Today, it’s the Shangri-la of college campuses. But it was not always so. The Catholics who founded Thomas Aquinas College in 1969 were laymen taking on an enormous challenge, unheard of at a time when Catholic schools were universally administered by the clergy. And the story of how they established this inspiring Catholic college nestled in the foothills of the Topatopa Mountains, at the entrance to the Los Padres National in the teeth of the enormous upheavals of the late 1960s is the stuff of movie plots.
Anne Forsyth’s entire life has deeply involved with this amazing story. The daughter of John Schaeffer, one of TAC’s redoubtable founding board members, today Anne is the Director of College Relations there. In this interview, Anne graciously conducts REGINA readers on a guided tour of this modern day Catholic miracle.
REGINA: From the perspective of 50 years later, what inspired the founders to take on this mammoth project?
ANNE FORSYTH: The period of the 1960s was a time of great tumult in the United States, one that had devastating effects on the country’s institutions and mores. Its ravages could be seen perhaps nowhere more clearly than on college campuses. Truth gave way to skepticism and relativism, and expressions such as “free love” and “question authority” became the catchphrases of student life.
REGINA: In Catholic colleges, as well?
ANNE FORSYTH: Catholic colleges were not immune to these influences. Venerable institutions that for many scores of years had faithfully passed on the intellectual patrimony of the Church began to adopt the diluted curricula, methods, and aims of their secular counterparts. Not only was campus life at many of these institutions succumbing to the permissiveness of the time, a long-standing commitment to Catholic liberal education was quickly disappearing.
REGINA: How did Catholic colleges react?
ANNE FORSYTH: In 1967, against this backdrop, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, convened a group of prominent Catholic educators in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. Their aim was to chart a new course for Catholic higher education in America, one that would resemble all too well that of their secular counterparts. The meeting resulted in a document entitled a “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University.”
Hoping to garner the kind of reputation for academic excellence enjoyed by secular institutions of higher learning, the statement declared, “The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” (emph. added) Going even further, it stated that the Catholic university “should carry on a continual examination of all aspects and all activities of the Church and should objectively evaluate them.”
In other words, where once the measure of the Catholic university was the Magisterium of the Church, now the Catholic university would not only be its own judge, but in an audacious upending of the tradition, it would also be the measure of the Church. Truly, this was a watershed moment for Catholic higher education in the United States.
Read more at Regina >>