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November 11, 2002

Aquinas Center an advocate for Catholic studies

By Michael Terrazas

At a University founded by and closely affiliated with the United Methodist Church, it’s not surprising that a center devoted to Catholic studies would keep a low profile. But just because the Aquinas Center of Theology is not always at the forefront of the Emory stage doesn’t mean it has not been contributing greatly to theological education and scholarship on campus.

Founded in 1987, the Aquinas Center is an independent, nonprofit entity that enjoys an affiliate relationship with Emory, which provides space for the center in Turner Village on Clifton Road. The center is named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century priest who is considered the greatest of the Dominican scholars, a Catholic order of priests known for combining holiness with intellectual activity.

“The Aquinas Center was set up to provide a Catholic presence at Emory, and we are edging toward doing that,” said Victor Kramer, director of the center since 1999. “We have a steady stream of visiting professors; we are working with the Department of Religion and the Candler School of Theology to expand the Catholic curriculum—and that, I’m sure, will happen. We have a lot of different programs.”

True to its namesake, each year the Aquinas Center brings to campus a visiting Domini-can scholar to give lectures and teach a course at Candler. This year’s visitor is Brian Shanley, a Dominican priest and associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

The Aquinas Center also works with the local Catholic community; tomorrow night, Nov. 12, the center is cosponsoring a sacred music concert to be held at 8 p.m. at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Buckhead. The concert features Trappist monk and Juilliard-trained organist Francis Kline, abbot of Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, S.C.

An accomplished and somewhat eclectic scholar himself, Kramer is emeritus professor of American studies at Georgia State University. He has written books on subjects ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to Southern author James Agee, to landscape architect and designer of the Druid Hills subdivision Frederick Law Olmsted (a book cowritten with Dana White, professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts).

But Kramer’s specialty is 20th century American Catholic writer and scholar Thomas Merton, which has dovetailed nicely with Kramer’s direction of the Aquinas Center. He edited the fourth volume of Merton’s personal writings, and the center publishes an annual Merton journal, as well as holds periodic conferences on Merton; the next, planned for 2004, will examine Merton and feminism.

Kramer said his tenure is occurring at a time when the Aquinas Center is in search of a new identity. Since its founding, the center has promoted Catholic scholarship throughout Candler, the Graduate Division of Religion and the Department of Religion in Emory College. It also collaborates with other centers such as the Law and Religion Program and the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion.

“The Aquinas Center has played important roles within Candler and the University,” said Candler Dean Russell Richey. “It has understood its overall purpose in different ways and is now in a process of reflecting again on how much to accent the Emory portions of its mission. Both the Emory faculty and Aquinas explorations have suggested the substantial Catholic population within the college and the considerable faculty interests in Catholic studies invite attention.”

In the future, its director said, the Aquinas Center might prove integral to a formal version of Catholic studies. In 1998 the center endowed two professorships, and former center director Lyndon Reynolds became the first Aquinas Chair of Catholic Theology in Candler. Kramer hopes that’s just the beginning.

“I estimate about 20 percent of undergraduates and graduates on this campus are Catholic, and that’s a significant number; you need to have some structure to provide academic study for majors, minors and interdisciplinary work,” Kramer said. “What we will do in the next period is try to identify faculty who can assist in eventually building a center or some kind of institute for Catholic studies from the ground up.”