A brief history of the Centre for Thomistic Studies

by John Ziegler

In the late 1940s a Marist priest, Fr. Austin Woodbury, decided to set up in Sydney an institute to teach Thomist philosophy and theology, primarily to lay people. Woodbury had himself been a student of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP, one of the foremost Thomistic scholars of this century, and had taken doctorates in philosophy and theology under him at the University of St Thomas (the ‘Angelicum’) in Rome.

He was an inspiring teacher. Single handedly at first, he taught five nights a week for three hours, mainly to lay people, of all ages. He had no official charter of any sort which empowered him to grant degrees or other academic qualifications. He simply attracted people who came to listen, and he wrote his own textbooks as he taught, so that his students would have access in English to the thought of Aquinas and his great commentators. Students flocked to hear him. Sydney was then a city of only two million, and all of Australia held less than fifteen million people. Yet his classes numbered between one and two hundred. And that, for subjects that Woodbury had been assured were dry as dust!

His way of teaching was unique. Unlike the usual necessary arrangement of classes by advancing grades, he always took all students of all stages together, separating only by topic: natural philosophy or logic or metaphysics or theology. With such a voluntary student body, who could not be ‘forced’ into grades because no academic awards could be offered, and who might begin their study at any time of the year or stage of a class, he managed, even in the deeper stages of a topic, always to have something for the newcomer; and even in the more elementary stages to have something for the advanced student. I, and others, had not seen anything like it. In all this he was re-enacting the idea of the great ancient universities, where there were no ‘official’ structures and administrative formalities, but which were simply constituted by noted teachers attracting students, so that the teacher was always put upon his mettle to hold them.

He taught in this fashion for thirty years. In the seventies age and illness forced him to stop. By this time there were students who had heard him for many years and who had been assisting his work. Since there were no universities in Australia which were anything like acceptable doctrinally, a few had at their own expense gone for formal qualifications to his alma mater, the Angelicum, and elsewhere; and some had returned to teach at his Academy.

Several of these students, who had heard Woodbury for many years — two of them with doctorates from the Angelicum — in 1985 legally incorporated the Centre for Thomistic Studies as a non profit organisation in order to continue the work Woodbury had begun.

The Centre is an institute aiming, as did Woodbury, to bring the thought of St Thomas to ordinary people. As was the case with it, no formal academic qualifications are required, nor, at this time, can they be given. We survive solely by attracting students who wish to hear the richness of doctrine we have to offer. Our teaching is not very ‘intensive’ in that we offer classes on only one night a week, since many of the staff and most students are lay people who have to work or are otherwise occupied by day.

Class sizes are of the order of a dozen to thirty or forty. The program of courses in philosophy is designed to take the student through the whole of philosophy including Logic, Natural Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, Social—including Economic and Political—Philosophy and Metaphysics, including Epistemology, Ontology and Natural Theology. Particular attention is paid in the program to Logic Moral Philosophy and Metaphysics. The History of Philosophy is incorporated in the teaching of these subjects rather than as a separate subject. The one thing, however, that we insist on is adherence to the mind and method of Aquinas. The one thing we try to offer is an understanding of it.

A journal, Universitas, is published. It is designed to appeal to a thoughtful audience interested in Thomism. We also maintain an Internet site (http://www.cts.org.au) on which there are articles from our journal, and have opened another at the Internet site of ‘The Thomist’ journal in Washington DC in the USA.

John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 3 (1999), No. 1.
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