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In the thirtieth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Aaron Dominguez, Ordinary Professor of Physics and Provost at Catholic University of America. Dominguez opens by explaining the significance of the Higgs boson for non-physicists, the types of experiments that led to its to its discovery, and ongoing research efforts at facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider that seek to build upon it. Ream and Dominguez then shift to discussing Dominguez’s calling to physics and how the scale of research efforts he led afforded him with abilities he now exercises while serving as the chief academic officer of a research university. They then discuss the unique details concerning Catholic University of America’s history and structure as exemplified by the relationship it shares with United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican as well as its presence in Washington, DC. Ream and Dominguez close by talking about how that history and structure influence professional development efforts afforded to all educators called to serve at Catholic University of America.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Aaron Dominguez, Professor of Physics and Provost at Catholic University of America. Thank you for joining us.

Aaron Dominguez: Thank you, Todd. It’s really good to be with you this morning. Thank you.

Todd Ream: To open, would you please introduce the Higgs boson for us? And remember, most of us are laypersons when it comes to physics.

Aaron Dominguez: Sure, yeah. 

So that’s one of the things that we study as, as particle physics, in particle physics, is what, what’s the basic building blocks of the universe? What, what is the universe made of at its most fundamental level and how did those pieces fit together? 

And the Higgs boson was theorized back in the kind of late 1960s as a way to help complete that picture of how these fundamental particles interact or are put together to build the universe that we have today. And we’ve been looking for it since then, like since 1967 or so. And then we didn’t discover it officially or conclusively, rather, until 2012. 

Just a few minutes to discover the Higgs boson, it’s the particle that’s responsible for giving the mass to the other fundamental particles. So like an electron has a mass, it’s not a massless particle. That’s what allows it to be kind of captured within the orbit of an atom, right? The constituents that make up the protons and neutrons are called quarks. Those also have a mass and that allows them to be contained within this system.

And the other fundamental particles also have their various masses. And that’s what allows us to exist and not be flying around at the speed of light. Right? So we’re made up of atoms and the universe that we live in, the world we live in, the earth is made up of atoms and they all have masses because of this interaction with this Higgs boson, which infuses the whole universe, this Higgs field.

So in a way, it’s kind of the linchpin that allows the whole thing to work. Otherwise, at least from the theories that we had, there was no natural way to introduce mass into our physics equations to describe the universe. So it’s a way to really kind of just make the whole thing work. 

But it’s one of the long-standing kind of steps forward to try to understand what the whole universe is made of at a fundamental level, and we have lots of evidence that tells us that we don’t know it all.

So for sure there’s other things out there that we don’t understand. We don’t even completely understand how the Higgs boson works. And so that’s one of the things we’re doing right now at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, is studying in detail, how this Higgs boson actually works in the universe that we have.

Todd Ream: Thank you. One of the things that’s fascinating about it is its significance doesn’t seem simply limited to physics and even necessarily to what we might properly call the natural sciences, but some have argued that it even has significance for how philosophers and theologians may think about their work.

Can you say a little bit about its significance beyond the discipline in which it might formally be appropriated?

Aaron Dominguez: Yeah, I mean, there again, it’s a fundamental question of how does the universe work? And I think that’s a pretty philosophical or theological question right there, is how does the whole entire universe work? It’s a question of contingency. 

How does this thing even work? Like, how is it that the universe even exists? And how come it’s so intelligible? How are we able to make sense of it? And the Higgs boson is an example of that. 

And as I said, without something like the Higgs boson interacting at this fundamental level in the fabric of the universe, the universe just wouldn’t actually work. It wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t exist. You know, galaxies wouldn’t work. There would be no, there would be nothing that resembles the world that God has created. It would be something completely different. 

Like I said, we’re still trying to understand more about the Higgs boson and how it works. And there are some kind of crazy implications of the Higgs boson and the future of the universe, that it implies that the universe could be in a metastable situation. So that at some point the universe could wink out of existence. But there’s so much more we don’t understand.

And what it’s leading us towards really is that we don’t really understand how mass and gravity work. So this is a way that gives the masses to particles, but we still don’t understand the full implications of how mass, gravity work. And this is, this is why we have these unknowns called dark energy and dark matter out there.

They’re not directly related to the Higgs boson, but it is all pointing towards this piece of ignorance that we know exists in our, in our scientific knowledge.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You mentioned the Large Hadron Collider and particle colliders such as this one are believed to be sites where considerable discoveries may take place in the years to come. 

Would you please describe the key assets that then populate the physical plant at a site such as CERN?

Aaron Dominguez: Well, CERN has the Large Hadron Collider as its main sort of instrument. It’s also made up of smaller accelerators that kind of daisy chain together and spin up the particles to their final speed as they’re injected into the Large Hadron Collider, which is the big, it’s an underground tunnel that goes across the Franco-Swiss border, in the canton of Geneva and neighboring France. So that’s the main asset, but there are other, as I said, smaller accelerators, which we use both to boost the particles up, but also to do smaller scale studies. 

It’s the largest instrument ever created by man, so it’s really something to see, and we have to cool these magnets down using liquid helium so to make them superconducting, to accelerate these particles to their ultimate velocity or energy. 

And so I think it’s probably also the largest cold mass in the world. The cold, the largest, coldest place on the planet. And maybe even in the universe, because the temperatures that we have to cool these magnets down to like 1.7 degrees above absolute zero is even colder than outer space, like empty space, outer space is about 3.5 Kelvin, 3.5 degrees above absolute zero. So in a sense, the Large Hadron Collider’s cold mass is the largest coldest place in the universe. 

But I’d say the biggest asset are the people. Without a doubt. There’s no way that you could create, envision, create, operate, run such a thing without the thousands of people from all around the world from all different cultures, working together on a common cause. 

That, I think, is the most amazing thing, if you ask me, is that we’ve come together as a world, body of scientists, to collaborate together on this huge thing that can never be done by one person, not even done by one country. But it requires kind of the world effort. And in a sense, it’s the only place, the planet has only one Large Hadron Collider. Right?

Todd Ream: Yeah, truly international effort as far as I understand it in that regard and what you’ve described. 

In relation to such a massive undertaking then, are there ways to discern the differences between scientific success and scientific failure? And if so, what, what indicators might confer such success?

Aaron Dominguez: You know, that’s a great question, and I’ll give you a personal example. 

So I mentioned when the Higgs boson was originally theorized or proposed in the 1960s and it took us all of those years until 2012 to conclusively discover it at the Large Hadron Collider. It wasn’t through lack of trying. It’s not like we just waited 50 years and then did it. It’s like we were looking for it that whole, that whole entire time. 

And my own thesis project as a graduate student, was searching for the Higgs boson in a previous generation of accelerator there at the CERN laboratory. And I didn’t find it.

So in 1998, I published my dissertation and I was looking for the Higgs boson and in this particular region you know, of allowable phase space, that this accelerator opened up a particular window, and it wasn’t there. So, is that a failure? Well, I graduated. I got my degree, but what I did by not finding it was to conclusively rule out a place that it’s not. 

So part of discovery is finding things that aren’t that, that aren’t there so that you can look somewhere else. And so that is an example of a null result. I’m sure, I think, I would have been a lot happier to have found it, right? That’s what everybody was trying to do.

But instead what I did was to conclusively rule out a portion of allowable space that it’s not in. And that allows us to move forward as scientists to elsewhere. And indeed that that’s true. 

A failure would have been if I had ruled it out conclusively but had been wrong, and then we discovered it in the place where I said it wasn’t. That would have been a, that would have been a true failure in some way. Like there would have been some mistake or some assumption that I had wrong to have done you know, for that to have happened. Those are some examples. 

But really to get to the bottom of it, to really be a good scientist, you have to be humble. You have to be willing to subject yourself to scrutiny. You have to be asking yourself constantly, what am I doing wrong, as opposed to what am I doing right? And you have to try to, like, disprove your own stuff as hard as you can and ask your friends to do that too. 

And then to put it out there for the world to review and to try to recreate or to, to reproduce rather, just to see if they can come up with the same result. In a sense to give it away to the world for them to take a look. And that’s how we do science. 

If you just keep it to yourself, then nobody knows if you’re right or wrong because it just only exists inside of your own, your own mind. That’s bad science.

Todd Ream: That’s very helpful. Thank you. 

I want to transition now to talking about your journey to being a physicist and your calling as a physicist. Your own academic career began with earning two bachelor’s degrees, one from Whitman College and one from Caltech. Why two undergraduate degrees?

Aaron Dominguez: Well, so this was my Mom’s idea. And I was a 17 year old boy, I don’t know how you were, but wasn’t totally self-aware at the time of what to do with myself. So, I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and kind of at that time, I wanted to get out and go explore the world.

And I knew from when I was just a little boy that I wanted to be a scientist. Like being a scientist was something that I always had kind of in my, in my heart, in my spirit. That’s something I knew that I always wanted to do. 

But my Mom realized that it would be better for me to also get a liberal arts education, to read the great works, to study literature, to study art. And not just to delve completely into hardcore science and physics, which is what I wanted to do. 

So she found this college, Whitman College, that had what we call a 3-2 program, where you go three years studying the liberal arts at the liberal arts college and then two years at a technical school. And so Whitman had a collaboration with Caltech, I think Columbia or Duke. After getting your three years of education at Whitman, go to one of those other three universities if you were accepted. 

And Caltech was the one that I chose to finish my last two years of study at Caltech. So I got a Bachelor of Arts degree in math and physics at Whitman and then a Bachelor of Science degree from Caltech on the same day in 1992 or whenever it was. So it was a combined program.

Todd Ream: That’s wonderful advice from a parent to a young, young person who’s, you know, looking to become self-aware and explore what their calling might be. Wonderful advice. 

You then earned a master’s Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego and held a postdoctoral fellowship at Lawrence National Laboratory. When looking back on those years in your life, which person’s reading and or experiences proved most instrumental in terms of your formation as an experimental high energy physicist?

Aaron Dominguez: Yeah, there were quite a few along the way and it was the people who took me under their wing like my advisors, my undergrad advisor at Caltech, Harvey Newman. I had a friend that I met there at Caltech, another fellow undergrad who had been working with Professor Newman in his laboratory and said, hey Aaron, this is what we’re doing. You should go meet Professor Newman. Knocked on his door and said, tell me what you’re doing. And he taught me how to put together some of the basics of particle detectors and kind of set me on my way. 

He had been collaborating with the fellow who became my thesis advisor at UC San Diego. And so I got involved in their research as an undergraduate and then ended up going down to San Diego to work with Jim Branson on his research at the super collider in Waxahachie, Texas, before it was canceled and then moved to finish my dissertation work at the certain laboratory at the next collider project.

And along the way, there was another physicist there named Hans Kobrak, a German, who took me under his wing when I first went to UC San Diego, and I thought I was hot stuff. And he would make sure that I would, that I remained humble enough. 

In fact, one of the things he asked me was to describe how a transistor works on the chalkboard. So I went through it all and showed him how it worked. I thought I was pretty proud of myself. And he said, yeah, Dominguez, just remember, whatever you’re doing, it’s probably wrong. So you always be asking yourself– 

I thought, man, what a sourpuss. But it actually turned out to be, like, the best advice ever to give a young guy starting a career in science, and that is, is in fact what you should be asking yourself. You shouldn’t be so proud of your stuff that you don’t ask yourself, well, what am I? What could be wrong about this?

Todd Ream: In his own way, cultivating that humility then.

Aaron Dominguez: Yes, in a very Germanic, Teutonic way, he cultivated my humility. 

Todd Ream: Your area of expertise as an experimental high energy physicist then includes, as you mentioned just a second ago, the implementation, I mean the instrumentation, excuse me, particularly instrumentation focused on design, construction, and use of silicon charged particle trackers. 

If I was to spend a day with you in a lab at CUA, Fermilab outside of Chicago, or at CERN, what activities would I witness then?

Aaron Dominguez: Well, so in our little lab here in Hannan Hall at Catholic University, we’ve got a small team of students and technicians and researchers, postdoc, and a lab technician, two graduate students, two research faculty that work with me. 

And we’ve got a lab that’s building or doing the R&D right now but soon next year we’ll be moving into the production phase of construction of these types of charged particle trackers that you mentioned. So these are little devices that are about yay big, okay? And super thin and super lightweight and draw the tiniest amount of power possible to be able to track the paths of charged particles that come in the explosion that takes place when the proton beams collide 40 million times a second at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

So we’re building the components, the camera so to speak, that we’ll then be installing in Geneva. So we’ve got a little laboratory. We’ve got a robot that we programmed to help do the very, very fine, pick and place assembly that needs to be done to build these super precise particle detectors. 

And then we test them. And then we send them to our friends at Cornell University in New York, and then they start assembling them into larger pieces and then once those are tested, then we send them off to Geneva. 

And so once you were to go to Switzerland, you would see not just a small little lab like our outfit here at Catholic University, or even at our other collaborating universities around the country here, that are similar to our setup. You would find this gigantic laboratory with thousands of technicians and physicists and this huge underground facility that’s 150 meters underground where we’re assembling this finally assembling this this huge detector that’s like as tall as a six story building with millions of pipes and cooling pipes and power and signal cables and people climbing all over the place speaking 10 different languages.

It’s like the set of some science fiction movie, but it’s actually real. Like this is actually taking place. So it’s really quite amazing.

Todd Ream: And have you had the chance to take undergraduates and/or graduate students then, to CERN to work with you when doing this work?

Aaron Dominguez: Yeah, in fact, that’s part of the culture in particle physics is to always send students to spend part of their time there at the laboratory living and working. So you basically move there for an extended period of time and live and work there at the laboratory with thousands of other scientists and physicists and engineers and technicians.

So that’s what I did when I was a graduate student. So when my thesis advisor that I mentioned at UC San Diego, he sent me out to Geneva, Switzerland, and I lived there and on the French side of the border with my wife and did my research there at CERN and learned French, hard way. That’s where I learned French.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Still a great experience I’m sure.

When factoring in the scale of such an activity, how does one then need to think about time? You mentioned success and that success can come through confirmation of not this but then perhaps this. How do you think about time and encourage students to think about time in pursuit of truth in such a manner?

Aaron Dominguez: That’s a, that’s actually quite a profound question. Because we only have so much time on this earth that we’ve been, and we don’t even know how much time we have. And we want to do this work. As a scientist, this is something that we’re called to do, and we devote our lives to it, right? Our working lives to do it. And you want to be able to accomplish something. You want to be able to get something done. 

I mentioned that the scope and size of this accelerator complex and this laboratory, it’s much bigger than any one man could ever conceive of and build, right? It’s just not possible. Like, you could live a thousand years and still not be able to do it as one person. So you need other people in order to make something achievable within a lifetime. 

So that’s one aspect of the time involved, if it needs, you need friendship. You need people with you working together on common cause in order to be able to accomplish something within your own career or lifetime. That’s one aspect. 

The other aspect is that it’s longitudinal and actually does span over multiple lifetimes. I mean, Peter Higgs and his colleagues who eventually got the Nobel Prize for proposing this Higgs boson in the 1960s had to wait until like 2012 for it to be conclusively discovered by other people. 

They didn’t even know if they’d live long enough to ever see the conclusion of, you know, such a project. And I think he was quite moved to tears even when, when that happened. And he was there present in the room when we made our discoveries. So that was his whole life. His whole lifetime.

Then there’s the lifetime of graduate students, right? You want your graduate students to be able to work on a project. You know, finish something. Be able to publish it and be able to defend it. And then to go off and and to build a career from that, either in academia or in industry.

And so you have to break down a project that can be accomplished in something like four or five years, right? Because that’s the lifetime of a graduate student, you have to be able to break pieces down into that kind of time period to allow people to be able to accomplish a project as a student.

And then there’s just, at some point, it becomes a diminishing returns to keep doing the same thing over and over with such, say, for example, our accelerator that we have in Geneva, at some point we have to just tear it down, pull out the guts and install something new that can allow us to achieve results quicker because rather than run the experiment for, say, 50 years, to accomplish a result, it might be faster to run it for 10 years and then stop for three years and upgrade the whole thing. And then run it for another 10 years, and you’d be able to do something much, much quicker than you would as then if you just kept turning the crank over and over. 

So there’s that kind of time involved as well, as how long would it take us to like double the size of our data set? And if it’s too long, like we’re talking decades, which is beyond the scope of how long somebody would be able to contribute to such a project, you make a decision to stop and upgrade or build a whole new facility or do something different.

Todd Ream: It’s fascinating to think about. Yeah. Thank you. 

I’m going to transition now to talk about uh, your efforts, uh as an administrator. At what point did you accept that adding responsibilities for wider sectors of the university was part of how you perceive the academic vocation?

Aaron Dominguez: Yeah, it came kind of slowly, but I would say for sure it’s related to my work in this kind of large science that I do in particle physics, because you have to work teams, you have to work in small teams, large teams, extremely large teams, and in order to do that, you have to put together kind of a hierarchy of collaboration.

And that trained me on how to be a leader, how to lead a group of men and women, to accomplish a project. That kind of leadership training through, through in science, then, I found that I was, I was okay. I was good enough at it that people were asking me to do it. And it allowed me to accomplish something that I could never do just on my own. 

And I found it very rewarding to work with other really smart people who are better than me at what they do. And to try to contribute to the greater good, to a larger common cause in science. Translating that skill and that experience into academic jobs, higher ed outside of just physics was pretty natural for me. 

And so getting involved in academic research administration at the University of Nebraska, allowed me to do that, not just in physics, but to work with, in the College of Arts and Sciences, with English professors, and with sociologists, and with anthropologists, and with chemists, and biologists.

And so it was like, it was kind of like going back to university and learning how the cool stuff that everybody’s doing at such a research university. All the really fascinating human discoveries that are happening at a university. And to play a role to be able to facilitate that as an administrator was very rewarding.

And then things just kept opening up. God kept giving me these opportunities and I was able to step through the door and, and kind of take on greater and greater responsibilities. So here I am, at His university, at Catholic University of America, as the provost for a while. And we’ll see what comes next.

Todd Ream: Amongst those responsibilities then, what were some of the new ones that you needed to embrace? And were there any former responsibilities or sort of ways of exercising your vocation that maybe you had to let go in order to make space for them?

Aaron Dominguez: Well, the second part of your question is for sure, I’m not I’m not in the lab every day, working the oscilloscope or writing the code. That’s really being done by my team. So, I’ve had to let go of a lot of the day-to-day work as a physicist in order to be an administrator for a university.

I mean, I did have to learn, well, first of all, to be a good physicist, you have to be humble. To be a good administrator, you definitely have to be humble because look, I mean, you can be an expert in, in one particular field, that’s kind of how things work in universities these days, but there’s no way conceivably anymore to be an expert in all of the fields.

There was a time in the history of humanity or Western civilization when that was possible for at least some people to do. It’s not really possible anymore. So you really have to learn humbly how it is that other people do their work and to, and to approach it like that. 

Like, how can I, first of all, tell me what you do, explain to me what you do as a digital historian or whatever, and how can I help you? You know, how can I, how can I help you achieve what you need to do? And then how can we work together? How can we put together an integrated approach as a university towards knowledge? And not just have it be a bunch of smart people doing their own thing, but making them kind of this cohesive, integrated whole. 

That’s the challenge and also the fun of being at a research university, especially a Catholic university or Christian university, which attempts to integrate knowledge through faith and reason.

Todd Ream: Catholic University of America or CUA was founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops a papal charter in 1887. It was also initially founded as a center of graduate education and research, as such was common with a couple of other universities at that time in the United States and some from Europe. 

While undergraduate programs were eventually added in 1904, would you please describe the ways, if any, in which the culture at CUA is different from other Catholic colleges and universities due to its identity as a national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, as well as this history of graduate education and research?

Aaron Dominguez: And these kinds of graduate programs that you’re describing have been, have been the design of Catholic University from the very beginning. And up to this very day, we have 12 schools, so we call them schools instead of colleges. We have 12 schools and all of them issue graduate degrees. There are graduate programs in all 12 of our schools. 

Not all of them have undergraduate programs. There are a couple schools that do not have undergraduate programs, but still only graduate programs. So graduate research, that kind of graduate research is in our DNA. That was the design principle that the bishops and the Pope wanted us to use when building the university back in the late 19th century. And that exists to today. 

Now, there are other graduate research universities, Catholic research universities, there are other secular graduate research universities in the country now. And some of the things that we do look very similar here as they would elsewhere. But being the only pontifically chartered university for the United States, really sets us up as a unique singular university that serves the Church and the nation, to produce her best citizens. 

And for just a concrete example, if you’re a professor in my philosophy department and you want to get tenure, not only do you have to go through all the hoops that you have to go through in normal universities, you know to get tenure, you also need approval from Rome, from the Dicastery for Culture and Education through our Chancellor, who’s the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., communicating with the Vatican. So there’s a constant back and forth connection between us as the research university for the Church of the United States and the actual structural institutional Church in Rome. And that’s, that’s different. 

There are other, there are other examples of pontifical universities like us around the world. Like Brazil has a few universities like us. Italy’s got a bunch. You know, Mexico’s got some, but the United States only has one and that’s us.

Todd Ream: And so whereas the other Catholic research universities in the United States, Boston College, Georgetown, Notre Dame, just to name three there, would be founded and connected to their religious orders, not so much directly to the conference of bishops and then the Vatican.

Aaron Dominguez: That’s right. So they would have whichever like the Holy Cross fathers there at Notre Dame are founders and, and operators of the university. And there’s a strong connection to their charism, as well as the men in, in that religious order. And so it’s strongly influenced by that. They have to work with the local ordinary, the bishop as well to be a Catholic university. That’s always the case. 

But we are actually, in a sense, owned by all of the bishops of the United States. And uh we’ve got a bunch of these guys on our board of trustees. All of the cardinal archbishops of the United States are on our board. Um, a bunch of archbishops around the United States, some bishops as well, and a few clergy from different dioceses as well.

And when you come on campus, you’ll see lay people. You’ll see religious sisters, you’ll see priests, secular priests, religious priests, all together, like, all together, walking around, studying together, in the cafeteria together. 

It’s like the Starfleet Academy, kind of Catholic education. You see them from all corners of the earth. Right? So it’s a really unique place. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Todd Ream: And some religious orders even have houses of study immediately adjacent to the university too?

Aaron Dominguez: Yeah, many of them do. The Dominicans have a Dominican House of Study across the street. The Capuchins have a house just up the hill. The Oblates across the street. 

There’s several seminaries around all, in this corner of northeast Washington, D.C., because we are the university that provides that world class education to those people as they go through their religious formation and studies.

Todd Ream: That’s fascinating.

Aaron Dominguez: It’s really cool.

Todd Ream: Fascinating. 

Academic freedom in the United States and arguably within the Western world, is often talked about as within the larger context of the negative freedom or freedom from any number of external constraints. In an interview you gave in 2020, you talked about academic freedom at CUA as existing within the larger context of positive freedom or freedom from or toward particular aspirations our end.

For example, if I may, quote a section from that interview, you mentioned that quote, “by adhering to the teachings of the Catholic Church, we’re more free academically, to explore the natural world, our place in it, and our connection to each other and to God.” 

Would you please unpack a little bit more by what you mean by more free? And offer maybe some examples.

Aaron Dominguez: Sure. I mean, I think it’s our acknowledgement that all truth comes from God. The origin of truth is Him. That is where it all flows from. And that includes the natural world. The truths of the natural world, as well as revealed truths. And those things together coexist as both being true.

And truth can’t negate truth. I mean, if two things are true, they’re both true. That acknowledgement from us as believers, allows us then to do things that you can’t normally do in a secular situation where there’s no acknowledgement of this foundation of truth. 

For example, we’re talking about this Large Hadron Collider and the particles that we discover and in the fabric of the universe that is all true. That is what we know. But what does it mean, Todd? Like, what is, what does it mean? What does it mean that we’re recreating the conditions that were present a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang? And that we’re able to do that and make sense of it and understand the whole entire creation of the universe.

And we can ask those questions about meaning and our, and our place in relationship to each other and to God in the classroom, in our physics class. I mean, we can explore the fullness of reality in a way that you can’t do unless you were able to acknowledge that. 

So that kind of freedom doesn’t exist in a situation where you’ve atomized a human being. And treat yourself just as this individual who exalts basically raising yourself up and replacing God with you or it’s science. 

That is not true freedom. That’s a slavery to your own kind of ego and sin. And you can’t really be truly free that way, academically or otherwise.

Todd Ream: Yeah, there are any number of temptations in the academic vocation that curve our soul inward, instead of arcing it outward to God and to our others and that we are called to serve in that regard. So, yeah, thank you. 

Unpacking a little bit more than that since we’ve talked about who serves at Catholic University and who comes to study there. We talked a little bit about the environment, but would you offer a sense of understanding or definition about the academic vocation, as it’s practiced there within CUA and the, and the colleges and schools that form it?

Aaron Dominguez: Yeah. 

Well, again, it comes back to our foundation. And in fact, if you reread them, it’s just a two page document. The founding document that Pope Leo the 13th wrote to the bishops of the United States in 1886 or ’87, he mentions that we should be conducting ourselves at the university in a way that takes revealed truth and reason, natural reason, and puts them together as a bulwark that strengthens faith. So it’s this dual lens of faith and reason that builds up the person and orients them towards God. 

We should be doing that in all that we do. We should be doing that not just in our theology classes or philosophy classes or in church or in Mass, but in everything, in the cafeteria, in the football team, the dormitories, physics class, faculty meetings, even. We should be looking for Christ at the center of everything we do. That’s the design principle for the place. 

So trying to put Christ at the center of all we do, is the duty. It’s not easy because we’re you mentioned, we tend to orient ourselves inwards if we’re not careful. 

But that’s how we should be conducting ourselves everywhere at the university. And again, to produce our nation’s best citizens and to help save souls and lead them to heaven. So they come through this place and come out closer to God.

Todd Ream: That’s beautiful. Thank you. 

Are there any intellectual, moral, or perhaps theological virtues that have come closer to the surface in terms of how the academic vocation is practiced there? We talked and touched a little bit on the importance of humility, but are there others that you want to note?

Aaron Dominguez: Definitely, for sure. 

I just interviewed a few potential candidates for faculty positions yesterday, and interviewed four people. And those are the kind of questions they asked me. They often mentioned something along the lines of I realized you guys were Catholic, I wasn’t sure how faithful you really were, and I was just surprised at how kind everybody is, like how joyful people are here, how much love everybody just has for each other and helps each other out. It’s just evident in the way that people look, how they act in just their daily work. That there’s a real shared joy and humanity here. 

I think that’s true. I found that to be the case for me, in my own experience here at Catholic University. And it comes because we’re trying to put Christ at the center of all we do. It’s really hard to, to be a dour, unhappy Christian, if you really believe what it means to be a Christian should fill you with joy. And that’s, and that is present here. So I find this to be kind of like the most joyful university I’ve ever seen. 

Now, of course, we have our fights and arguments and not every day’s perfect and all of that. But I think that there’s real loving evidence of Christ’s message here in the way that we just conduct our everyday lives at Catholic U. 

It’s a deliberate design of the university. We pray together. We have five daily masses on campus together with those students and the staff and the faculty access to all the sacraments that the Catholic Church believes in continuously. We infuse the liturgical calendar and everything we do. 

So for example, Wednesday today, when we’re recording this podcast, is the day before Holy Thursday, and then Good Friday, and then Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, and then Easter Monday, and those are all holidays where we go off and celebrate our faith. That’s infused into the calendar. 

Every academic semester starts with a giant Mass in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception across the lawn from my office, the largest Catholic church in North America. And that’s just part of our lived cycle as a university, this praxis of living out our faith every day infuses it all. 

And that makes a big difference, you know? It’s not a private thing that you do at home with your family and you don’t talk about it at work. It’s like infused into everything that we do academically and also just living out the, your daily life at work here. 

That’s real special, man. I don’t know how long I’ll work here. Maybe I’ll retire here. Maybe I’ll go somewhere else. I don’t know, but I don’t know that I’ll ever find— I hope that there are other places that are like this. But this is for sure the best example I’ve seen so far in the places that I’ve worked at.

Todd Ream: Yeah, in terms of the ongoing formation then of educators, you talked about, we’re interviewing new faculty candidates. Candidates come in, what responsibility then does the university have to sort of continue to come alongside them, encourage and provide resources and opportunities for their growth progress, not only in their own fields, but also in their appreciation for how their fields give them and intersect with access points to the university’s mission?

Aaron Dominguez: So I mentioned some of the more concrete ones, which is just offering the daily opportunities to live out your faith as a, as a Christian, as a Catholic, celebrating Mass every day. We open all of our meetings and and, and many of our classes with prayer. So just, again, everyday kind of living it out in all that we do.

For the first five years of faculty members’ new life at our university, they go through what we call the extended orientation. So it’s kind of a rolling cohort of people within their first five years. So there’ll be a brand new hire that starts his first year and he’ll be in there with new first year faculty, second year faculty, third, fourth, and fifth year faculty. And then they kind of roll out. 

And we do this once a month throughout the academic year. We start with a prayer, we eat together on a, usually on a Friday afternoon, have lunch, and then do a close reading of some text that’s related to education, and particularly, Catholic education.

So, one year we’ll read Newman’s Idea of the University. And we’ll go through it, all the nine discourses or however many there were, and throughout the course of the year. And you’re in the room with I’m a physics professor. I’ll be in the room with a theology professor and a philosopher and an education professor and an architect and an engineer and a nurse and a social worker, and we’re all coming at this idea of like, what does it mean to be a comprehensive Catholic research university from all of our different viewpoints, talking to each other around this, this basic idea and doing it through a lens of faith.

So it’s a way of meeting other people without outside of your discipline, making friendships, sharing a meal, learning about how your faith, our faith as Christians should influence our, our academic pursuits. And then it helps build and transmit this culture, this Catholic identity forward in time. 

Faculty members are going to come and generally, we hire people who are going to be here for decades. And they’ll out they’ll be here longer than any president of the university or provost or certainly longer than any of the students. It’s the faculty members that are the building blocks of the university, right? 

So you want to be able to hire people who understand that mission, embrace it, are excellent at what they do, and are going to help transmit that culture forward. So that’s part of the ongoing formation of our faculty that we have. 

And now we do have a majority, in fact, I hire a super majority of Catholics to come here to be faculty members, but we do have a minority of non-Catholics of other types of Christians and other people who aren’t Christian. And so for them, it’s also a way for them to learn what it is that the Catholics believe and do, because the ones that are hired here realize their own role in such a strongly mission aligned university as a non-Catholic. 

But we also want them to understand what it is that we believe and what we do, so they can play an important role in being fellow brothers and sisters rowing in the same direction.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Unfortunately, our time has grown short and I only have time for one last question. And so if I may, want to ask you how, in such a context, do the Church and the university work together in advancing this mission? And in what ways do they need one another?

Aaron Dominguez: Yeah, especially for us as the pontifical university of the United States, Rome looks to us as a university to help her answer questions, that they may have around anything, around all kinds of things regarding life knowledge, the Church, etc… 

And so they look to us. They ask us to go in and do studies. They ask us to carry out research, to help them. They ask us to write things. They ask us to go serve on advisory panels for the Church. So they are looking towards, towards our experts, to our expertise, to help them understand things. 

And vice versa, we need to be able to serve them and to have the Church be the center of what we do as a university. So there’s a really beautiful kind of cycle between these two things here at Catholic University of America that’s more complete, I would say, than many other Catholic colleges or universities because of that tight connection between the institutional Church in Rome and Catholic University of America.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Our guest has been Aaron Dominguez, Professor of Physics and Provost Catholic University of America. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and wisdom with us. 

Aaron Dominguez: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a great conversation and God bless you.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.


Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).