Christian Culture in New England?  New College Center Seeking To Spread The Word

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Three Catholic thinkers are starting small but aiming high:  the re-evangelization of New England along Christian principles.

The scholars kicked off the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture with a press conference and social gathering Monday night at Mercy Hall in Nashua, New Hampshire, a building owned by Thomas More College.

Left-leaning, highly secularized New England wouldn’t seem the most fertile ground for Christian culture, but that’s part of the appeal for the three founders, all of whom have longstanding ties to the area.

They are William Fahey, president of Thomas More; Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News; and Anthony Esolen, a teaching fellow at Thomas More who taught English Renaissance and classical literature for many years at Providence College.

They plan to host activities usually associated with academic institutions, such as lectures and seminars, but they also want to engage people of various walks of life with concerts, performances, art, and even brown-bag lunches.

Lawler, an author (The Faithful Departed), editor, and columnist who has also run for public office in Massachusetts, has often taken part in what he called “pitched battles” over political, social, religious, and moral questions.

“And the problem is more often than not we’re outgunned,” Lawler said during the presentation. “The media is not sympathetic. Academia is not sympathetic. So how do you win that war of ideas? Well, you win the war of ideas, I believe, by forming the agenda of discussion. If you can determine the agenda of ideas being discussed, you’re already halfway to winning the debate.”

He sees the new center as making common cause with other like-minded or at least somewhat sympathetic people, “and try to get ideas in circulation that will be the hot-button-ideas not of this year, but of two or three years down the road.”

“We want to frame the agenda for New England,” Lawler said.

The founders didn’t mention specific topics during the press conference, and they stressed that they’re still in the early stages of planning. No events are scheduled yet, though they expect to have at least one during the spring semester.

Lawler, asked after the presentation for an example of what the center might do, suggested a brown-bag lunch in Boston offering practical ideas for mothers who want to stay home with their children – offering a Christian response to a social need instead of secular approaches such as government subsidies for day care.

Thomas More, founded in 1978, is a four-year liberal-arts college with about 100 students with a main campus in South Merrimack, about two and a half miles up the road from Mercy Hall in Nashua, where the center will be located.

Fahey, who is the college’s third president, said his predecessors always imagined launching an affiliated institution to try to influence the region.

“Now the center is the college’s way of engaging New England,” Fahey said during the event, “especially in those areas that were of interest to our spiritual patron, St. Thomas More:  The life of the family; liberal arts education for all ages; culture; the engagement of the political order, of civil life from a Christian perspective; and especially a steadfast defense, a loyal defense, of the constant teachings of the Catholic Church.”

“It’s a natural outgrowth of the college to do this,” he said. “We’re privileged to have the space to do it in.”

The building is one of the stars of the show. Built around the early 1900s for a mill-owning family in Nashua, the brick, three-story Beaux Arts mansion was eventually sold to Francis P. Murphy (1877-1958), the first Catholic governor of New Hampshire. The Sisters of Mercy later acquired it and ran a girls school there, and subsequently used it as a residence for retired nuns, before selling it to Thomas More College about four years ago.

The former home has a large open space by the front door designed for public gatherings, bedrooms on the second floor that will serve as offices (including one with a black wall safe for its original owner, Frank E. Anderson), and a colorful ballroom on the third floor used by Thomas More undergraduates for dances.

The Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture expects to invite members of the public to cultural activities in the stately building.

Frank E. Anderson House.
NPR of New Hampshire

Lawler, who taught a course at Thomas More on the founding of America last year, said he first started thinking about starting the center when he heard Fahey give a talk several years ago calling for re-evangelizing New England.

But the catalyst was the arrival of Esolen, a rock star in Catholic academic circles for his translation of Dante, his cultural critiques in opinion journals, and his battles in recent years with administrators over the Catholic identity of Providence College, which is run by the Church’s Dominican order.

Esolen’s decision earlier this year to leave Providence for Thomas More College is an unprecedented coup for Thomas More, and it led Lawler and Fahey to think they could raise interest and money to launch and sustain the new center.

“I am very much interested in this center here, and hope that this becomes the seedbed of other centers like it across the country, because we desperately need them,” Esolen said during the press conference.

The center’s founders emphasize that it isn’t just wrongheaded political or social ideas or faulty religious doctrine that leads to problems in society, but also a lack of authentic culture, which particularly damages young people.

In the absence of culture, Esolen said, “Something else will rush in.”

That something, he said, is often ugly, shallow, and destructive, created by people who don’t have uplifting the human soul as a goal.

“And they form the core of these precious beings, our children,” Esolen said. “… So their imaginations are formed by mass media, and the worst things that can be found on the Internet.”

First floor of the Frank E. Anderson House.

The new center is attracting interest elsewhere.

Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington D.C. and Editor-In-Chief of The Catholic Thing web site, called the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture “one of the most promising initiatives in decades.”

“Lots of people have written and spoken about what’s gone wrong with Catholic thought — as well as ways of life and community. This is one of the few things I’ve seen that may actually do something about bringing them all together again in a faithful and viable whole,” Royal said in a written statement. “And it’s right to begin with a specific region in mind. Given the scope of problems we face, they can only be dealt with first at a more local level. I hope that this project not only grows rapidly, but that it is imitated and adapted to many other parts of the country, and the world.”

While situated in New Hampshire, the new center’s founders expect to venture elsewhere in New England, particularly to Boston, the commercial and cultural capital of the region.

Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which advocates for Judaeo-Christian values on Beacon Hill, said he welcomes the new center at Thomas More.

“We live in a culture obsessed with novelty and progress, but without a moral compass.  This is why it is so important for people of faith to intentionally unearth the treasures that have been buried in the ash heap of secularism,” Beckwith said in an email message to New Boston Post. “We must do this now, before their memory is entirely erased, if we hope to bequeath them to our children.”

During the center’s kickoff event Lawler, expanding on the benefits of spotlighting truth, order, and beauty, said authentic Christian culture is attractive because it appeals to what he called “normal human impulses.”

“The great strength that we have is the truth of human nature, which won’t be denied,” he said.