By Dr. Jennifer Overkamp
SEWARD (SNR) - The St. Gregory the Great Seminary Board of Trustees recently named Dr. Terrence Nollen to the Father Joseph Costanzo Chair of Ecclesiastical Studies.
To hold an endowed chair is a high honor in an academic career.
Endowed chairs have a long tradition in higher education. Donors, foundations, or colleges themselves grant endowed chairs to distinguished faculty members who have excelled in teaching, scholarship, or service to the institution. In addition to the title, stipends are given to allow the recipients to further their work in their areas of expertise.
Dr. Nollen began working at the seminary before it even opened its doors 19 years ago, contributing to discussions on its mission, character, and curriculum. He currently is the history professor and library director.
“Dr. Nollen was one of our pioneers, who was an essential part of the founding of the seminary and who plays an important role in its continuing development,” explained Father Jeffrey Eickhoff, rector of St. Gregory the Great Seminary. “He demonstrates that a Catholic laymen can be a great scholar while remaining faithful to the Church. The board and the faculty were pleased to be able to honor Dr. Nollen for his valuable contributions to the seminary and its history.”
The chair is named for Father Joseph Costanzo, a Jesuit priest and author who was both a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer. Before his death in 1984, Father Costanzo was an expert in church-state relations. The chair is in “ecclesiastical studies” which includes history, law, and political science.
Father Eickhoff noted that because Dr. Nollen is a history professor with a deep interest in political theory and church-state relations, he was a great choice for the chair.
Dr. Nollen sees the honor as another opportunity to serve the Church.
“There’s an obligation that goes with being named to the chair,” he said. “It is in a certain sense a great honor for the person who receives it, but it is also a responsibility.”
Dr. Nollen said he is interested in using the chair to continue Father Costanzo’s work in exploring the relationship between church and state in its historical and philosophical context. He said he wants to contribute to the ongoing and necessary conversations about how that relationship is changing in our current political environment.
“There are some dangerous ideas being mentioned today in the political discourse that are going to affect church-state relations quite soon,” Dr. Nollen pointed out. “The relationship is not healthy today. In the old days the problem was that the Church was so strong that the legislative branch wanted it to get off of its back. So when Thomas Jefferson spoke of the separation of church and state, he was actually protecting the government from the over-arching reach of the Church.
“Now what you are getting is quite the reverse,” he continued. “The state is encroaching on the Church through all sorts of civil laws that violate basic Church doctrines.”
Dr. Nollen said he sees fundamental and potentially divisive differences between the way the Church and the secular government approach law-making.
“Catholic doctrine is based on Aristotelian Thomism that says reality exists separate from your understanding of it,” he explained. “It just exists. It doesn’t change because you don’t like it. This approach is rejected by the new secular humanistic ideas that say, for example, ‘No, I decide whether I’m a woman or a man. How I am made is irrelevant to what I am. It’s how I think I am today, that’s what matters.’
“Where does this lead to in the political, legal, and religious sphere?” he asked. “Are you going to be arresting the principal of a Catholic high school because he doesn’t have a transgender bathroom at the basketball game? These are not just fanciful things. These are things that could be coming to us.”
The issue comes down to two different kinds of laws, he said.
“There is positive law, law that legislators make, vs. natural law, which is law that God has made,” Dr. Nollen said. “The positive law has to coincide with natural law or it has no moral binding power because it is not centered on the ultimate end, God. Therefore the law is actually harmful even though it is legal.”
With the funds allotted by the endowment, Dr. Nollen said it may be possible to bring speakers to Lincoln or perhaps even host a national conference. St. Gregory the Great Seminary may be a small launching pad for such a large venture, but that doesn’t bother Dr. Nollen.
“Great things start in small places,” he said. “Just remember: Concord and Lexington were insignificant towns in Massachusetts before the American Revolution. It can happen here, too.”
As Dr. Nollen reflected on the honor he has received, he expressed gratitude toward many people. He said he has been blessed to have had many fine colleagues at St. Gregory the Great Seminary, including the three rectors and the late Msgr. Raymond Hain, the seminary’s first spiritual director.
“More than anything else I feel about the years I’ve spent at St. Gregory’s is gratitude,” Dr. Nollen stated.
He is most thankful for his family’s support.
“My wife Diana has been a steady influence of great joy in my life,” Dr. Nollen said. “Almost everything I’ve ever written she reads and edits before it is published. I have the deepest appreciation for what she’s done for me. As well, our daughter Cheila Ditzler has been a marvelous gift.”
Dr. Nollen also expressed gratitude “for the loving support of my father and generous step-mother, June.”