The United States has well over 200 Catholic colleges and universities. Only a fraction of them, however, conform to St. John Paul’s statutes for Catholic universities in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. New colleges and universities have been formed and older ones reformed in order to offer a Catholic formation that embraces the unity of knowledge (all disciplines ordered through a Catholic vision of reality) and the formation of students in holiness (in ways that reach down to the dynamics of student life on campus). Tragically, the majority of our Catholic universities have not offered this vision of education or dynamic formation in the faith. Nonetheless, the opportunity for renewal remains.
I was fortunate to receive my formation in the Catholic Studies program, a source of renewal within the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. The founder of the program, Dr. Don Briel, who passed away in February 2018, drew his vision of higher education from Blessed (soon to be St.) John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University and Christopher Dawson’s call for the study of Christian culture to initiate students in the living tradition of the Church. Catholic Studies first began with formation in the Catholic tradition for faculty across the university.
From the friendship and common vision of these professors, interdisciplinary courses on the Catholic tradition arose, embracing not only theology and philosophy, but also history, literature, art, psychology, business, and education. In addition, as the program grew, it offered residential community life in the dorms, leadership formation, a study abroad program in Rome, a journal, centers for Catholic social thought and law, and a graduate program.
It’s not often that you can thank and honor your mentors publicly, but I was blessed to be able to share Dr. Briel’s vision with others in a new book that I edited, The University and the Church: Don J. Briel’s Essays on Education (Cluny Media, 2019). The essays lay out principles shaping Catholic education, such as the imagination, faith and reason, writings of the Magisterium, questions of truth and theology, and the challenges and opportunities of the university in a secular culture. They also lay out the dynamics of the Catholic Studies program in relation to forming faculty, the formative experience of the study abroad in Rome, and how the program, which grew into a Center, served as a catalyst for renewal for universities throughout the world.
Briel thought that the future of Catholic higher education may well be found in small, intentional communities within larger universities, both Catholic and public. The Catholic Studies model of drawing upon faculty with diverse specializations to cooperate to teach the broad vision of Catholic life, as well as providing community support, is one that can be replicated more easily within existing structures, even secular ones, rather than creating new institutions. Catholic Studies programs provide formation for students engaged in career preparation, helping them to integrate their faith into their other classes and the rest of their lives. Briel spoke often of forming a sense of mission and vocation during the formative time of students’ college years.
The Church’s commitment to education led to the first universities and it’s time to reclaim this heritage. Regardless of the model — a faithful liberal arts college, a smaller program within a Catholic university, or a Catholic formation program attached to a public university — Catholic college students need robust formation. We should support the schools and programs that will provide college graduates with a Catholic vision to guide their future career and vocation. I know from my own experience in the Catholic Studies the power of this kind of formation in the formative years of college: forming friendships, having opportunities to live the faith in a mature way, and being inspired to share this formation with others. If we don’t ensure this kind of education for our college students, we’ll lose another generation of Catholic leaders.