An Interview with Austin Walker

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Knight: To begin with, I am honored to interview a person devoted to the work of Cardinal Newman who is finishing his doctorate at the University of Chicago. Could you tell us about your doctoral work?


Austin Walker: I am studying Cardinal Newman’s political philosophy, specifically his understanding of the relationship between church and state.


Dr. Knight: I am honored to interview you, Austin, as the assistant director of Lumen Christi can you tell us how you decided to work in this forum? You are sponsored by people who believe in your mission, can you speak to the mission?


Austin Walker: My role within the Lumen Christi Institute is to direct the Newman Forum, our new outreach to high school students. Our goal is to introduce Chicagoland high schoolers to the Catholic vision of intellectual life, culture, and liturgy. Outside of the rare Catholic high school, Chicagoland teenagers have very little exposure to the Catholic intellectual life until they get to college. But the high school years are exactly when students start to ask about the relationship of faith and reason, science and religion, and the truth of the doctrines they’ve been taught. And our research has shown that the majority of young Catholics are leaving the faith due to intellectual or cultural difficulties—we aim to correct the bad secular myths about the faith and show them that the Church has a mind.


Dr. Knight: The readers would like to know your background in Catholic education and what that involvement means to you.


Austin Walker: Well, regarding my education, I’ve never attended a Catholic educational institution of any kind: I was a public school kid from kindergarten through university. But as a teacher, I taught religion at St. Vincent Ferrer middle school for 4 years; I also taught Confirmation-prep at St. Thomas the Apostle for 4 years. I see my background as an asset. I think we can all see that the old model of Catholic education is starting to crumble, and we have to think creatively about how we can pass on our tradition more substantially—a one-hour, once-a-week CCD isn’t going to cut it. If we can’t depend on Catholic schools, we’ve got to find another (or several other) ways.


Dr. Knight: Your project regarding bringing the Catholic intellectual life to high school students is a wonderful hope-filled project. Who are you trying to get involved in this endeavor?


Austin Walker: Our major strategic partners are Mundelein Seminary and the Archdiocese of Chicago Vocation Office. We’ve also partnered with several regional Catholic high schools and some parish youth groups. But 75% of Chicagoland Catholic teenagers attend public or secular schools, so we’re trying to find a way to reach out to all those teenagers (and parents!) who don’t have a strong network of support.


Dr. Knight: What is your philosophy of leadership? What are some of the aspects of leadership that you promote?


Austin Walker: My philosophy of leadership? I wish I had something profound to offer. I suppose all I can say is that I understand leadership to be a spiritual work of mercy—for myself, that is. It’s very easy to be prideful and envious, and to want to have all the good ideas myself, and to take credit for things when they go well—but it’s not good leadership nor good Christian discipleship to behave that way. So I like to think of leadership as an opportunity for me to mortify my pride, to try to encourage and empower others. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s life.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges regarding the students or their parents and how did you find solutions?


Austin Walker: Well, there are two major challenges: (1) students and parents don’t know that the Catholic intellectual tradition exists, so they’re not out there looking for programming; and (2) since the Church has done nothing for teenagers, it’s ceded teenage intellectual formation to a secular culture. In other words, not only has secular culture supplied the “answers” to questions about faith and reason, religion and science, etc., but the secular culture has even shaped the way that the questions themselves have asked. So we have a major task ahead of us. Students don’t know about the tradition, and when they do, they’re filled with false myths and false choices supplied by a secular culture.


As far as our solutions? We have large and small events, on a variety of topics, with a variety of speakers. To have someone like Fr. John Kartje talk about astrophysics will do wonders—a priest, fully knowledgeable about science: it jars a complacent teenager out of his or her presuppositions. But also, by bringing students together with similar interests, we can show them that they are not alone. Others think about these questions too, and we can supply them an environment where college professors and grad students help a bunch of teenagers (who have become friends) deepen their intellectual and spiritual lives together.


Dr. Knight: I know you are a person who worked with high school teachers. What do you see as strategies for assisting them? What have you already done?


Austin Walker: I was also a high school teacher myself. For four years, I taught English, Latin, and Drama in the Mississippi Delta. I’ve answered some of your questions above, but our major strategy to assist high school students is to show them that the Church’s intellectual tradition exists and to point them towards resources they can use to go further.


Within the Newman Forum, we have a Fellows Program for students who want to get more involved. They help us plan and organize smaller events, and they also participate more fully in discussions with one another. This is an opportunity for student leadership, which is right in line with our major goal of empowering students to grow their own intellectual and spiritual lives.


Dr. Knight: Your dissertation was done on St. John Henry Newman what drew you to do so much work in this area and did you decide to do this before he became a saint?


Austin Walker: To answer this question, I have to give a little bit of a back-story. While I was raised Catholic in Louisiana, I did not get confirmed at age 14—I just couldn’t do it. So I drifted from the Church. I came to Chicago to write a dissertation in political philosophy, and much of my research focused on the dark atheist figures of early modernity: Hobbes, Machiavelli, Rousseau. In preparing for my masters’ exams, I had to compile a list of 15 books to write essays on. I put all of those dark political philosophers on the list, but I added John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University, on what I thought at the time was a whim (though I recognized later it was the work of Providence). In preparing for my exams, in reading all of these books in conjunction, I was struck by Newman. There was a luminous quality to his writings that was absent from all others. Reading Newman drew me back to the Church, and it was because of my re-conversion that I decided to make Newman the topic of my dissertation.


Dr. Knight: Does the fact that you are based in the University of Chicago campus make a difference to your work?


Austin Walker: It does. My work is about the relationship between secular culture and the political reality of the Church, and the University of Chicago is a kind of ground-zero for that debate. No one at the university has resisted my dissertation, but no one has known very much about it either—which was very helpful. It made me much more capable of explaining and defending the work I was doing.


Dr. Knight: What organizations do you belong to that promote the work of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman?


Austin Walker: The National Institute for Newman Studies and the Newman Association of America.


Dr. Knight: As a statistician, I realize data is a large part of determining the success of schools. Explain your involvement in using data for the benefit of the kind of work you do for Lumen Christi?


Austin Walker: You ask a great question because we’re asking ourselves the same question daily: how exactly do you “measure” intellectual and spiritual growth? We could measure by raw attendance numbers, but that doesn’t tell us much; we also keep track of students who repeatedly attend events. That measure is a little better, but it doesn’t tell us much more than that they have maintained an interest. We have an Instagram page where we can keep track of followers and Youtube pages where we can measure total views, but these numbers just don’t give us what we need. That’s why we’re so excited about the Fellows program: if we can encourage students to write short reflections and interact with one another over the internet, debating different points and helping one another to clarify their thoughts, then we have good evidence of growth (even if it’s hard to specifically quantify).


Dr. Knight: Technology is such an integral and important part of our lives. Does it have a significant place in the work of Lumen Christi’s mission? Or is it more qualitative work?


Austin Walker: One central principle of the Newman Forum is that the intellectual life of a Christian develops best when it is in community with friends; we can all read Augustine’s Confessions on our own, but the text really comes alive (and the Spirit really begins to move) when one or two of us come together. So while we do want to use technology to help students keep in touch in between events, a major focus of ours is bringing students together so that they can realize the value of learning in-person with one another, without being distracted by a phone or computer.


Dr. Knight: On the lighter side, why is a sense of humor important to the work you are doing at Lumen Christi?


Austin Walker: Lumen Christi is a lot like the Church itself, in the sense that we ultimately rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us. That means it’s an unpredictable and bumpy path, and if we couldn’t laugh about it along the way we might not know how else to respond.


Dr. Knight: What does Lumen Christi add to the success of the Catholic Church?


Austin Walker: Due to the success of a certain kind of secular discourse in this country, the Church has been boxed into a corner. When it tries do describe itself, it ends up sounding like it is a bowling club, but with different interests. The Church is just one other civil-society association, in this model. But that’s wrong. The Church is something unique (it is the Body of Christ, after all, right?). Lumen Christi can demonstrate the strength, vibrancy, and unique character of the Church’s intellectual life. Lumen Christi is like a storehouse for the Church’s multiple-millennial tradition of first-rate thought on every subject, from metaphysics and theology to political thought and individual morality. We show that the Church has a mind and that many of the advances we take to be secular “achievements” depend decisively on the insights of explicitly and professedly Christian thinkers.


Dr. Knight: Thank you for providing us with valuable information about the engagement you have in education and how your school provides leadership in the area of Catholic education for high school students and adults. Would you attach the abstract to your dissertation?

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