanding of the thought of Blessed Pope John Paul II and to develop his legacy as it forms and equips the Church for the new evangelization. We provide educational opportunities for the study of Blessed Pope John Paul II, and we seek to build communities of “joy in truth” through prayer, study and dialogue. We conduct an annual weeklong workshop on the thought of Blessed John Paul II, offer courses on the thought of John Paul II, and host speakers such as Archbishop Chaput, Right Reverend Anderson, the Abbot of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek, George Weigel, Fr. Robert Gahl, Michael Waldstein, Adrian Reimers, Fr. Witek Kania of Wadowice, and Fred Freddosso. Two years ago we produced Wojtyla’s play “The Jeweler’s Shop” at a theater in town and had a follow up lecture by Peter Casarella on “The Proper Weight of Man.” The legacy of John Paul II is profoundly rich and varied; it holds much promise for the renewal of the Church and society. We are happily anticipating the canonization of John Paul II. I encourage your readers to visit our Web site at www.jp2forum.org.