It was probably my love of nineteenth-century novels that landed me in the spot I am today—a moral theologian with interests across the disciplines. As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I was asked to articulate the relation of religious and scientific judgments, to adjudicate tradition’s notion of the common good against modern economic and political arrangements, to relate ancient wisdom to its postmodern counterpart. I pursued similar questions into graduate studies at Duke University. My doctoral dissertation was moral and eclectic, drawing upon a medieval theologian and late medieval English poet in equal parts. In 2010, I joined the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul. The department works hard to depict the beauty of human existence “not as a number of isolated precepts imposed by ecclesiastical authority,” in the words of Christopher Dawson, “but as a cosmos of spiritual relations embracing heaven and earth and uniting the order of social and moral life with the order of divine grace.”
My earliest questions in ethics were fundamental: why be good? What are the virtues? How are Christian virtues distinctive? How are Christian virtues cultivated and sustained despite sin? In navigating my way through these inquiries, I came to rely on the help of Thomas Aquinas. My use of Aquinas also directed my attention toward a crucial aspect of the moral life that has been neglected in the past few centuries: the passions. The passions are roughly what we would recognize as emotions, though those terms too enjoy their own history. The passions are elemental forces that hold heavy sway over our ultimate happiness. My recent research projects on regret, envy, and joy fall under this purview. In the years to come, I hope to return to the source of my interest in ethics to consider novels as an education in the emotions.
My students at DePaul have convinced me that, given the right hook and exposition, the wisdom of the early and medieval Church can come alive. I invite my students to encounter Christians from the past through primary sources. My students meet Aristotle and Epicurus from ancient Greece, Athanasius and Augustine from the apex and fall of the Roman Empire, and Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas from the high medieval period. These writers become partners for my students in an ongoing conversation about the good life. The topics of my courses draw upon the range of Catholic thought—ethics, theology, church history, moral psychology, philosophy—to consider a number of Catholic questions—about God, the common good, human happiness, faith and reason, what constitutes worthwhile work, and what constitutes an education.