Homage to Don Briel

George Weigel

In the history of U.S. Catholic higher education since World War II, three seminal moments stand out: Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’s 1955 article, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life;” the 1967 Land o’ Lakes statement, “The Idea of a Catholic University;” and the day Don J. Briel began the Catholic Studies Program – and the Catholic Studies movement – at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities.

I’ve long had the sense that Msgr. Ellis’s article was retrospectively misinterpreted as a relentless polemic against Catholic colleges and universities mired in the tar-pits of Neo-Scholasticism and intellectually anorexic as a result; on the contrary, it’s possible to read Ellis as calling for Catholic institutions of higher learning to play to their putative strengths – the liberal arts, including most especially philosophy and theology – rather than aping the emerging American multiversity, of which the University of California at Berkeley was then considered the paradigm. But that’s not how Ellis was understood by most, and there is a direct line to be drawn between the Ellis article and the self-conscious if tacit defensiveness of the Land o’ Lakes statement, which seemed to say, yes, we’re second-rate, maybe even third-rate, and the way to be first-rate is to be like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the rest of what would be called, in 21st-century Catholic academic jargon, “aspirational peers.”

The problem, of course, is that by 1967, those “aspirational peers” were beginning to lose their minds, literally, en route to the postmodern sandbox of authoritarian self-absorption they occupy today.

So there is another direct line to be drawn: this time, from Ellis and Land o’ Lakes to Don Briel’s catalyzing the Catholic Studies movement, which, among other things, works to repair the damage that was done to institutions of Catholic higher learning in the aftermath of Land o‘ Lakes.

But there was, and is, far more to Don Briel’s vision, and achievement, that damage-repair. Nourished intellectually by John Henry Newman and Christopher Dawson, Briel’s work has aimed at nothing less than creating, in 21st-century circumstances, the “idea of a university” that animated his two English intellectual and spiritual heroes. And, one might say, just in the nick of time.

For the deterioration of higher education throughout the United States in the past several generations has contributed mightily to our contemporary cultural crisis, and the cultural crisis, by depleting the nation’s reserves of republican virtue, has in turn produced a political crisis in which constitutional democracy itself is now at risk. The answer to that cultural crisis cannot be a retreat into auto-constructed bunkers. The answer must be the conversion of culture by well-educated men and women who know what the West owes to Catholicism as a civilizing force, and who are prepared to bring the Catholic imagination to bear on reconstructing a culture capable of sustaining genuine freedom – freedom for excellence – in social, political, and economic life.

Conversion, then, is what “Catholic Studies” and Don Briel’s life-project are all about: the conversion of young minds, hearts, and souls to the truth of Christ and the love of Christ as manifest in the Catholic Church, to be sure; but also the conversion of culture through those converted minds, hearts, and souls. According to the common wisdom, Land o’ Lakes and its call for Catholic universities to “Be like the Ivies!” was “revolutionary.” But the true revolutionary in American Catholic higher education over the past decades has been Don Briel, who has enlivened an approach to higher education that embodies the New Evangelization as no one else has done.

Those of us who love and esteem him pray for a miracle that will cure the rare forms of acute leukemia that now afflict him. But, like Don Briel himself, we commend our prayers, as we commend him, to the mysterious and inscrutable ways of divine Providence. We also know that the truths with which he ignited an academic revolution will win out, because this quintessential Christian gentleman and educator taught us by his witness and his work to trust the Lord’s guarantee in John 8:32: “…the truth will make you free.”

Thank you, Don, and Godspeed on your journey. The work, thanks to your inspiration and example, will continue – and it will flourish.

COMING UP: “Equilibrium” and ignominy

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This past December 18, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the department of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, received an honorary degree from the Faculty of Theology of Apulia in Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. During his remarks on that occasion, Hilarion thanked the Holy See “per la sua posizione di equilibrio riguardo al conflitto in corso in Ucraina [for its balanced position regarding the conflict underway in Ukraine].” Did anyone in the Vatican blush in shame at that compliment? A lot of high-ranking Roman churchmen should have.

Once again, as he has often done in the past, Metropolitan Hilarion used an ecumenical event to carry water for Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and its war on independent Ukraine. Once again, the chief ecumenical officer of the Russian Orthodox Church misrepresented what is afoot in Ukraine, which is not a “conflict” but a Russian invasion and a low-intensity war, which has already cost more than 10,000 lives while displacing over a million persons and wreaking economic and social havoc in Ukraine’s Donbas region. And once again, Metropolitan Hilarion implicated the Holy See in that misrepresentation by praising the Vatican’s “balanced position.”

But what is a “balanced position” in this situation? A refusal to pronounce the words “invasion” and “annexation” when describing the reality of what Putin’s Russia has done in Crimea? A studied disinclination to use the word “war” to name what Russia has been conducting in the Donbas for the past several years? That, surely, would be more accurately described as pusillanimity and appeasement, rather than balance or equilibrium.

This “balance” is not only an abdication of moral responsibility; it is badly undercutting other Vatican goals in world politics. Shortly before Hilarion’s speech in Bari, a Vatican conference urged intensified efforts toward nuclear disarmament. Well, what has been the single greatest blow to nuclear non-proliferation in recent years? The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. Why? Because Russia’s actions effectively abrogated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, according to which Ukraine agreed to give up all its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee (signed by Russia, the United States, and Great Britain) of its territorial integrity and borders. After Russia got away with its Crimean gambit, it’s a safe bet that no nuclear weapons power will give up its arsenal in exchange for paper security guarantees, for at least the next several decades.

In brief: it’s impossible to take a “balanced position” on the “conflict underway in Ukraine” and, at the same time, passionately promote nuclear disarmament. The former drastically undercuts the latter. Can no one in the Holy See connect the dots here?

In the face of what reasonable people will judge the Roman appeasement of its enemies, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine – the largest Catholic martyr-Church of the twentieth century – has been a model of fidelity to Rome: which is another reason why those responsible for Vatican policy toward Russia and Ukraine ought to have blushed in embarrassment at Metropolitan Hilarion’s compliment. No one would blame the Greek Catholic leadership in Ukraine for feeling, if not betrayed, then at the very least ill-served by the “balanced position” praised by Metropolitan Hilarion. Yet, under the most trying circumstances, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk and his colleagues, both clergy and laity, have gotten on with the New Evangelization in their war-torn country, providing a model of spiritual vitality and effective public engagement that a lot of Latin-rite Catholicism would do well to study and then emulate.

Here is one dimension of the Vatican’s ecumenical and diplomatic activity that cries out for radical reform. It is long past time for a thorough reexamination of the default positions that govern thinking about Russia, Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Catholic-Russian Orthodox ecumenical dialogue in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State and at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The relevant officials in those Vatican offices might begin that reexamination with a close reading of Serhii Plokhy’s fine new book, Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation from 1470 to the Present (Basic Books). Among other things, the Harvard-based Plokhy explores the subservient relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church to Russian state power for over five centuries: a history that puts Metropolitan Hilarion’s latest propaganda exercise in Bari into its proper context.