Leonine Forum seeks to shape future Catholic leaders in church teachings

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WASHINGTON (RNS) In between the shelves of a Catholic bookstore, a couple dozen young professionals are sipping wine, nursing beers and talking about things like “the common good” and “natural law.”

They’ve done this every month for about a year, each of them hand-chosen by the Catholic Information Center as young people likely to make a difference in the world and able to benefit from a firm education in Catholic social teaching on economics, government, and morality.

This is what the center calls “the Leonine Forum,” and it’s serving up conversations and lectures, along with drinks and dinner, to the future Catholic elite in America.

“How we can create a society that respects (Catholic social) principles is really what the forum is all about,” said Mitch Boersma, who works for the center and who organized the forum.

The Catholic Information Center is an outpost of Opus Dei, a controversial arm of the Catholic Church founded in 1928 by Saint Josemaria Escriva, perhaps most famous for its appearance in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” The group is also known for its popularity among leaders and politicians — former presidential candidate Rick Santorum was known to move in Opus Dei circles — but supporters say they simply want followers to find God in the midst of their chosen profession, whether their jobs are high-ranking or blue-collar.

The Leonine Fellows, many of them in their 20s, have impressive careers already. There are a federal prosecutor, a lawyer at giant law firm Jones Day, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. But Boersma said the Leonine Forum is not a recruiting tool for Opus Dei, and several fellows said they hadn’t been encouraged to join. Boersma himself is not an Opus Dei member.

Instead, the forum is a series of lectures and dinners, with about 60 to 70 pages of assigned reading on church teaching. It proved more popular than Boersma anticipated: 77 people applied last fall to the program, which accepted 28 members.

The fellows say they wanted more intellectual grounding in Catholic teaching and a place to discuss how it applies to policy or their jobs.

“I’m going to go take command of a ship for a couple of years, so I thought it was a great opportunity to sort of refocus on the foundations of morality and ethics,” said Jean Marie Sullivan, 37, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. “If you want to lead people, you have to understand why you believe what you believe.”

And some of the fellows aren’t shy in confessing their desire to lead.

“I think it’s important for Catholics to be leaders because we’re the ones who have the truth, who have a consistent moral vision,” said Emma Boyle, 26, a teacher at a local Catholic high school.

Boersma said he wants the forum to teach fellows to be “Catholics first,” rather than giving their first allegiance to a political party. But Opus Dei itself often appeals to conservative Catholics, and the forum has a distinctive conservative tone.

Lecturers so far have included theology professors as well as leaders in the conservative policy world, such as Kathryn Lopez, an editor at the conservative National Review magazine, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.

At one meeting earlier this year, fellows peppered scholar Hadley Arkes with questions. The Amherst College professor is known for his defense of “natural law” — the idea that society should adhere to universal, unchanging moral principles that are determined by nature.

Does sin cloud the natural law, fellows asked.

What’s the difference between reason and natural law?

“We find the ground of the natural law in the axioms of reason,” Arkes said. Three times during the evening, he referenced “my friend Scalia” — Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Forums teaching young Catholics about the church’s social teaching aren’t unusual, whether coming from a liberal or conservative perspective, said John Allen, who writes about Catholicism for The Boston Globe. But the Leonine Forum does have a special focus on white-collar professionals — a focus consistent with Opus Dei’s past activity.

“If you look at the description of this forum, it clearly is directed at policymakers,” says Allen. “There’s this idea that you want to evangelize the elites and this trickle-down assumption that if you get the elites on board then everything else will follow.”

Boersma says he expects to make the Leonine Forum an annual program — he wants more young people well versed in what the church has to say about society.

“Being a Catholic is a radically different thing, and trying to fit it into a political parlance is doing it a disservice,” he said. “There are things Catholics can add to the conversation about how to create a good, just society, right here in the city where we’re trying to do it the most.”