The renewal of Catholic higher education

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.

COMING UP: Homage to Don Briel

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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.