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Philosopher Father

Lay professor receives papal award for work on Aquinas

As a young theology and philosophy professor at a new Catholic college in the “cowboy country” of Wyoming, John Mortensen did not dream of receiving a papal award for his doctoral thesis. Yet in late January, he was called to the Vatican to accept the coveted Prize of the Pontifical Academies, along with a stipend of $28,000, for his dissertation on St. Thomas Aquinas. He and his wife and their four young children were also granted a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who commended Mortensen’s work for the Church.

Professor John Mortensen and his family meet Pope Benedict XVI at special audience.

Professor John Mortensen and his family meet Pope Benedict XVI at special audience.

Mortensen, who turned 34 years old this month, holds a doctorate from the University of Freiburg (Switzerland) and is associate professor at Wyoming Catholic College. He told Fathers for Good that theology and philosophy are practical sciences that make life more meaningful and fulfilling.

Fathers for Good: Describe the ceremony where you received the award from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and the audience with the Holy Father.

Mortensen: The award was given at a conference of the Pontifical Academies on priestly formation. The event opened with Bach’s “Aria sulla quarta corda.” After Archbishop Ravasi’s opening words of welcome, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, shook my hand, presented me with the award, and asked me to extend his greetings to my wife. I gave a short speech of thanks, highlighting the renewed appreciation for St. Thomas Aquinas in the new springtime of the Church, and the importance of cultivating a friendship with this great saint.  The conference then continued with talks about St. Thomas and the priesthood.

The following day, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (Jan. 27), the Holy Father granted an audience to the Pontifical Academies in the Sala Clementina, deep in the Vatican. Permission was given for me to attend with my family, including my parents, my sister, and two friends from Wyoming who had accompanied us to Rome. We were seated in the second row behind a row of cardinals. After the Holy Father read a speech about the importance of St. Thomas, the row of cardinals went up to greet him, followed by my wife, children, and me.

We had been praying that our 2-year-old and our 10-month-old, who had fallen asleep, would awaken without crying. My 2-year-old, Joseph, woke up just as we stood up to greet the Pope, and asked, “Where’s the Holy Father? He’s going to bless me just like Father Dave.” I greeted the pope in German and told him the names of each of our children as he blessed them. He asked where we came from and we told him we were Americans, but had studied in Austria at the International Theological Institute in Gaming. Then we told him we loved him and he answered in English, “Thank you.”

FFG: Summarize your winning thesis on St. Thomas Aquinas.

Mortensen: I wrote this thesis for my doctorate in philosophy. It was an attempt to clear up a long-standing debate about what St. Thomas means when he uses the word “analogy” in his writings. The analogy of names is not one of those topics that is important because it is a grand conclusion to intensive philosophical or theological research. Rather, analogy is important because it stands, explicitly or implicitly, at the very beginning of all work in philosophy and theology.

For centuries, the thoughts of St. Thomas on analogy, which are found in texts scattered throughout his works, were considered to have been aptly grouped and articulated by Cardinal Cajetan. Most works on analogy in Aquinas since the time of Cajetan merely repeat what Cajetan said. My thesis approaches the question afresh, returning to the works of St. Thomas in order to find what he thought was the fundamental meaning of the word “analogy.” Not only are several misconceptions about analogy cleared up, but a description is given of the way that God is first in our thoughts, as well as in reality.

FFG: How about your vocation as husband and father? Do you discuss philosophy at the dinner table?

Mortensen: We do in fact discuss philosophy and theology at the dinner table, and everywhere. Theology is not something that one can discuss simply abstractly, however. St. Thomas points out that theology is a science that is both speculative and practical. You can’t really talk about theology without talking about the particular details of your life, in the end. Conversely, you can’t really talk about the particular details of your life in any meaningful way without finally getting into theology.

FFG: Wyoming Catholic College is fairly new. What goals do you have for the college?

Mortensen: I chose to teach at Wyoming Catholic College precisely because it is new, and because the curriculum is beautiful. The college will graduate its first class of seniors this year. My plans are simply to assist it in maintaining its present goal of educating leaders.