Lumen Christi: A Catholic institute aims for serious conversation among friends

A Pillar feature

Catholic scholar Dr. Russell Hittinger didn’t know much about the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago when he was first invited to speak there in 1999.

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But when he got there was immediately impressed - not only by the fledgling institute’s affiliation with a prestigious intellectual university, but also by its novel approach to Catholic intellectual life on campus. 

“Right away I saw this was important. Actually, no one else was doing it,” he said.

Hittinger, then the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, is now a senior fellow at the Lumen Christi Institute. 

He told The Pillar he believes the institute is responding to a unique need in the Catholic world.

The Lumen Christi Institute was not founded as a campus ministry operation, he stressed. While organizations like the Newman Center do important work, Hittinger said, there has been a significant gap in filling the intellectual needs of Catholics, particularly at renowned secular campuses like the University of Chicago. 

“Here was an institute founded, not so much to make sure that the undergraduates get to Mass on Sunday and meet a good Catholic spouse while they're in undergraduate, or have a priest to go to for confession, or have a bit of beer and pizza on a weekend. It was founded to discuss ideas,” he said.

Lumen Christi was founded in 1997 by Thomas Levergood and Paul Griffiths, both Catholic converts and scholars at the University of Chicago. Levergood was its executive director until shortly before his death this month.

Initially, the idea involved Lectio divina and reflections on the writings of the Church fathers.

A commitment to Catholic tradition and the merger of faith and intellectual life eventually developed into an institute that aims to enrich academic conversation at the University of Chicago and beyond, said the institute’s acting executive director Michael Le Chevallier.

The premise is that the Church has something to say, especially in meaningful conversations among serious scholars.

“I would say the broadest way of capturing its mission is to make the Catholic intellectual tradition a living dialogue partner at the University of Chicago, within the broader academy and within our society, with the goal of transforming students, transforming future faculty and current faculty to be leaders within society and within the Church,” Le Chevallier told The Pillar.

A unique recipe for success

Le Chevallier said Lumen Christi has found success in developing a “robust, sustainable, intellectually rigorous, but faithful orthodox institute at a secular university.” The institute was able to find a home at the University of Chicago, quite literally —  it is housed on the university’s campus.  

Le Chevallier believes it’s important that the institute is “not simply siloed off from the rest of the university.” 

The mission, he said, is “bringing the Catholic intellectual tradition and making it alive on campus and making it a living dialogue partner on campus...whether it be with economics, with law, or even just with scholars who themselves are not Catholic, but who engage in the tradition itself.”

Lumen Christi, which means “Light of Christ,” is aimed largely at graduate students and faculty members. 

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In addition to its unique mission, Hittinger said the institute differs from other Catholic campus movements because it doesn’t avoid the academy. It wants to talk. 

“Most conservative operations on college campuses are meant to be oppositional. They're under the supposition that the students are being maleducated and that they need to read sources in philosophy, history, politics, and so forth, that they don't ever get from their professors,” he said.

“And Lumen Christi didn't have even the slightest tincture of that kind of an attitude. It was presupposed the University of Chicago was a great institution and that this was a conversation within and with the university. So boy, that set Lumen Christi off in my estimation from the very beginning.”

Hittinger believes the institute successfully participates in campus dialogue with the university because its approach isn’t bombastic or sensationalized. 

“Wherever people present themselves as polemical organizations, the next thing that they're going to do is they're going to find the most opinionated professor about the most opinionated things, bring them to campus, get a lot of people mad at one another and then boost their contributions,” he said.

“Lumen Christi never had any of that,” he continued. “Not the slightest degree of it. So everyone got along quite well, practically as fellow colleagues, and Lumen Christi always brought professors from different disciplines into the matrix of its work. It was not just liberal professors or conservative professors, not just philosophers, or lawyers, or scientists, or economists, but all of them.”

As a result, he said, the institute had a strong reputation among “people who take learning seriously.”

Le Chevallier said the institute tries to avoid letting the left-right polarization that exists in the Catholic Church be at the forefront of its programming. Lumen Christi tries to “carve out a Catholic space” to think about complex topics such as criminal justice reform, rather than simply parroting talking points from the left or right. 

He added that the tendency to avoid partisan divides also stemmed from founder Thomas Levergood’s strong commitment to the notion of friendship. 

With a focus on what is shared in the intellectual tradition, rather than on partisan division, friendships blossom between people with different views, he said. 

“Friendships are born out of this deep digging together,” Le Chevallier said. 

“I think that that has allowed us to develop friendships with scholars across the academy and coming from both the left and the right,” he said. “I would say that part of that genius has been focusing in a deep way on what we share, on ensuring that we're always bringing the best of scholarship to bear and a sort of intellectual depth. That can be lost in the more polarized spaces of the Church, where there can be a sort of flattening of the discourse.”

This focus on friendship is important, he said, in a society where some people question whether it is possible to be friends with those who hold different political opinions. 

Dr. Jennifer Frey, philosopher professor at the University of South Carolina, experienced that transformative power of friendship firsthand. 

Frey worked for Levergood at the institute for two years while finishing her dissertation. After she moved on in her career, she remained good friends with Levergood and stayed involved with Lumen Christi, giving talks at events. 

She told The Pillar she is “a very different person” today as a result of her friendship with Levergood. She said he encouraged her to think about the limits of philosophy and always pushed her to live a more integrated life, uniting her intellectual and faith life into one. 

She said this helped her develop “a way of thinking that was more integrated and that ended up being hugely important for who I am today and the sort of stuff that I write about and think about today.”

Frey agreed that Levergood was deliberate about avoiding partisan divides within the institute. 

“The mission of Lumen Christi is about Christian wisdom. Christian wisdom absolutely transcends this kind of especially American partisan political lens. And [Levergood] never wanted the Catholic intellectual tradition to be narrowed down in that way. He always saw it as timeless, as something that bears on the relevant moment, but transcends it...and he never lost sight of that mission,” she said.

“And I think that was one of the things that was always really special about working for [Levergood] in particular was that he was never going to let anybody on either side get bogged down in that. And I think that is rare and I think that's incredibly valuable. We need more of that. Not less of that.”

Hittinger added that avoiding polemical division does not mean the Lumen Christi Institute shies away from tackling important issues. And while the group is not a campus ministry organization, he said, “it never hides the fact that it’s Catholic.”

“We're quite open about being Catholic. We don't pretend to be conservatives hiding out on a liberal campus, we are Catholic intellectuals on a secular campus. And we make it very clear and it puts everyone at rest, because this is not some sneaky operation here.”

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Inspiring others

Hittinger believes that much of the success of the Lumen Christi Institute is tied to the nature of the University of Chicago - which as a matter of official university policy avoids holding party lines - and the support of Cardinal Francis George, whom he called “by far the most intellectually sophisticated of the American prelates of that generation.”

But the model developed by Lumen Christi has also been attractive to scholars beyond the University of Chicago, and similar institutes have now sprung up at other secular universities.

Le Chevallier clarified that the idea with Lumen Christi was never to operate a franchise model. 

“You couldn't just take Lumen Christi and pop it at any other place and have it functioning the same way.”

Instead, he said, the institute has inspired projects on other college campuses, which are adapted to respond to their own specific circumstances.

He pointed to the Nova Forum for Catholic Thought at the University of Southern California, the St. Benedict Institute at Hope College, and the Harvard Catholic Forum as entities that have drawn inspiration from Lumen Christi. 

In some cases, Levergood worked directly with the founders of those institutes to help in their creation.  

Fran Maier, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former senior advisor to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, was a cofounding board member of the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. 

He told The Pillar that Lumen Christi was an inspiration for the Collegium Institute, which describes itself as “a vibrant intellectual community devoted to fostering the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the liberal tradition of humane studies more broadly, within the University of Pennsylvania community.”

The two organizations have organizational differences. The Lumen Christi Institute is formally affiliated with the Archdiocese of Chicago, while the Collegium Institute maintains a good relationship with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, but operates independently, Maier said.

Still, the two organizations share a similar mission: bringing the Catholic intellectual tradition to a secular university campus. 

Like the Lumen Christi Institute, the Collegium Institute enjoys a good reputation on campus, and works to avoid left-right divisions that could detract from its mission of promoting Catholic intellectual thought, Maier said.

“I think that they're committed to being fully Catholic, which is above the contemporary political divides,” he reflected. “They're interested in deepening Catholic thought in a high-end university environment.”

An ongoing legacy

Le Chevallier said the Collegium Institute and other organizations that have been inspired by Lumen Christi are all part of the ongoing legacy of Levergood, who died August 6, just shy of his 60th birthday, after a brief battle with cancer. 

Hittinger pointed to the Lumen Christi programs that continue as another major component of that legacy. 

The institute hosts week-long summer seminars for graduate students and junior professors every year, convening at different locations to go in depth on various subjects - including Catholic social thought, Augustine’s City of God, Eastern Church fathers, and Cardinal John Henry Newman. 

“These have been remarkably successful. I mean, everyone learns a ton from one another and I couldn't even count the number of dissertations and books that I know have come out of those summer seminars,” Hittinger reflected. 

The institute also hosts events bringing Catholic philosophers and theologians into discussion with economists. 

“Two very unlikely types of people to have much to talk about, but we've made a good go of it,” Hittinger laughed. 

These events, Le Chevallier said, have been an opportunity to have an impact beyond the University of Chicago, reaching students and young professors at other colleges, “to help demonstrate and give them a space for encountering this integrated life of scholarship, of faith, of taking your research and finding points of contact with the Catholic intellectual tradition, that depth and breadth.”

Hittinger added that the institute has been influential in forming scholars who go on to become professors at Catholic and secular colleges. 

He said he knows more than a dozen people who have participated in the institute and have gone on to teach on college campuses.

“I'm not bragging, but I'm pointing out the importance of Lumen Christi. That's a better track record than whole departments,” he said.

Le Chevallier noted that before starting the Lumen Christi Institute, Levergood had discerned becoming a Discalced Carmelite, and had also begun a PhD. 

But ultimately, he said, Levergood determined that his vocation was Lumen Christi, and the legacy he leaves behind is the institute - not just as an organization, “but leaving behind for the Church a model that transcends polarizing divides, that helps carve out a space within the secular university.”

“Ninety percent of Catholics go to non-Catholic schools,” Le Chevallier noted. “So it's not a small thing to be having this type of model, and having as well this space that bears the integrated and broad view of the Catholic intellectual tradition, such that we can be doing programs on monastic studies that we're doing right now and on economics and Catholic social thought.”

Le Chevallier said he sees the institute’s impact as being particularly meaningful in its creation of a space for Catholic lay scholars to better understand their calling.

“[It has] created a forum for lay scholars to be able to better understand their vocation, their responsibility to the Church, their ability to contribute from the wealth of their own study and resources, and integrate that into sort of a life of faith, prayer, and a furthering of the intellectual mission of the Church,” he said.

“And Thomas [Levergood] was really a fiercely an advocate for lay scholars to be realizing their own vocation and their own responsibility.”

“It’s just in general, creating a space in which lay scholars could identify themselves as Catholic scholars and see that not simply in a polarizing light, but really have this integrative space in which one might think about faith, spirituality and our intellectual task as being integrated.”