For Catholic Studies, 25th anniversary means looking ahead

| Sam Patet | November 30, 2018 | 0 Comments
Gerriet Suiter shoots video for the department’s online master’s degree program.

John Boyle, chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, delivers a lecture Nov. 28 in his office at the Center for Catholic Studies while Gerriet Suiter shoots video for the department’s online master’s degree program. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic spirit

On Dec. 8, more than 600 guests will gather in St. Paul to celebrate a significant milestone: the 25th anniversary of the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas.

Among the attendees will be Michael Naughton, director of the Center for Catholic Studies and one of the project’s earliest participants.

“We felt it was the Holy Spirit working,” Naughton said about the early days of Catholic Studies. “But there was no game plan. … We didn’t know what the form would look like.”

John Boyle, chair of the Department of Catholic Studies, couldn’t agree more. “It’s grown organically in beautiful ways and in directions that we might not have anticipated,” he said.

Catholic Studies began in 1993, when Don Briel, then a professor of theology at St. Thomas, successfully petitioned the university to launch an Interdisciplinary Program in Catholic Studies. He and a handful of faculty — including Naughton and Boyle — taught the program’s first courses.

Three years later, the Center for Catholic Studies was formally established. Briel was tapped to be the center’s first director, a position he held until Naughton took the helm in 2015.

Today, the center boasts more than 1,200 alumni, as well as a robust set of offerings for students and scholars, including undergraduate and graduate-level degrees; a study-abroad semester in Rome; three institutes that examine the intersection between Catholicism and the worlds of business, law, and leadership; and the academic journal “Logos.” 

St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan is proud of what Catholic Studies has accomplished. “The fact that the University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program is the first and largest in the nation exemplifies our visionary leadership in advancing Catholic intellectual tradition,” she said in an email. “We are very proud of our 1,200 St. Thomas Catholic Studies alumni and the impact they are having on their communities and the world.”

At its core, Catholic Studies’ mission has been to help students see “the impact of the incarnation on human thought and culture,” Boyle said. That’s why the program has always explored how this Catholic vision of reality impacts and connects all areas of human life, including the humanities, business, law and the sciences, Naughton explained.

While Naughton and Boyle are pleased with Catholic Studies’ success thus far, they’re just as excited about where it’s headed.

One new initiative that’s already expanded Catholic Studies’ global impact is its online master’s degree program. Launched this fall, the program was made possible with support from the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) center.

The move to online learning is especially exciting for Erika Kidd, an assistant professor of Catholic Studies and director of the master’s degree program. 

“There’s no one … offering graduate Catholic Studies courses online,” she said. “Because what we offer is unique and because people love it so much, we just want to be able to get it out there to more people.”

Kidd emphasized that the center isn’t offering a second master’s degree, but is giving students the option to take some or all of their courses online. “I think all our students — our online students and our ‘on-ground’ students — come to us seeking to encounter Christ in the great Catholic tradition,” she said.

The courses include several components. Students watch pre-recorded video lectures from professors, complete weekly assignments and participate in online discussions. Professors provide regular feedback — both written and video recorded — to students, and they make themselves available during online office hours through a video-communication tool similar to Skype, Kidd explained.

This fall, Catholic Studies offered two courses online, and it’s set to offer two more in the spring. Thirty-three students from as close as the Twin Cities and Milwaukee to as far away as Ecuador and South Africa participated.

Boyle has been teaching one of the courses. He admitted many of his colleagues “were surprised” when they learned he would be. But as his class nears completion, he’s glad he did it.

“It’s an entirely different way thinking about pedagogy,” he said. “In some ways, you get things out of students in this way because they have to respond” through weekly assignments.

Naughton has been teaching the other online course as part of a new initiative designed for Catholic school teachers: the Mission and Culture two-course study. Launched this fall, its purpose, Naughton explained, is to help teachers see how they fit into Catholicism’s 2,000-year-old educational tradition.

The program consists of two graduate-level courses, which participants can apply toward Minnesota state requirements for teaching licensure renewal. They also can apply the courses toward an expanded six-course certificate on mission and culture from Catholic Studies, as well as toward its master’s degree.

With these and other new projects in the works, Naughton and Boyle feel a little bit like they did in the early 1990s, in that they don’t know exactly what Catholic Studies will look like 25 years from now. But as long as it remains true to its mission, they’re confident it will continue forming the next generation of faith-filled disciples.

“Catholic Studies helps our students — helps remind the faculty — that there’s a great joy of the faith,” Boyle said. “That’s part of why it’s attractive — it’s joyful, it’s fun.”

iStock/dinosoftlabsHear Dr. Michael Naughton and Dr. Erika Kidd talk about the Center for Catholic Studies on the Rediscover: Hour radio show

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