Questions of purpose and what constitutes a meaningful life are a defining facet of being human. As the new Warren Chair of Catholic Studies, Donald Prudlo encourages a well-examined life. “Under the rubric of theology, you can study literature, history and the way that theology and philosophy have interacted and then get an overview of the entire tradition,” he said. “That has been an organic and integrated way to look at things from the ancient world all the way to the present day.”
TU faculty selected Prudlo from many highly regarded applicants. Prudlo received his doctorate from the University of Virginia and currently teaches ancient and medieval history at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. Kalpana Misra is enthusiastic about the new addition to the faculty. “Professor Prudlo is a distinguished and prolific public intellectual with an outstanding international reputation for both scholarship and service,” she said. “His areas of expertise in medieval and Reformation Christianity and in systematic and historical theology make him an ideal candidate for the Warren Chair.”
Considered an expert in the field of Catholic studies, Prudlo has been a resource to many news outlets. “His role as a consultant for Vatican Radio and NBC as well as for journals and newspapers like Zenit, The New York Times and The Atlantic are eloquent testimony to his multiple accomplishments and reputation,” Misra said. When Pope Benedict XVI resigned – something which had not happened for 600 years – Prudlo was in high demand. “All of a sudden, medieval church historians were popular,” Prudlo laughed. “You don’t say that every day.”
Why study religion?
Prudlo enjoys teaching a wide array of subjects: history of Islam, Augustine, trinitarian theology, medieval thought and many more. The topics he covers are not only conduits for compelling discussion but also develop students’ critical thinking skills. “If we want to be free men and women, we are going to have to think for ourselves,” he emphasized. “If we imprison ourselves in vocational education, then we are going to be prey to ideology and various prejudices, and that’s not very healthy for a society.”
Millions of people around the world view their own cultural existence through the lens of religion. “If you are going to be an educated and effective person in the world today, you have to be able to engage with the history and content of religion,” Prudlo said. He considers introducing these concepts to freshmen a privilege, and for a decade he has taken students to study abroad in Rome. “When I teach my students in Rome, and we are sitting in the Roman forum talking about Julius Caesar right where it happened, that’s a fantastic experience,” he added.
Papal infallibility, sainthood and the role of the university
In his writings, Prudlo has explored “one of the principal beliefs of Catholics, particularly in the past 150 years, that in matters of faith and morals under certain conditions, the pope exercises a gift of infallibility, guaranteed by Christ to the church.” In 2015, he published Certain Sainthood: Canonization and the Origins of Papal Infallibility in the Medieval Church, a book that delves into the origins of this tenet.
A similar concept is entailed in the canonization of saints, and with the upcoming proclamation of sainthood for nineteenth-century English Cardinal John Henry Newman, Prudlo will be speaking at the TU Catholic Newman Center on Oct. 6 about the long process to sainthood. Newman is especially significant to higher education because of his book The Idea of a University. “He believed the university wasn’t there to just drop knowledge in a bucket and have people carry it away,” Prudlo explained. “A university was for people to become leaders of culture who would be able to motivate others with dignity and the virtues necessary in order to live a truly human life.”
Hagiography covers the writings on the lives of saints, and one saint in particular has captured Prudlo’s academic interest. “Thomas Aquinas is one of the most important theologians in all of Christian history, and he is one of the premier philosophers in world history,” he said. In a book coming out next year, Prudlo delves into Aquinas’ life and writings. “He was very much a quiet introvert,” Prudlo added. “He preferred sitting in his cell writing and thinking instead of public ministry.”
In his study, Prudlo also discusses the Dominicans, an urban religious group rather than a rural monastic order. He asks, “How did that dynamic affect their theology and philosophy? What kind of environment did the thirteenth-century Dominican order have to provide in order to make Thomas Aquinas possible?”
The very inquiries that fuel Prudlo’s passion and research will be on the mind of TU students, and more importantly, they will be able to formulate their own questions. “Philosophy is the science that teaches us to think clearly, logically and to approach problems from a number of different perspectives,” he said. “We are going to give students an encounter with the great texts of various theological and philosophical traditions and ask them to engage critically with them.”