Dominicans are challenging the secular consensus at America’s elite universities

The fight for America’s soul is being fought – and, it seems, lost – on university campuses. According to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, millennials are more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans by a 20-point margin. An even more astonishing poll, conducted in 2016, found that only 37 per cent had a “very unfavourable” view of communism. Fully 64 per cent agreed with the Marxist mantra: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Christians struggle to confront this looming leftward tilt – not least because the new academic culture increasingly shies away from debate, for fear of offending one party or another. Few institutions are willing to risk their reputations by speaking out.

But the Order of Preachers is redoubling its efforts to retake academia. Ten years ago, the Dominican House of Studies (DHS) in Washington DC established the Thomistic Institute in order to bring their charism to American and British students. What is that charism exactly? “To share with others the truth about the God whom we contemplate in our hearts.”

And so they have. The Thomistic Institute has chapters on more than 35 campuses, including at Oxford. Those chapters are student-run, though they’re supported with funds and logistics from the DHS. According to Fr Thomas Petri, dean of the DHS’s Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, the institute encourages “intellectual formation on substantive topics and issues at play in society today”.

In fact, some of their most significant in-roads as of late have been in the Ivy League: those storied, elite universities that go hand-in-hand with progressive politics. That doesn’t surprise Fr Dominic Legge, the institute’s new director. “Contemporary secular universities don’t always do a good job at addressing students’ most important existential questions,” he told me. “We’ve found that students feel very empowered when they can bring a speaker to campus who addresses the questions that other professors don’t touch, especially if it is done in an intelligent and responsible way, drawing on the riches of the Christian intellectual tradition.”

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