Chicago has lost the sultry aura it had in the days of Al Capone. But its university brings it renown throughout the academic world. Its Oriental Studies Department is among the very best. Among the professors of its economics department, not having won a Nobel Prize makes one seem original. The divinity school and the prestigious Committee on Social Thought have seen professors like Paul Ricoeur, David Tracy, and now Jean-Luc Marion. It was in the context of this university that my friend Thomas Levergood, who recently died of cancer, chose to act.
Thomas had done his graduate studies in political science. After studying language and civilization in Paris and in Munich, two places whose languages he spoke, he continued to study theology, political science, and literature at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He converted from the Episcopal to the Catholic Church, and it was in 1997 that he found his true vocation in founding the Lumen Christi Institute—a laboratory of ideas, a think tank, for students and professors.
In a country founded by Protestants, for a long time being Catholic was frowned upon. The only state founded by Catholics, Lord Baltimore’s Maryland, was rapidly and militaristically conquered by the Puritans. The Catholics were regarded as superstitious and a bit simple. When an intellectual like Orestes Brownson, after much prevarication, entered the Catholic Church in 1844, his conversion was as surprising as that of the Englishman John Henry Newman a year later. One would have to wait until 1961, with the election of John F. Kennedy, to have a baptized Catholic as president. We must recognize that, objectively speaking, the Catholics who had come by immigration in the 19th century did not have a very high level of instruction. It was misfortune that had led them to cross the Atlantic from their native lands: the Irish starved by the potato famine, Italians from the Mezzogiorno, Poles, Bavarians.
Since then, the intellectual situation has drastically improved. Some great writers have been Catholic, like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Among the nine judges of the Supreme Court, there are now only Catholics and Jews. Catholic universities like Notre Dame have risen in level and influence.
The Catholic presence in the confessionally unaffiliated universities, however, leaves something to be desired. This is the lack that Lumen Christi sought to fill in Chicago, and it largely succeeded. This initiative of creating oases of Catholic intellectual life in the secular academic desert spread, under different names and in different forms, to the most renowned places: Harvard, Yale, Penn, etc.
In Chicago, Thomas Levergood succeeded in convincing a number of donors of the importance of what he did. But he did not excel only as a fundraiser. He knew how to attract great minds to participate in the meetings he organized with enormous professionalism. The list of those who attended the conferences, symposiums, dialogues, and master’s classes he set up is impressive: scholars and intellectuals from across the world, of every specialty and every confession, teaching at the most prestigious institutions. It is necessary to add that this good giant with the red beard, as wide as he was tall, larger than life, who only took out his pipe to smile, was certainly a humble man, almost secretive about his intense intellectual life—even his dog was named Bossuet!—and above all his spiritual life. But he also had such a humor and a charm that he was one of those people to whom it was practically impossible to say “no.” As for my part, I never tried, and I’m glad. As for the good Lord, I would be truly surprised if he dared say “no” to him now.
Rémi Brague is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
This essay was originally published in Le Figaro. Translated from the French by Stephanie Rumpza.
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