Liam Plate: What is your academic focus and how did you come to that passion?
Father Laracy: I really have two areas of focus. In Theology, my main interests are the relationship of the Catholic faith with the natural sciences and more generally, the relationship of faith and reason. My doctoral research, is a Catholic evaluation of a significant American Protestant physicist and theologian who did a lot of interesting work relating Theology with the natural sciences, particularly with the Theology of creation.
My other area of interest, on the more technical side would be in the field of systems theory, system science and engineering, and also cybernetics. This is an area that I have been working in since I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois studying computer engineering and mathematics and later at MIT where I did my master’s degree in engineering systems. I got into this field when I began studying computing as a freshman at Illinois. I had a great laboratory experience with a professor named Ricardo Aribe, who was a cyberneticist. As I began to specialize more in the field of computer engineering, I became interested in aerospace systems. I had the privilege of working one summer on the Deep Impact project for NASA and all of those experiences reinforced my interests.
LP: How can faith play a part in academic scholarship and why do you think faith is important for scholarship?
FL: Pope St. John Paul II, in his encyclical on faith and reason, talked about how faith and reason are the two wings that bring the human spirit up ultimately to knowledge of God. So for me as a professor but also as a priest, I always see faith and reason working together and never apart. This is a concrete way through which faith has entered scholarship. If you pit faith against reason, then you’re excluding it really from academia and from university life, but that’s never really been the tradition of an authentic university experience. We have to remember that it was the Catholic Church that invented the university in the medieval period. Most of the first professors were members of the clergy.
LP: What does a Catholic mission add to a university that a public or secular school wouldn’t have?
FL: The Catholic mission of a university like Seton Hall is so important for its identity. John Paul II wrote a very important letter, “Ex Corde Ecclesiæ,” (From the Heart of the Church) reminding Catholic universities that the university is an apostolate and that it comes, as the title says, from the heart of the Church. It’s not an ancillary mission and it is not icing on the cake. The Catholic university is really at the core of the larger mission of the Church in teaching and research and service for the common good. We at Seton Hall, as a Catholic university, have a lot of unique opportunities, that very fine public or secular schools don’t have, to be able to engage questions of God, to be able to engage in ethical discussions that other universities would exclude from their purview and so we have a greater freedom. We can do all the secular sciences very well whether its history or chemistry or mathematics, but in addition we can engage these questions of faith, of philosophy, of theology, and canon law in a very open way and that’s really a unique service that we offer our students.
LP: While some students have the opportunity in college to study theology and philosophy, do you think students can find elements of their faith in the other subjects they may study, like biology or business?
FL: Absolutely. It’s important at a Catholic university that everyone receives some basic formation in philosophy and theology. That’s always been a part of the Catholic intellectual tradition. It’s important to pass that tradition on to undergraduates, regardless of their major or their academic focus. Once you have those foundations you can look for connections within your own field. You bring up biology and the mystery of life, the miracle of life. Of course, we can study this from a purely empirical perspective, but if we reflect at a deeper level, exploring a philosophical level or even theological level, we begin to ask questions about the origins of life or even why there is life at all? Who provided that first spark to bring about life from inanimate molecules? All of this, of course, leads back to God and we call this natural theology when we are working from reason without the benefit of supernatural revelation. Then you mentioned business studies. Of course, business is so integral to authentic human flourishing by providing the basic economic means for people to live their life and support a family. In business, the ethical questions are abundant. It is essential that we equip young adults with an ethical framework so that they may reason through difficult moral scenarios in the business world. That’s a great contribution we can make as a Catholic university.
LP: Do you have any advice for students struggling with their faith because of messages they hear in other scholarship that seems to diminish the validity of faith?
FL: It is important that all of us support each other in our journeys of faith, in our journeys of life, in which as Catholics, we realize that God is always offering us His grace, a share in His divine life. We want to do well in that journey. Life is really an adventure of grace that God is offering us and so we support each other and one of the areas we need support is building each other up in faith. As you mentioned, young people may be receiving messages that are pitting faith against reason, that are pitting the Church against science. I think the key thing is to dispel those false conflicts, to dispel the allegation of contradiction. The conflict hypothesis between the Church and science in the Catholic intellectual tradition is totally unfounded. We must show the complementarity of faith with academic inquiry and the opportunities, as Pope Benedict discussed, for broadening our scope of reason. As scholars, we must avoid a very limited, restricted understanding of reason. Here at Seton Hall we are free to acknowledge the full breath of reason that each of us has, made in the image and likeness of God, with an innate desire to know, love, and serve God. This is a life-long quest. We can never be satisfied and say that we’ve made it. As long as we still have breath, we need to trying to continue moving forward in that journey of grace and supporting our brothers and sisters.
LP: Do you have any thoughts on the role that Easter plays as a holiday outside of the Church?
FL: Many non-Christians, because of the time of year, associate Easter with spring and new life. There is a sense of new life on the level of nature and of course in God’s providence this aligns well with the much deeper message of Easter, which is the supernatural gift of eternal life that our Savior won for us through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. With that connection, I think there is an opportunity for us, who are Catholic Christians, to share our faith, to help those who have not received the religious formation that we have, to go beyond the new life evident at the natural level of plants and animals to the eternal life that all of us desire. I’ve never met anyone that told me that he desires annihilation at the end of his earthly days. There is that spark in us that is striving for the infinite and we have seen in the history of humanity, in various cultures, how that’s played out. Whether you think about the mummification process of the Egyptians and how they would bury their dead with their personal affects, and all the great pre-Christian cultures, we see a desire for the infinite, a desire for eternity and communion with God. In Jesus Christ that life is made available to us and that’s what we celebrate on Easter Sunday.
LP: Has it retained its religious significance fairly well in comparison to Christmas in the public sphere?
FL: That’s an excellent question. It’s hard to say. Perhaps one could say that Christmas has become more commercialized with the practice of gift giving, which is a beautiful practice commemorating Jesus’ birthday [giving gifts to family and friends]. But, there’s a commercialization that can be overwhelming at times. Perhaps that’s less at play with Easter. We always want to remember the deep religious significance that’s inherent in both the Nativity of the Lord and in His Resurrection.
LP: Is there anything you would like to add that I have not touched on?
FL: I would just like to add that I am so encouraged by what I see in so many students at Seton Hall who are deeply desiring to grow in their Catholic faith and to share that faith with their loved ones. It’s an inspiration to me as priest to see the zeal and energy of our young Catholics on campus.