New institute to offer online classes in medieval theology and philosophy

The Scholasticum has a campus in Italy, but is bringing medieval scholasticism to anyone with an Internet connection.

A very unique institution of Catholic higher education will begin offering classes this October. Dr. Patrick Owens is academic dean of the Scholasticum, a new institute headquartered in Italy dedicated to medieval theology and philosophy as they were taught at the University of Paris in the mid-13th century. Classes and can be taken either online anywhere in the world or at the school facility in Bagnoregio, Italy.

Fields of study at the Scholasticum include medieval philosophy, medieval biblical studies, and scholastic theology. It is a “great books” program, meaning students read and discuss original texts by the Church’s greatest thinkers, rather than reading summations and commentaries of such material by modern authors. The Scholasticum was launched due to a desire by its founders to revive traditional Catholic education and formation, much of which they believe has been lost over the past century or so. The institute’s founders expect prospective students to include priests, religious, and seminarians, as well as laity. Because classes are available online, students will be able to work full-time jobs while pursuing their studies.

Dr. Owens has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in philosophy and humanities at Touro University and courses in Latin and Latin literature at the Vivarium Novum in Rome. Most recently, he taught Latin, art history, and humanities at Wyoming Catholic College. He has his Ph.D. in Classics from the Institute of Higher Latin studies at the Salesianum. He recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: Why was The Scholasticum founded?

Dr. Patrick Owens: It is our desire to address a need in Catholic higher education, namely, to counter the failure of many Catholic institutions to present the perennial philosophy and theology of the Catholic Church as articulated through the scholastic movement. 

Our efforts began with Brother Alexis Bugnolo, a hermit, who in his own education at such institutions was not impressed with the curriculum offered to him in scholastic studies. He began drafting a prospectus for what such a curriculum should ideally be.

In the following years others joined him, including Matteo Scozia of the University of Calabria, Italy, Francisco Jose Diaz Marcilla of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal, and myself. We used Brother’s prospectus as a starting place to develop the curriculum of the Scholasticum, which would be comparable to the curriculum offered by the University of Paris in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. We ended up with what would be described today as a graduate program in the areas of philosophy, theology, and biblical studies and a master’s in sacred doctrine.

CWR: What are some of the shortcomings you and Brother Alexis see in Catholic institutions of higher learning?

Owens: Much of their focus is on secondary literature which offers a modern interpretation of the thinking of the greatest scholars in the history of the Catholic Church. So, rather than directly engaging with a doctor of the Church such as a Thomas Aquinas or an Augustine, their focus is on a modern hermeneutic. 

Our goal is to bring students into a direct connection with original texts. We’re a great books program, like what you’d find at Thomas Aquinas College in California. We’ll have our students directly engage with a great author, rather than bringing in opinions from secondary literature. We don’t spurn secondary literature, but ours is a master’s-level program that directly uses original texts.

One prerequisite which our students will need, however, is a high level of competence in the Latin language so that they may read Thomas, Augustine, and their contemporaries without having to resort to translations. For those who do not yet have the Latin skills, we will offer courses to help students acquire them.

This is something that makes the Scholasticum unique. You don’t see this anywhere else. Yet Latin plays a significant role in the history of the Catholic Church. It is the only Catholic language. Canon 249, for example, states that a priest should master the Latin language. He should be able to read, write, and speak it. 

However, few priests know Latin today. At one time, priests had to work very hard to learn Latin, but its study has since been removed for a variety of mediocre reasons. 

I have had this debate with seminary rectors. They argue that priests of past centuries grew up speaking Latin. But that is not true. With blood, sweat, and tears they had to learn Latin. To dismiss their efforts is not to do them justice. 

It was of great value to them, as the Church’s great thinkers chose to compose their writings in Latin. This helped to make the meaning of these texts clear. In fact, if you look back in history, of all the great heresies which have confronted the Church, none were ever born in Latin-speaking communities.

So, while we don’t want to place too great a burden on our students at the Scholasticum, we would not condescend to do serious philosophy and theology without asking them to know Latin.

CWR: One of the great complaints many faithful Catholics have today is the widespread lack of clarity in Church teachings. Are you hoping to address this?

Owens: Yes. Our problems started 70 years or more ago when seminarians began learning scholastic philosophy from manuals. Theologians created compendiums of the great books, and boiled down the work of Thomas, Augustine, and others into coursework that could be taken in one or two semesters at the seminary.  

It may have been a laudable goal considering the limited time available to seminarians, but it failed to deliver the richness and fullness of the teachings of the great books. It gave two generations of seminarians a misrepresentation of what scholasticism is all about; it is not mere catechesis, or a parroting of truths.

The popes in their magisterial documents were aware of this problem. In 1879, for example, Pope Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris called for a reinvigorated study of Thomistic philosophy, but the encyclical was never implemented in the complete way which Leo wished. In 1993, Pope St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor made it clear that if we are going to be genuine in our Catholic theology, we need to place objective truth front and center. 

This is the way in which we must confront Modernism, the heresy which continues to plague our Church. Today, we see ubiquitous ambiguity in Catholic teaching. Doctrine is presented frequently in a way that is ambiguous. This reflects a failure to think clearly through things and articulate them properly. I think there’s been a desire for clarity for more than a century now; Pope St. Pius X identified it in his condemnation of Modernism. 

Doubt is at the source of the many ambiguities in the Church. This doubt is the fruit of the devil. He continually attempts to sew it in the Church, and our response must be to answer with clear articulations of the unchanging truths of the Catholic faith. This is at the heart of our mission at the Scholasticum: we will educate our students to think clearly and articulate the truths of our faith plainly.

CWR: Who is a good candidate to be a Scholasticum student?

Owens: We’re looking for students who have a liberal arts education and are able to think critically. We founded the institution to serve both laity and clergy; we hope to make the curriculum available for religious communities for the benefit of their members’ spiritual lives and careers as educators. We have a physical location in Bagnoregio, Italy, so we are interested in having Italians participate in person. Also, as monastic life often does not allow for a member to be a full-time student and live in community, we will be able to house religious.

And, as we wanted the education to be available to those who ordinarily couldn’t afford to go to university, our tuition rates are practically donations. Those on our faculty are volunteers; I, myself, as president, do not take a salary.

CWR: Will students watch lectures in real time?

Owens: There will be lectures which students can watch in real time or they can opt to view a recording after-the-fact. This allows for lectures to be re-watched as needed. There are seminars, however, in which students will be expected to participate in real time. As we are aware of where our students are throughout the world, we will try to time these so they don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to participate.

Our lectures will be in Italian and English, and papers will be accepted in any major European language.

CWR: Who is on your faculty?

Owens: We have profiles on our website. Our faculty members are spread over the globe, with most of us holding full-time positions at academic institutions. I left a full-time position at Wyoming Catholic College to be president of the Scholasticum.   

CWR: What needs do you have at the Scholasticum?

Owens: We are a non-profit organization, so we need donations. Anyone can visit our website and make a tax-deductible donation. All faithful Catholics, as well as non-Catholic lovers of philosophy, are encouraged to help us with this undertaking. As I said, we’re not making money on this endeavor; we’re doing this as an act of love and for the greater good of the Church and in service to Our Lord.

We hope one day to offer an undergraduate education program, too. But first we need to raise the money so that we have the stability to make and fulfill promises to our students.

Second, we want to attract students. We welcome any assistance people can provide in helping us get the word out that we exist and will soon begin classes. We’ve been included already in some Catholic blogs and magazines, and we’d welcome inclusion in more.

One message we want to get out to prospective students is that we’re flexible in accommodating them. If you’re working a full-time job, you can study with us. If you have a debilitating illness or handicap that prevents you from getting out, you can study with us. If you’re not Catholic, but have a desire to better understand the writings of the scholastic thinkers, you can study with us.

CWR: What reaction have you had so far?

Owens: It has been overwhelmingly positive. We have sent out invitations to rectors of 55 seminaries. I thought many religious communities would be “standoffish” because we’re not yet fully accredited. Yet it turns out that many of these communities want their members to be educated in scholastic thinking and are willing to wait on full accreditation. 

We’re all very excited to be opening our doors to students. We welcome the support of friends and benefactors to help us be a success in our mission. We look forward to being part of the renewal of the Catholic Church.

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About Jim Graves 230 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.