Boulder’s Great Debate: ‘This is what a university should be’

University of Colorado-Boulder (CU) prides itself on academic excellence, earning national rankings in fields as diverse as ceramics and quantum physics. It also contains a unique cultural influence, due to its prestige and ranking as the number one college town in America. Scott Powell, the director of CU’s Aquinas Institute of Catholic Thought, says he wants the Catholic Church to have a voice in this milieu.

“My goal is for the university at large to see that the Catholic Church is serious about engaging intellectually,” Powell said.

Each year, Powell organizes a “Great Debate” between a Catholic theologian and faculty professor. Past debate topics have included same sex marriage, abortion and physician-assisted suicide. This year’s topic was “Religion: Good or Bad for Society?”

Dr. Michael Huemer, a tenured philosophy professor at CU with a doctorate from Rutgers and several published works, argued that it is not. Arguing for religion was Dr. James Gaston, a theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, who founded the Humanities and Catholic Culture major at that school.

Huemer, an agnostic, said he thought it would be “interesting and entertaining” to debate someone with a different view of the world.

I am a philosopher. Philosophers argue all the time about what is true. That’s pretty much our job. And of course, when you argue, you do it with someone who has a different view! You can’t just talk to people with the same view,” Huemer said.

Each debater had 20 minutes to present their argument, followed by 10 minutes each of rebuttal. Each debater was then allowed to ask the other one question, followed by 25 minutes of questions from the audience. The debate concluded with each professor giving five minutes of closing remarks.

Not only good, but essential

Gaston opened the debate by arguing that religion is not only good for society, but essential.

“Every human being by their very nature must search for the meaning of life. Each must search for truth, self-knowledge. We differ on which idea happiness we think persists, but we search, nonetheless,” he said.

Gaston defined religion as a “generic term for the search for happiness.” He divided religion into two categories: Those that believe happiness is to be found in the spiritual realm, and those that are focused on some aspect of the material realm. He then defined society as “a permanent union of two or more persons striving together for a common good by cooperative activity.”

“To have a society, there must be an agreement as to our common goal or end,” he said.

He argued that if a people are seeking happiness in material things, there cannot be a true society. He said that at best, this quest will result in a limited culture, in which all men are divided by some material quality and placed in competition over their ideas for happiness.

However, he said a society seeking happiness in the spiritual  share a “common moral vision of happiness, and a foundational basis for a more inclusive type of society.”

“Men are equal in quality, but not in their cultural happiness. Give us a common end for happiness, and a free will to find our way to it. We adapt our own unique material and context,” he said.

Wars and “magical thinking”

Professor  Huemer  opened his argument by noting the impossibility of judging all the effects religion has on a society.

“Religion affects too many things. Quantifying costs and benefits require long empirical studies,” he said.

However, he argued that there was evidence that religion has negative effects on society. For example, religion can make it harder to resolve conflicts, as evidenced in various historical events such as the European wars of religion, and contemporary problems such as Islamic extremists and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“People are less willing to compromise in ideological or moral conflicts, compared to self-interest conflicts. If it’s just my interests, it’s easier to give up and get along. But if it comes to compromising a belief system, then the chances for resolving conflict decreases,” he said.

He also argued that religion slows intellectual progress. For example, he argued that great minds such as Sir Isaac Newton were diverted from studying nature into studying religious idea systems. In addition, he argued that many religions promote false ideas of how the world works, such as creationism or “magical thinking” in believing that tangible effects are produced by prayer.

Other ways he said religion slows intellectual progress include promoting intellectual vice by encouraging faith over justified belief, acceptance of inconsistencies, and intolerance of intellectual diversity.

He said that religion’s deference to authority can also harm society.

“Most religious systems are based on authority, and you’re supposed to accept beliefs simply because those sources say it,” Huemer said. He then read several passages from Leviticus concerning killing homosexuals and women who have premarital sex.

“People look to this book for moral guidance and I think it’s a completely unreliable source,” he said.

Real conversation at Drogo’s

Powell said he was happy to have such a distinguished intellectual as Huemer offering strong arguments against religion.

“Our students will come to us having overheard these arguments. These conversations are being done now in the virtual world, so there’s value in putting a face on these argument. We want to take these points of view seriously,” Powell said. “We don’t want to have a straw-man argument; we want to have a real conversation.”

The event sold out a week in advance. Powell said that while he recognized many of the Catholics in the audience, he was pleased to see people from a variety of faith backgrounds. He was also impressed by the two professors’ knowledge on the subject and willingness to tackle such a sensitive subject.

“Gaston did a fantastic job of showing the intersection between what a society is supposed to be and true culture,” Powell said. “On Professor Huemer’s side, there was a lot that I strongly disagree with, but it was very valuable, especially in showing our students how the world perceives us and our Scriptures.”

After the debate, all were invited to a reception at Drogo’s coffee. Both professors were there, in addition to a professor who had debated for physician-assisted suicide the year before. As students discussed the debate, they seemed unable to pick a clear winner. Powell said he’s fine with that.

“Everybody’s got an opinion on the debate. What that tells me is that everyone is thinking about it, and processing it,” Powell said.

Even though the results of the debate may have been inconclusive, Powell says he obtained his primary objective.

“A Catholic ministry on a university should, ideally, be engaging with the university proper. We want to show the flagship university in Colorado that the Catholic intellectual tradition has something to offer,” he said.

As Gaston said several times throughout the debate, “This is what a university should be.” He frequently praised the event for allowing individuals of different intellectual backgrounds to share their ideas.

In addition, he’s happy to see the rapport the debates are building, creating an atmosphere where previous debaters feel free to come back and engage. Huemer agreed that the tone of the evening was courteous, and said he would do such an event again.

I thought the debate went very well. Both of us were respectful and we gave the audience plenty to think about,” Huemer said.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”