In 2003, Fulvio Di Blasi, an Italian natural law scholar who had worked at Notre Dame for several years, conceived the Thomas International project (TI), and discussed it with Ralph McInerny, a distinguished Thomist scholar whose career at Notre Dame has spanned five decades. The goal of the project would be to reignite the classical tradition of philosophy and theology, the cultural root of Western civilization, by promoting international scholarship focused especially (though not exclusively) on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The goal was not simply to promote historical knowledge, but to foster engagement between classical thought and modern and contemporary thought, in all branches of human knowledge, in order to confront the perennial questions of the human heart and to seek solutions to the problems facing our society.
In 1989, Christopher Wolfe, a political scientist at Marquette University, had convened a meeting of scholars from various universities and fields of study, which resulted in the establishment of the American Public Philosophy Institute (APPI). The APPI promoted natural law thought in academic and public life, formed a network of scholars sympathetic to the project of bringing the classical and Christian intellectual traditions to bear on contemporary life, and organized various conferences and published numerous books.
Professors Di Blasi and Wolfe met in November, 2004, and, when Fulvio described for Chris the university project he had in mind, they immediately realized that their ideals were identical, and they joined forces to work together on the project. Jesus Izaguirre of the University of Notre Dame (Biology and Computer Science) had already been working with Fulvio, and soon they were joined by Frank O’Brien, a St. Louis businessman interested in higher education in the Catholic tradition. Robert Gahl, a scholar in philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, also became an advisor to the project.
Thomas International began with a Research Institute in Italy, which received substantial grants to work on Aquinas’s concept of law and on natural law theory, organizing, with EU support, a series of conferences in Italy, Spain, and Hungary. In April 2005, it established the “Associazione Thomas International,” which quickly attracted over 100 members who provide regular financial support. It also receives yearly grants from Sicilian institutions interested in eventually having an Italian campus of the new university.
In 2005 Thomas International expanded with the establishment in the U.S. of the Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies. The Center began its activities at its provisional office in Washington DC, sponsoring conferences, courses, and publications, with the co-sponsorship and assistance of the Associazione Thomas International.
Since then, Dr. Di Blasi has divided his time working on the project between Italy and the United States. Dr. Wolfe worked on the project while teaching half-time at Marquette University from 2006 to 2008. Starting in June of 2008, Dr. Wolfe became Emeritus Professor at Marquette and began working full-time on the project, holding the Thomas International Chair in Public Philosophy (with support from an anonymous donor).
During 2007-2008, the Center staff closed the Washington DC office and looked carefully at a number of possible locations for the Center, including St. Louis and Beaufort, South Carolina. They held a number of activities in these places, as well as other cities, such as Los Angeles. In early 2009, they shifted their attention to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. Several things attracted them to this area. It is in the southeast U.S., in which there are only two colleges in the Catholic intellectual tradition and a growing Catholic population. There are excellent intellectual resources (including libraries) in the area, with outstanding universities such as Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State.
In 2009-2010, the Center held its first activities in the Triangle area, with Robert George speaking at Duke on October 8, Thomas Farr speaking at UNC on November 14, and Michael Novak speaking in Raleigh and at Duke February 15-16. A one-day seminar on the contemporary state of higher education will be held at Duke in April.
In March, 2010, the Center changed its name from "The Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies" to "The Thomas International Center," in recognition of the broader array of intellectual activities that it sponsors.