This article first appeared in the National Catholic Register’s January 3-16, 2010 Issue and online edition.
William Fahey, the new president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, is no newcomer. Fahey, who became the president of the 31-year-old Merrimack, N.H., college last April, succeeding Jeffrey Nelson, had been Thomas More’s provost and vice president for academic affairs since 2007. In December 2008, he spearheaded a significant restructuring of the curriculum to better reflect Catholic teaching in the study of the liberal arts.
“The spark that got it going,” said Fahey of the curriculum revamping, “was the Holy Father’s April 17, 2008, address to educators at The Catholic University of America.” In light of Benedict’s “Address to Catholic Educators” and John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae on Catholic higher education, the trustees’ board asked the faculty to reconsider the 30-year-old curriculum.
Fahey pinpoints Benedict’s second paragraph — a succinct summary of the place of education in Catholic society — as prompting deep meditation about revising the curriculum.
“Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the good news,” the Pope said. “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”
That, as well as Fahey’s sense of history, led him to consecrate the college to the Sacred Heart with all the faculty and the 70-member student body present for Mass in October.
“Since the devotion to the Sacred Heart focuses on the humanity of Christ, it’s an excellent devotion for a college devoted to what it means to be human,” he explained. “That devotion seems to resonate with what we’re doing on the academic level.”
The new vision in the somewhat revised liberal-arts curriculum better serves both Catholic tradition and the humanities, beginning with deepening and increasing the number of required theology courses (now doubled to eight).
According to literature professor and writer in residence John Zmirak, no courses previously covered areas such as Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) or natural family planning, for example — important topics for those wanting to establish Catholic families.
“We thought about what young Catholics need to know to live their vocations, but probably haven’t learned elsewhere — for instance, the reasoning behind and implications following from the Church’s teaching on contraception and natural family planning, and decided it was critical to add that into the theology curriculum. Reading Ex Corde Ecclesiae, we took its guidance on what it means to be a faithful Catholic college — to present in an organic way the whole vision of man, which includes his spiritual side and the whole content of Catholic tradition.”
Pointing out a neo-Benedictine revival of lectio divina (prayerful reading of the Bible) and Scripture studies in Benedict’s other speeches, Fahey said the college’s new sequence for theology is scriptural and Benedictine.
Another plus: All students learn to sing the Divine Office and pray lauds and vespers together. In the yearlong “Way of Beauty” tutorial, freshmen learn not only about sacred art, but also hands-on icon “writing.”
There is also a significant change in the required eight semesters of humanities. Zmirak points out the new curriculum is carefully designed to teach the history of the West chronologically, starting with the epic of Gilgamesh and going through Vatican II and Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope).
Fahey likened the previous approach to a merry-go-round. “A freshman got on wherever the college was at that point,” he said. “He might start in the Renaissance and end in the Middle Ages. A student had to grapple with Luther when he hadn’t yet read Augustine or St. Paul.”
Jonathan Reyes, president of Catholic Charities in Denver and founding president of the Augustine Institute there, is familiar with Thomas More’s readjusted and revised curriculum and considers it “superb.” He says the college is ready to rebuild Catholic culture through education and formation.
“It’s exactly what we need at this moment to recover Western civilization, fully understanding the debt of the Catholic tradition,” Reyes said. “Precisely in our cultural crisis we need to recover that tradition. In a strange way, it’s cutting-edge tradition.”
The internship program founded by past president Nelson continues to grow. Zmirak notes it’s an answer to the problem graduates face: finding a critical first job when they typically have no work experience.
“Rather than make the education preprofessional, we decide to give the students professional opportunities alongside the education,” he said. “It’s given our students real-world experience at the same time they’re doing their studies.”
With the curriculum still the centerpiece, Fahey finds the internships an exciting aspect of the liberal arts. But critics focus on Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Fifth Discourse about knowledge as its own end.
“Often that’s used as an excuse not to do anything with the treasure you are given in four years,” noted Fahey. “Study is good in itself. Nonetheless, we’re called to do those precious four years and the inherited patrimony. We thought it would be a disservice not to bridge the gap before students take their place in the world.”
Students, who must study a year in Rome, can work in the summer leadership institutes. Noncredit and exterior to the curriculum, internships are at such places as Vatican Radio, the Rome-based international Catholic news agencies H2oNews.org and Zenit, the Center for Study of Faith and Culture at Oxford, the Culture of Life Foundation and Church-based charities.
For example, almost all the voices on the English-speaking version of H2o News are Thomas More students. These venues give them an opportunity to communicate Catholic truths effectively through media — something they’ll also learn on campus in the spring when Boston’s CatholicTV will broadcast a series on the college’s Way of Beauty program, a series of courses that focus on Church architecture and its religious meaning, as well as geometry, musical harmony and theology.
Overall, these experiences show them ways to bring their education to bear in the New Evangelization.
Part of the new vision includes longer-range plans calling for Thomas More to grow from 70 to 300 students over the course of the next 10 years. It already has received five times more applications than last year at the same time.
Those inside and outside the college applaud the choice of Fahey as president to carry on this vision.
“He’s a real academic, a really traditional and apostolic Catholic layman,” said Zmirak. “He’s intellectually engaging, extremely charitable and a firm but prudent steward of the school.”
“William Fahey is the right one to lead it,” said Reyes. “He combines three key elements: First, he has the intellectual understanding of the tradition and the leadership skills. Second, he has a vision and know-how to implement it and knows how to surround himself with great people. Third, he’s a superb teacher because he cares about students.”