In April 2023, Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters announced that Darren Dochuk and David Lantigua would take up new leadership on campus as the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Co-Directors of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, succeeding Kathleen Sprows Cummings after her 11-year tenure as director. Like Cummings, Dochuk and Lantigua both earned their doctorates at Notre Dame. Their co-directorship began in July. In August, Philip Byers interviewed them about their graduate training at Notre Dame, teaching and research, and initial thoughts on their new roles at the Cushwa Center.
Philip Byers: The Cushwa Center’s last director and new co-directors all completed doctoral work at Notre Dame. Tell us about your time as a graduate student here—mentors, key experiences, and how this place formed you for the start of your career.
David Lantigua: My experience as a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of Theology was a tremendous gift. The first thing that stood out to me in the program was the faculty’s commitment to student success and the excellence of the department. As an incoming doctoral student, I had heard awful stories of graduate students at other universities who did not have the institutional support and encouragement needed in doctoral studies. Mentors like Jean Porter, Gerald McKenny, and David Clairmont were exceptional to me in this regard, though the support extended well beyond my area of moral theology to other theology faculty and staff. My colleague Matt Ashley and former graduate administrative staff member Cheron Price immediately come to mind.
One crucial aspect of mentorship and intellectual development that Notre Dame provided me was greater appreciation of my Hispanic cultural roots. As a second-generation Latino and the first in my immigrant family to pursue a doctoral degree, the connection between my ethnic identity and the academy was amorphous and unclear upon arriving at Notre Dame. Former Cushwa director and professor of theology Tim Matovina was instrumental in this regard by cultivating a sense of community, or familia, among the students and faculty. Tim introduced me to the magnanimous and trailblazing Latino and Latin American faculty at Notre Dame: the late Father Virgilio Elizondo and Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P. The hospitality and friendships among this Hispanic theological community of students organized by Tim were truly formative for me both culturally and intellectually.
My dissertation advisor Jean Porter and Gustavo Gutiérrez have had the greatest impact on my research and methodology as a theologian. I can remember vividly the seminar on Thomas Aquinas and natural law taught by Porter and Gutiérrez’s seminar on Bartolomé de las Casas as high points in my studies at Notre Dame. Both Porter and Gutiérrez inculcated the importance of Scripture, intellectual history, and historical praxis for theological ethical reflection, which has profoundly shaped my study of Latin American theology and the early modern/modern Catholic social and political tradition.
Professionally speaking, Notre Dame also formed me to be at a research university. Receiving the support of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies to conduct doctoral research at historic libraries and archives in Spain was an invaluable cultural experience that still informs my scholarship. Also, as a doctoral fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study from 2011–12, I acquired a greater sense of the need for collegial conversation across disciplines. Both of these experiences will help me contribute toward making the Cushwa Center an environment where stimulating academic conversations about American Catholicism from various disciplines can happen through the center’s longtime anchoring in religion and history.
PB: Describe your path from graduation back to the Notre Dame faculty. Where else have you worked, and what convinced you to return to campus?
DL: Before returning to Notre Dame in 2016, I taught at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. I lived on campus with my wife and children as faculty in residence. It was a rewarding experience working with undergraduate students and campus ministry. Even so, life in D.C. can be very challenging for a family with young children. When I graduated from the doctoral program at Notre Dame in 2012, I never expected to return to the Midwest, much less Notre Dame. However, during Thanksgiving one year at CUA, we invited an undergraduate student from our residence hall to join us for dinner. We learned from her that she was originally from South Bend, and she loved growing up in the Midwest. She was one of many people who planted seeds for us to think seriously about returning to Notre Dame.
When the job opportunity arose for an open rank position in moral theology, I applied and later accepted an offer and have never looked back. Coming back and having my teachers and mentors now as my colleagues and neighbors has been surreal and transformative professionally. Notre Dame is not only unique among peer institutions because of its Catholic and ecumenical character but also because of its Midwestern location. The staff, faculty, and Holy Cross community create the hospitable culture of the University. It is amazing to be a part of that host community for students at all levels and visiting scholars and speakers to campus. The Cushwa Center will continue to be such a place through its staff, new leadership, and signature events and programs, along with ones added in the future.
PB: What have been your major research interests in the past, and what are you working on presently?
DL: My research has focused on Catholicism and what could be considered the centuries-long processes of globalization in the Americas. Founding Cushwa director Jay Dolan recognized in his pioneering book The American Catholic Experience that the story of American Catholicism did not begin with Maryland or the French traders but with Spanish Catholicism. Most of my scholarship has been dedicated toward this early colonial period of the 16th century and recovering a Hispanic Catholic intellectual tradition in conversation with modernity through the Spanish theological and legal debates concerning the rights of Indigenous Americans. That work culminated in my book, Infidels and Empires in a New World Order: Early Modern Spanish Contributions to International Legal Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2020), which tells a different story about the ambivalent origins of modern international law from the margins of Spanish empire across the Atlantic and its influence on the discourse about English colonization in North America.
Among international relations and legal scholars, modern international law is often perceived as a product of Enlightenment secular humanism and the welcome separation from earlier religious ideas and ecclesial legal institutions. My work engages the rich retrievals of Oliver O’Donovan and Gustavo Gutiérrez, who situate the theology and history of Spanish Dominican friars of the 16th century, such as Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria, and their contributions and others’ to international legal and political thought for subsequent European and American discussions about imperialism, war, political sovereignty, and human rights. This area of my research lies at the intersection of religion, law, and global intellectual history.
The research for my current book project aims at communicating the wisdom and faith of non-elite popular movements—migrant and Indigenous—as resources of resistance and hope for the Church’s social teachings in an age of protracted political division, growing economic inequality, and rapid climate change.
Although my study of Spanish scholastic theology and law will continue to evolve, especially in conversation with the modern history of political economy, my current research explores the Latin American theological and cultural dimensions of Pope Francis’ social thought and its implications for global Catholicism in the 21st century. My current research incorporates not only history in theological method but also the social sciences and fieldwork. This is a new and exciting area of learning for me in utilizing certain ethnographic tools for recording oral histories and conducting interviews with popular movements or struggling workers who are “making history,” as Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti. The research for my current book project aims at communicating the wisdom and faith of non-elite popular movements—migrant and Indigenous—as resources of resistance and hope for the Church’s social teachings in an age of protracted political division, growing economic inequality, and rapid climate change. The wisdom of these movements informs distinct modes of education, economy, and cultural vitality that democratic societies desperately need today to think and act creatively about the common good and human dignity. These movements’ resistance to what Pope Francis calls the “empire of money” is a sign of hope showing that another globalization is possible through translocal solidarity and ecological justice.
Similar to the spirit of Jay Dolan and current historians of religion like my co-director Darren Dochuk who write social history, or a “people’s history,” Pope Francis is profoundly shaped by an Argentine social theology, or what is known as a theology of the people (teología del pueblo). This way of doing popular theology emerged out of Latin American bishops and theologians who applied the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the Church as the people of God to the realities of poverty and inequality in the global South. Rather than seeing the faith of the common people as untutored or unsophisticated, popular religion and popular wisdom have been considered theological sources within Latin American/Latino Catholicism. Understanding this aspect of Pope Francis’ theology helps explain his emphasis on a listening Church and the synodal process of reforming the Church from the sensus fidei fidelium at the periphery and margins.
PB: Outside responsibilities in the theology department, what are some other ways you’ve engaged on campus and beyond?
DL: For the last three years, I have enjoyed my time serving as co-director of the Catholic Social Tradition minor through the Center for Social Concerns. It has been a great experience working with diverse undergraduate students across majors who share a love of the Church’s wisdom about social charity and social justice. Their ability to see the larger ethical and societal implications of their studies and interests—from architecture to mental health—is both astonishing and inspiring. Outside of the Theology Department, my research has grown through rich conversations and support from different units across campus such as the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights.
The “ambivalence of the sacred,” to use Scott Appleby’s apt expression, is crucial to exploring with students the expressions of good and bad religion, or true (apostolic) and false (worldly) Christianity in our hemispheric past.
I regularly offer a theology course called “God and Slavery in the Americas” that qualifies for the ILS minor in which we engage the Columbus Murals and learn about the religious history of slavery and colonialism in the Americas. Students learn about the powerful role of theology and faith in both the oppression and emancipation of innocent peoples on the underside of history. The “ambivalence of the sacred,” to use Scott Appleby’s apt expression, is crucial to exploring with students the expressions of good and bad religion, or true (apostolic) and false (worldly) Christianity in our hemispheric past.
Beyond Notre Dame, I have served for several years as convener for the Latino/a Working Group within the Society of Christian Ethics. At our most recent annual meeting, I initiated a first-ever joint panel discussion with the African/African-American and Asian/Asian-American Working Groups on the topic of ethnic diversity and racial capitalism. For the last couple of years, I have also been a theological consultant for the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
PB: You and Darren Dochuk will have more to say in weeks and months ahead regarding your visions for the Cushwa Center’s future, but for now, what are some initial thoughts as you take up leadership here?
Interdisciplinarity, despite its vulnerabilities, will be an institutional marker of Cushwa under our co-directorship.
DL: Co-direction is a first for leadership of the Cushwa Center. While it poses unique challenges, it also brings exciting new possibilities for synergy, scope, and expansion. Darren and I each work in the areas of religious history in the Americas and the interaction between faith, politics, and culture from the early modern to the present. In a certain sense, we represent two aspects of the common project at Cushwa—the historical study of religion—yet do so from distinct disciplines and methodologies shaped by Notre Dame faculty associated with Cushwa over many years. Interdisciplinarity, despite its vulnerabilities, will be an institutional marker of Cushwa under our co-directorship. It will inform our strategic planning, future programming, and intentional outreach to the Notre Dame faculty and wider community.
We are also nearing the half-century mark of Dolan’s founding of the Cushwa Center in 1975, which affords the opportunity to reflect on where Cushwa has been and where it can go. One immediate aspect coordinated with the University of Notre Dame’s strategic framework is to be more explicit about Cushwa as a place for studying “American” Catholicism in the enlarged sense without losing sight of its signature regional and national focus. The Center’s longstanding attention to immigrant faith communities and our predecessor Kathy Cummings’ connections with Rome have demonstrated that a global perspective facilitates an understanding of national context better. This especially involves engaging religion of the global South, not only because of migration patterns to the global North but also because of the South’s emergence as the most populous hemisphere of global Catholicism in the third millennium. Consequently, we are in the midst of planning a conference with the Vatican next summer at Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway on the topic of migration, faith, and democracy in the Americas. Stay tuned!
Philip Byers was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center from 2020 to 2023. In August, he was appointed the Halbrook Chair of Civic Engagement at Taylor University.
Read Byers’ interview with Darren Dochuk.