Remembering Thomas Levergood, who brought serious Catholic thought back to the secular university
Thomas Levergood, founder of the Lumen Christi Institute, died on Aug. 6 after a three-month battle with colon cancer. I met Thomas in 1996, when we were both graduate students and regulars at Calvert House, the Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Chicago. He was a striking sight: a tall and properly dressed humanities scholar with a big beard and an ever-present pipe. But over 13 years of organizing conferences, I learned that the austere and imposing man I had met as a graduate student was nothing like the warm and jocular Thomas whom I was privileged to get to know through shared travels, dinners and deep conversations.
At Calvert House, we both heard the same message from the University of Chicago chaplain, Father Willard Jabusch: “Do something important with your lives!” It was understood that he did not mean something self-important. Rather, we Catholics were called to the serious business of making our lives themselves a gift back to God.
Thomas’s work with the Lumen Christi Institute was exactly this. In 1997, while still a graduate student, he felt called to bring the Catholic intellectual tradition back to the secular academy and specifically to the University of Chicago, the alma mater that he loved. Founding L.C.I. was an extraordinary undertaking, especially for a graduate student. He later described his approach in the early years, only partially joking, as “Fake it till you make it.”
Founding L.C.I. was an extraordinary undertaking, especially for a graduate student. He later described his approach in the early years, only partially joking, as “Fake it till you make it.”
Over the next nearly 25 years, Thomas “faked it” well, and L.C.I. became a model for high-level intellectual discussion involving the Catholic faith and tradition; it inspired the creation of similar institutes at Uppsala University in Sweden, the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and Harvard University. The community fostered by L.C.I. conferences on economics and Catholic social thought—which brought together leading intellects like Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Peter Turkson with Nobel Prize–winning economists like James Heckman and Robert Fogel—also grew into and inspired CREDO, our society of Catholic economists.
More broadly, the best Catholic minds from around the world have come through Lumen Christi’s programs, including Charles Taylor, Russell Hittinger, Tracey Rowland, Dana Gioia and Gustavo Gutiérrez, and the students have benefited tremendously. Indeed, at the risk of offending a few of my colleagues at Notre Dame and many others in the Vatican, I would venture to describe Lumen Christi as the premier place for engaging the secular disciplines with the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Starting L.C.I. involved considerable personal sacrifice. Thomas had considered religious life and was a born academic. But giving up his career aspirations of being a professor and even finishing his Ph.D, he found his true calling in his dedication to the Lumen Christi Institute.
Though he never entered a religious order, Thomas lived a contemplative life, regularly spending hours in prayer. He loved the Angelus, and we prayed it regularly at L.C.I. events. Prayer was special to him, and he died after completing the Divine Mercy chaplet with friends.
Thomas Levergood was convinced that the Catholic intellectual tradition, and Catholic social thought in particular, could be a unifying force in society.
Thomas was always interested in the bigger picture and, by extension, the bigger vision of the Institute’s academic programming. Through his institution-building and relationship-building, he made profound contributions to academia and to the church. He was always very interested in the political order, and although he was a faithful Catholic, he remained an independent thinker. This independence was instrumental in making Lumen Christi a place for all serious Catholic minds, even during a time of increased polarization. Thomas was convinced that much of the increased polarization in society was the result of the dysfunction of our political institutions, and his writings and ideas from decades ago seem in many ways prophetic now. He was also convinced that the Catholic intellectual tradition, and Catholic social thought in particular, could be a unifying force in society. (See his recent contribution to America, “The U.S. political system is broken. How can we fix it?”)
Thomas’s work was closely interwoven with Cardinal Francis George, whose support of L.C.I. made it a little easier to “fake it.” They were both thoughtful academics by nature for whom God had other plans, and the mission of the Institute was dear to both. Thomas assisted Cardinal George with his own books, and Cardinal George was a mentor to Thomas, perhaps even a second father figure in his life. The cardinal’s passing grieved him deeply. (He wrote a tribute marking the fifth anniversary of Cardinal George’s death for America in April 2020.)
Thomas was not without his quirks, weaknesses or even faults. (One is not always allowed to say this about the dead, but one can always say this about friends.) His spiritual journey had its own twists and turns. He was awkward, and I was always somewhat surprised that he successfully fundraised. He could also be blunt, moody, even difficult, but people appreciated his sincerity: His boldness was for God and helped him accomplish a great deal. He had big visions but always needed plenty of help with the details from his dedicated staff.
Thomas struggled tremendously with his illness at the end. Though thankfully brief, it was a shock and a cross, both physically and emotionally. Ultimately though, with a leap of faith and with God’s grace, Thomas made his life a remarkable gift to God and others—a lasting lesson for all of us.