Thomas Aquinas College sits on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest, just outside Ojai. Classes are held in mission-revival buildings with red-tile roofs. Walkways of white stone bisect manicured, emerald green lawns. The spiritual center of campus is a marbled chapel with wooden pews and a bell tower that soars into the pastel blue sky. Mass is offered four times each day.
The tiny Roman Catholic college in Santa Paula named after the famed philosopher is the gateway to a life of faith for scores of influential religious scholars. Among them is Pia de Solenni, the Catholic theologian and noted commentator whose work has taken her from Thomas Aquinas College to a high school classroom in the Midwest, the halls of the United Nations in New York City and the Vatican in Rome. Solenni is the Theological Consultant to the Office of the Bishop, a position newly created by Bishop Kevin Vann at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
“Pia is an inspirational and well-respected theologian and leader,” Vann said in a statement issued in September announcing Solenni’s appointment at Christ Cathedral. “We are blessed as a Diocese to benefit from her expertise, passion and faith. I look forward to the many gifts that she will bring to the people of Orange.”
Solenni enrolled at Thomas Aquinas College under the advice of her father. She intended to only stay a year before moving on.
“My dad told me, ‘You can go to any school you want; the only one I’m helping you with is Thomas Aquinas College,’” Solenni said. “The reality of the cost of college set in rather quickly.”
Within two weeks, her connection to the college was cemented.
“It was the first time that the faith had been presented to me in an intellectual and substantial manner,” Solenni said.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts-great books, she went to work in the classroom, teaching Spanish, religion, ethics and history at a small Catholic high school in Milwaukee, WI. The lessons she learned as a young schoolteacher stayed with her throughout her academic and professional career.
“It was a sort of baptism by fire, which really showed me how important it is to be flexible in the classroom,” de Solenni said. “Little did I know that teaching would be my vocation.”
The experience had a lasting impact, and directed her life on a course of near-constant learning and teaching. She earned a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and focused her professional research on bio-ethics, feminism and gender studies, marriage and family, culture and Catholicism. She received the 2001 Award of the Pontifical Academies for her doctoral work, presented by Pope John Paul II. She translated her expertise into international policy work for the United Nations, advocating on behalf of the United States and Holy See. She worked to promote resolutions against female infanticide and forced marriage. This work gave Solenni a unique perspective on her own spirituality and role in the world.
“Coming from the privilege of being raised in the United States, it was an excellent reminder to myself of how blessed I’ve been and how much more we have to do for others who don’t enjoy the rights and privileges that we do,” she said.
Along with working as director of Life and Women’s Issues at the Family Research Council, Solenni is a frequent commentator on issues of faith and doctrine, moral theology and the role of women in the Catholic Church for cable, print and online news outlets.
“I’ve been given a unique education and role as a woman theologian, so I also hope to fulfill another way that women can have an active role in the Church,” Solenni told OC Catholic after being appointed by Bishop Vann to her new role as theological consultant.
Today, Solenni works to help spread the message of the Catholic faith across Orange County. The most effective way to defend the teachings of the Catholicism is through education, she said.
“Most people dislike the Catholic Church for what they think she is rather than for what she is,” Solenni said, quoting Archbishop Fulton Sheen, an outspoken advocate of religious education who was among the first Catholic leaders to spread the faith through the mediums of radio and television.
In addition to her role with the Diocese of Orange, Solenni is a professor of Moral Theology and associate dean for the Augustine Institute’s satellite campus at Christ Cathedral in Orange County.
At the core of her work lies an interest to help others understand their personal connections to Catholicism, the faith she first forged her own intellectual connection with at Thomas Aquinas College. A person of faith, Solenni said, not only lives according to the tenants of Catholicism, but also upholds a promise to consistently bring themselves closer to God.
“If we love someone, then we want to spend time with them — we get to know them by spending time with them,” Solenni said. “If we’re not praying, we’re not spending time with God and we can’t really grow in the way we know him. He wants to get close and personal, but we have to allow him to do so.”