The Corner

Coherency in Higher Education & the Integrated Life of Faith

“Jesus Christ, our Saviour, offers his light and his hope to all those who promote the sciences, the arts, letters and the numerous fields developed by modern culture,” St. John Paul II wrote in 1989. “Therefore, all the sons and daughters of the Church should become aware of their mission and discover how the strength of the Gospel can penetrate and regenerate the mentalities and dominant values that inspire individual cultures, as well as the opinions and mental attitudes that are derived from it.”

These were the closing words of his document on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae; a Catholic university, “born from the heart of the Church,” he wrote was entrusted with a mission whose cultural and religious impact “concerns the very future of humanity.”

For Labor Day weekend, the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., will be hosting an intensive weekend dedicated to the renewal of Catholic higher education. “Twenty Years of Catholic Studies: A Conference in Honor of Dr. Don Briel,” looks to further water the seeds planted by “the founding father of Catholic studies,” who started a milestone interdisciplinary undergraduate program at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota in 1993 and who now joins the University of Mary’s own Catholic Studies program.

(The president of the University of Mary, Monsignor James Patrick Shea, is fellow Catholic University of America alum and friend.)

This weekend, Briel will be talking about Cardinal John Henry Newman and the idea of the university and what that looks like and perhaps should look like today.

The conference itself focuses on Catholic Studies throughout the country but also culture itself and what a renewal and rebuilding of Catholic culture means for it, with speakers from the University of Notre Dame, the Pontifical College of St. Thomas Aquinas, Seton Hall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other places, including the host school, founded in the Benedictine tradition, itself a creative model and beacon of evangelical expansion and renewal.

In an interview, Briel talks about why anyone would do such a thing over the last holiday weekend of the summer, the future of Catholic higher education, dark clouds and beacons of light.


Q: Why is it important to have a conference like this?

A: It marks an important anniversary in the life of American Catholic higher education. As we approach the 25th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it is important I think not to focus on areas in which little progress in implementing the vision of the constitution has been achieved but rather to focus on those reforming programs, often functioning as creative minorities within the academy. ECE stressed the two principles of the unity of knowledge and the ultimate complementarity of faith and reason but the compartmentalization of the university makes it difficult to address either principle. As a result interdisciplinary programs like Catholic Studies become very important in the larger renewal.


Q: Is it odd to have a conference centered around you and your work? How are you looking at that?

A: It’s rather odd. The focus is on the 21st anniversary of our program but as its founder some attention has shifted to me, especially since I have recently taken up my new appointment at the University of Mary.


Q: What exactly is “Catholic studies” and why is it important?

A: I think that you will have a sense of this from my lecture but I would stress several elements: It is interdisciplinary assisting in overcoming the fragmentation of the university for students and faculty; it is a work of the Church and so it assists in overcoming the false separation of the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of education; it provides a foundation for the specialized work of the disciplines (our students double major in another field for example); it offers forums for students and faculty for sustained reflection on the history and relevance of Catholic thought and culture; it cultivates a Catholic imagination; and it stimulates vocational reflection.



Q: You’re leaving a school and area embroiled in scandal. What ought a Catholic make of the dark clouds over the church in the Twin Cities right now?

A: The situation in the archdiocese is quite simply tragic. We had a misplaced confidence that the archdiocese was in the forefront of the reform but have found that there have been cases that have been badly handled well after the 2002 charter. I think it is this that has tested the faith of many Catholics in the archdiocese. On the other hand, this has produced a situation in which any allegation against a priest is received with credulity. It will take a considerable period of time to restore trust.


Q: What do you make of your time at the University of St. Thomas? Do you have regrets or lessons learned that can be a help to others and to others trying to understand what’s happening in the Church there?

A: UST is a complex and diverse institution which is in many ways a strength. Catholic Studies offered to students and faculty alike the voluntary opportunity to explore the intellectual tradition of the Catholic faith. In Newman’s sense of the term it served as a college within the larger university, one which offered residential, intellectual, and spiritual formation within the larger institution. 


Q: What’s the future of the Catholic Church in the United States — and of Catholic education — and how is the role of “Catholic studies” pivotal in it?

A: The contemporary university is simply not coherent and largely functions to credential students for careers and to support specialized research. The classical tradition stressed that the primary task of the university is to form a habit of mind in its students, a habit of mind which enables them to see things in relation and to form right judgments about complex issues. This requires an organic human formation. Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out that most of the catastrophic decisions made in the last 20 years are the result of narrowly specialized perspectives of highly educated peopled misreading the events before them: the economic crisis, the war in Iraq and so on. I think he’s right. Catholic universities are uniquely positioned to address this problem, what Newman describes as the fact that a man trained narrowly in one field is not competent even in that one. But Catholic universities have largely emulated their secular counterparts. Catholic Studies is an attempt to respond to this.

As for the future of the Church in the U.S.: Would anyone describe it as the Catholic Moment now? Probably not. With George Weigel I think that “Evangelical Catholicism” is the answer. I see many young Catholics seeking an integrated account of their faith and their learning. They offer great promise for the future.

Finally, I think that we have to address the specific educational needs of Hispanics in the U.S. We developed a Latino Leadership Program several years ago and have been working on a Leadership Summer Institute to help to address this need.

Education is certainly an essential part of the response. Again Newman said that if Catholics were not educated in the faith to the level of their secular learning they would tend either to naive piety and active skepticism. 


Q: Is this conference a work of renewal of some kind?

A: Yes, I think it is. Many of the participants are active in or beneficiaries of the renewal.


Q: What is the most important thing happening in the Catholic Church today?

A: A growing hunger among many Catholics, especially but not only the young for a deeper encounter with Christ, in the Eucharist, in the life of the mind, in the families they are forming, in their religious and priestly vocations. They are seeking an integrated life in faith and not merely relying on an inherited tradition.

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