We sat down with for an interview with Peter Casarella, professor of theology at Duke Divinity School and longtime friend of the Lumen Christi Institute.  Casarella has been involved with the Lumen Christi Institute (LCI) since its founding over twenty-five years ago. We asked him more about LCI's history, as well as where thinks institutes for Catholic thought at non-Catholic universities need to go in the future.

LCI: You’ve been involved with the Lumen Christi Institute for a long time. What's the history of your involvement with LCI?

PC: I first became involved in the early stages when I helped Thomas Levergood organize a panel on theology that included Cardinal George and David Tracy. I think that event took place almost twenty-five years ago. After that I consulted with Thomas, and he consulted with me about events, figures, and ideas. From 2007-2013 I taught at DePaul University in Chicago while living in Hyde Park and had more opportunities to attend events sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute (LCI). In sum, LCI has had a big influence on me both as an organizer of events (especially when the pivot to on-line events took place during COVID) and as a participant. During all those diverse activities, I never lost sight of the fact that Thomas and Paul Griffiths began Lumen Christi with a simple invitation to graduate students at the Divinity School to participate in the liturgy of the hours. At its core, LCI is a fellowship that includes equal measures of friendship, intellectual debate, and prayer.


LCI: Why did you found Fons Vitae and how has LCI’s model of a Catholic intellectual institute served as an inspiration?

PC: I came to Duke in 2020 and began shortly after that to discuss the idea with Reinhard Hütter since he lives in Durham and likes to take long walks. About two weeks before Thomas passed, I told him that Reinhard and I were drafting a vision statement for a Catholic institute at Duke modeled on LCI. He was very pleased. Reinhard, Janet Martin Soskice (the Warren Chair in Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity), and Edgardo Colón-Emeric, the Dean of Duke Divinity, saw the need to build up Catholic intellectual life at this historically Methodist institution. Most students who come to Duke are either STEM or trying hard to incorporate some aspect of STEM into their curriculum. In this context there is a burning need to counter technocratic narrowness with genuine wisdom about human persons and the cosmos while still fostering a scientifically-grounded, open-ended, and broadly humanistic dialogue between religion and science.

Our first summer seminar was made possible through the generosity of the In Lumine network. We focused on Engineering because it is a common discipline for Duke students and because we were fortunate to be able to work with Sr. Damien Marie Savino, F.S.E. as the co-instructor. We learned a lot, shared daily Mass, shoveled manure on a farm, and cooked and shared a meal on the last night. It was an amazing experience. 


LCI: What are significant accomplishments in the founding of Fons Vitae, and where do you see the institute going in the future?

PC: Troy Kassien, program coordinator for Fons Vitae, came to us from the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. He has lots of experience at what we are doing and has been a real gift. My colleagues at Duke and Duke Divinity have also offered their encouragement. We hope to launch a Certificate in Catholic Studies for Duke Divinity students in the fall of 2024.

This coming semester will be busy. We will host a short non-credit, virtual seminar on Newman’s Idea of a University, reading groups on Augustine’s Confessions and Hirschfeld’s Aquinas and the Market, a webinar on global food scarcity, and a screening of The Shroud: Face to Face with a conversation with the Director. Andrew Davison, a scientist/theologian from Cambridge University, will also visit to speak about extraterrestrials and theology. Thomas Pfau is a hosting a major symposium on European Theology and Poetry since 1800, and we are working with the Theology, Medicine, and Culture initiative at Duke Divinity to co-host Daniel Sulmasy, MD from Georgetown University. 

In five years, I would like to see us reach a larger audience with events that speak to the presence of the Church in the local region and in the global South of Roman Catholicism. While still working with In Lumine and its partners, I would also like to partner with Catholic institutions in the South of the U.S. like Belmont Abbey University and the Catholic Studies program at Emory because Catholic education in this part of the country, where Catholicism is still growing, needs vital support and basic intellectual nourishment. We have untapped resources here at Duke, not just in myriad technical fields, but also in the arts, in ecumenism, and in interreligious dialogue. As we bring in new supporters and friends, we would love to offer more programs that serve these diverse communities and partners.


LCI: Where do you think institutes for Catholic thought at non-catholic universities need to go next? What’s the future? What roles do you see these institutes playing for the secular academy and/ or for the Church? 

PC: There have been radical changes on college campuses in the last fifty years but some of the needs for young people have not and will not change. The original vision of the Newman Centers for the United States was in some ways very close to the humanistic vision of Cardinal Newman himself, as he articulated that vision in his The Idea of a University. After the Second Vatican Council, a more pastoral focus dominated, which led to getting lay Catholics on campus more involved in liturgy, music ministry, retreats, and small groups. The intellectual component unfortunately got shunted to the side. Those developments were in some ways necessary and reflect the growing pains of the U.S. Catholic Church right after the Council. The reaction to that has been new efforts that focus more on apologetics, discernment of a vocation, and the much neglected ground floor of faith formation. FOCUS, Fr. Mike Schmitz, Word on Fire, and many other digital platforms now occupy this new space that were completely absent when I was in college. The face of the U.S. Catholic Church is also more diverse than it was immediately after the Council, and the challenges that we face are greater and more threatening. Non-Catholic universities still need a strong, pastorally-oriented, and hospitable chaplaincy. A Catholic Institute is never a substitute for that. But they also need an intellectual component that goes beyond an occasional lecturer coming from the outside. Fons Vitae is tethering faculty, staff, and students from diverse disciplines to a common vision that promotes within the Duke community the intellectual traditions found in Catholicism while also engaging burning contemporary issues like the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and the War in Israel and Gaza. 


LCI: You have an interesting journey. You were trained at Yale University, taught at a Catholic University (University of Notre Dame) for years, and now you’ve returned to the secular university, at Duke. Who are some of the mentors and scholars who have inspired your founding Fons Vitae?

PC: I was blessed in college to have mentors like Louis Dupré, Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Karsten Harries, John Smith, Kathryn Tanner, and Jaroslav Pelikan. I took courses in the Department of Philosophy that introduced me to Plato, Descartes, Kant, existentialism, and poststructuralism. I never thought that Catholicism suffered when it was subjected to critique by secular or nihilistic streams of thought. In fact, my Catholicism eventually came out stronger and more luminous after it passed through these dark nights.