Thomas Aquinas College, California: a model of Catholic higher education

Thomas Aquinas College, California: a model of Catholic higher education

Michael Gilchrist

With the establishment of Australia's first Catholic universities now imminent, one to be based on the model of Notre Dame (US), it is instructive to consider whether there are alternative American models available.

Michael Gilchrist, who visited several Catholic universities and colleges in the US in 1988, argues that while a majority of Catholic institutions in the US are losing or have lost their identity, a relative few, such as Thomas Aquinas College still take their Catholicity seriously.

The establishment of a Catholic University in Western Australia on the model of famed Notre Dame in the United States might have seemed a commendable idea to those unfamiliar with recent developments in American Catholic higher education. One hopes that, in spite of its somewhat flawed model, the Australian Notre Dame will prove any initial misgivings groundless.

While in the US in 1988 I was informed by local experts that barely 5 per cent of Catholic colleges and universities could be described as fully on-side with Pope John Paul II and having thoroughly orthodox theology departments - whatever the standards of their secular areas might be like. These include the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, the University of St Thomas in Houston, the St Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, the Thomas More Institute of Liberal Studies, Christendom College and Thomas Aquinas College.

Noted British author, Christopher Derrick, was so inspired by his stay at Thomas Aquinas College that he wrote a book about it, Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if Truth Mattered. It was for this reason that I was interested to see this college at first hand.


Thomas Aquinas College was founded in 1973 by Dr Ronald M. McArthur. In 1968, Dr McArthur and a group of experienced academics, concerned at trends in both Catholic and secular colleges had decided to found a Catholic liberal arts college. The present college began in a leased seminary in 1973 before moving in 1978 to its present Santa Paula campus (about 100km north of Los Angeles) thanks to the generosity of an oil company.

Apart from its many obvious assets Thomas Aquinas College is located in the midst of beautiful mountain scenery and includes on its property a botanical garden established by the original oil millionaire owner. The college is also conveniently placed for any intending Australian students, being on the west coast of the US.

The College's "Blue Book" or A Proposal for the Fulfilment of Catholic Liberal Education sets out the "essential purpose" of a Catholic college as education under the light of faith, looking to wisdom as its end, "discovered at great pains" and "timelessly true for all generations" as College President, Dr McArthur, puts it.

The basis of the Thomas Aquinas curriculum is study of the "Great Books of the Western World", including, for example, the writings of Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Dostoyevsky, and many others, with close analysis of these in small seminars, tutorials and laboratories.

Such key foundational works as those of Euclid and Aristotle are seen as establishing fundamental truths about existence deduced logically from certain starting points or premises, as with geometrical propositions.

The seminar approach favoured at Thomas Aquinas entails a "theoretical inquiry" into the great issues raised by classic works in philosophy, literature, history, economics and political science. The tutor - all Thomas Aquinas faculty are ranked as tutors - and students jointly inquire into commonly read original texts.

Like other similarly-oriented Catholic colleges, Thomas Aquinas has rules designed to uphold certain basic standards of conduct and etiquette. There are no male-female visitations in dormitories, women wear skirts to class and men may not wear T-shirts. No alcohol is allowed in student rooms. These rules seem willingly accepted by the student body which, to the outside observer, projects itself as courteous, cheerful, gregarious and by-no-means repressed looking.

Recognition of the college's stature in the Church is evidenced in the calibre of its commencement (or graduation) speakers who have included Mother Teresa and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York. Another of the speakers, Bishop Juan Fremiot Torres Oliver of Ponce, Puerto Rico, described the college as "among the very, very few which remain unswervingly loyal to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church".

This stature is also evident in the secular sphere with graduates excelling themselves in the professions despite the college's lack of vocational orientation. But graduates are well practised in presenting and defending their views, at raising relevant questions and in striving to be intellectually honest, obvious strengths for any profession built on a Thomas Aquinas Liberal Arts Degree.

Almost 60% of Thomas Aquinas graduates are regularly accepted by more than 50 graduate and professional schools in North America and Europe. Comments

from these schools on the calibre of the graduates have been uniformly enthusiastic, describing them as either the "best" or among the very best of their intakes.


The first-time visitor to Thomas Aquinas College is especially struck by its rich spiritual atmosphere. To conventional opinion, here is the greatest paradox of all: expose some of America's brightest students to the best of Western thought

including powerful challenges to religious belief; do a better job at this than the most prestigious universities, and the result is not scepticism, but devotion to the Catholic faith.

Assistant Chaplain, Fr Gerard Stekler SJ described Thomas Aquinas College to me as "a blueprint for a new age of faith". Three Masses are celebrated daily, all in Latin, at the students' request. Other signs of overt Catholicity, apart from pictures, statues and crucifixes, include daily Benediction (in Latin), Rosary, sung Compline, and devotions to the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady. A fifty-voice choir, organised by the students, sings Palestrina and other masters of polyphony at each Sunday's Solemn High Mass - all Masses are Novus Ordo, I might add.

I attended several student Masses and was particularly struck by the reverence of the student body at worship, as well as by their level of participation in the responses and the singing, much of it in Latin.

There is no compulsion on students - most of whom reside on campus - to attend Mass or any other liturgical activities. Yet the vast majority attend Mass

daily and many of the non- Catholics or non-believers who attend the College, seeking academic excellence, have ended up converting to Catholicism.

It is not surprising that priestly and religious vocations have flourished in such a spiritual environment. A remarkable 11 per cent of Thomas Aquinas graduates over the past decade have joined such Orders as the Dominicans, Benedictines, Legionaries of Christ, Oblates of the Virgin Mary, the Poor Clares, the Carmelites and the Missionaries of Charity, as well as the secular priesthood.

Many graduates are also prominent as young lay leaders in the ranks of Catholic organisations and enterprises throughout the United States.

Thomas Aquinas College is therefore very much at the forefront of a small, but significant movement to re-establish orthodox Catholic education - although it should be emphasised that the College's approach is not overtly 'apologetic' nor indoctrinative; the positive spiritual outcome is seen by students and faculty as the inevitable result of an openness to truth.

Prestigious and competitive

Since 1984 two of the nation's leading college directories, Barron's Most Prestigious Colleges and Peterson's Guide have listed Thomas Aquinas as among the most prestigious and competitive institutions in the US (within the top six per cent).

In 1987, The Wall Street Journal listed the College as one of the 16 Top College Bargains - Colleges under $8000 in charges and with admission standards within the highest four per cent in the US. - among the nation's 3340 colleges and universities. Thomas Aquinas was the only Catholic institution out of over 240 to make the list.

British author and former student of C.S. Lewis, Christopher Derrick, whose first visit to Thomas Aquinas College inspired his aforementioned book, commented on the exceptional happiness of the students and the spirit of charity which pervaded the campus.

It is this which has provided the ripple effect of grace from the College through homes, classrooms, hospitals, courtrooms and the marketplace. Fr Stekler commented: "Here they are being taught beliefs must lead to actions. Can we turn our civilisation around? We have to."

To those who might be wondering if the Church and society in the Western world have much future one can simply point to Thomas Aquinas and the sprinkling of other similarly-oriented Catholic colleges and universities to suggest that anything is possible for those who take their Catholic faith seriously.

It would be tragic for the Church and for Australia if golden opportunities to establish truly Catholic universities and other tertiary institutions in this country were let slip through following flawed American models.

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