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Villanova Magazine - Mission & Ministry

Theology in the Third Millennium

High-impact faculty foster the dynamic relationship between faith and society

By Suzanne Wentzel

Sunset on crowded city street

Engineers, biologists and business analysts on campus don’t pursue their disciplines without reference to the real world. Neither do Villanova’s theologians.

Religious beliefs shape—and are shaped by—people, events and eras. To do their work, then, faculty in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies approach Christianity not as a set of abstractions but as a “lived experience” in a particular time and place.

“If we don’t relate our faith tradition to contemporary life, theology has no impact on people’s minds and hearts,” says Peter Spitaler, ThD, associate professor and department chair.

At the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels, the department has re-emphasized the Augustinian mantra of “faith engaging culture.” Theology can and should interact with current thinking in science, the liberal arts and other areas of inquiry in the common pursuit of truth.

“Augustine was involved in the social political and theological movements of his day, and he wanted people to dialogue about them,” says Barbara Wall, PhD, vice president for Mission and Ministry.

Three theologians famed for carrying on such dialogues recently joined the department’s distinguished faculty. They are quoted in the media, popular speakers and prolific writers. These scholars enrich intellectual life and amplify Villanova’s voice in the public square. Stories of their journeys and interests are offered here.

Massimo Faggioli

Massimo Faggioli, PhD

If it weren’t being used by the pope, “Pontifex”— Latin for “bridge builder”—would be an apt Twitter handle for church historian and professor Massimo Faggioli. The Italian-born theologian and Vatican II expert helps the different worlds of European and American Catholicism understand each other.

After years of study at the universities of Bologna and Turin, research in the Vatican archives, and teaching in other countries, Dr. Faggioli came to the United States during the 2008 presidential campaign. He was promptly tapped to write articles for European audiences, explaining the religious aspects of US politics, and for American audiences, explaining the qualities unique to Catholicism in this country. That task continues.

“Having had a more universal experience of Catholicism, I try to cast light on ideas that are distinctly American, some of which may be worth questioning,” Dr. Faggioli says.

The 2013 election of Pope Francis catapulted Dr. Faggioli, then a faculty member at the University of St. Thomas, back onto the international stage. He provided expert commentary for respected US and European media outlets, and has continued to do so since coming to Villanova in 2016.

In addition to bringing his European perspective to the classroom, Dr. Faggioli draws upon it as he writes what will be a trilogy of books on Francis’ papacy. Unlike many scholars in the US, he “follows what the pope says and does directly from Vatican sources, without having to rely on translations. It’s fascinating.”

Headshot of Ilia Delio

Ilia Delio, OSF, PhD

With doctoral degrees in Pharmacology and Theology, Sister Ilia Delio is eminently qualified not only to speak authoritatively about two distinct fields but also to show that, contrary to popular opinion, science and religion can work together. Since fall 2015, she has pursued this calling as the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Christian Theology at Villanova.

Sister Ilia has deep roots in both fields. The Newark, N.J., native had been researching a drug for diabetic neuropathy when she decided to enter the Sisters of St. Francis. The community sent her to Fordham University, where she earned her second doctoral degree, this one in Historical Theology. The convergence of her interests in cells and souls transformed her. “I was like a fish who had finally found water.”

In her various posts at prestigious institutions, most recently, Georgetown University, Sister Ilia has developed new ways of understanding how God is present and active in an evolving, dynamic universe. Her awardwinning books go beyond academia to show people how they can “reclaim a living God for a living world of change and complexity.”

As one who appreciates Villanova’s Augustinian heritage, Sister Ilia is excited about a doctoral program that has faith and reason at its core. “We need more people thinking about how science and religion fit together. My hope is to have PhD students who will further this work.”

Headshot of Vincent Lloyd

Vincent Lloyd, PhD

Curiosity leads adolescents down many a path. When Associate Professor Vincent Lloyd was growing up in Minnesota, his inquisitive mind led him to church—a different one each Sunday. Religion became the object of his undergraduate studies at Princeton, his dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, and an academic career that this year brought him from Syracuse University to Villanova.

Dr. Lloyd arrived brimming with credentials from his research in religion, race and politics. His pace hasn’t slackened. Questions about the religious dimensions of mass incarceration, the relationship between charisma and moral excellence, and the theological response to racial injustice, especially anti-blackness, intrigue Dr. Lloyd—and resonate at Villanova.

“I’m excited to meet so many colleagues, not just in the department but across campus, who are thinking about issues concerning religion,” he says.

Since 2012, Dr. Lloyd has served as co-editor for Political Theology. Now the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is hosting the international journal, which has an online forum accessible to nonacademic readers. In January, Dr. Lloyd took on a new role as editor of the book series Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion, published by the American Academy of Religion, the largest association in its field in the world.

“Having the series and editorship based here will make Villanova a center of these conversations,” he says. “The department is well-positioned for this role.”

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