University-level Catholic Studies programs are an essential response to the increasingly fragmented college experience, said the man who founded the first such program 20 years ago. “At the heart of Catholic Studies has been the encounter not merely with a set of texts, but with living Catholic minds who share in that gaudium de veritate, that joy in the truth at the heart of the life of a university, properly understood,” Dr. Don Briel told participants at a recent conference on Catholic education. The Twenty Years of Catholic Studies conference was held Aug. 29-31 in honor of Dr. Briel, who founded and spent 20 years directing the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minn. Other speakers at the conference included Dr. Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. bishops’ conference; and author, scholar and papal biographer George Weigel. In his Aug. 31 keynote address, Briel reflected on the history and progress of the college initiative he founded. A product of seven different Catholic elementary schools, a diocesan high school and college at Notre Dame, Briel noted a common thread that ran through his experiences in the late 1950s through mid 1960s. In elementary and high school, he said, “…religious sisters and brothers were predominant.” There was also a fundamental Catholic culture that pervaded academic, spiritual and social life at the schools that began to diminish at the end of his college days as Vatican II was being finalized. “In the concluding months of the Council’s deliberations…it was clear that the Church was moving away from a relatively settled institutional self-understanding, one which had been fortified by a long cultural and deep intellectual tradition to a more open and less adversarial engagement with the modern world,” he said. There was a growing uneasiness and a loss of identity, Briel explained, and its effects could be seen throughout the school by the time his college career was over. “By the time I left Notre Dame much had changed,” he said, “not only the requirement that men wear a coat and tie to dinner but also the removal of religious habits, a growing resistance to the requirements in theology and philosophy and an increasing diversity of backgrounds and commitments among the faculty.” Until that point, Catholic higher education sought to integrate intellectual and spiritual formation in order to mold the whole person, he observed. As interpretations of Vatican II shook out, however, the study of theology became a strictly academic discipline divorced of any claims of actually affecting the spiritual life of its students. Catholic universities also began to distance themselves from the hierarchy of the Church, a school of thought which culminated at the Land O’Lakes conference in Wisconsin in 1967, at which many prominent Catholic educators of the day signed what was essentially a “declaration of independence from the hierarchy,” Briel said. The signers of the document insisted on the Catholic university’s “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of any kind, lay or clerical…” while at the same time insisting that Catholicism be “perceptively present and effectively operative,” distorting the long-held role of the Church in Catholic universities. The group “defined the Catholic university as constituting the ‘critical reflective intelligence of the Church.’” Essentially, the signers believed that the Church should now rely on the universities for guidance rather than the universities on the Church, a school of thought which continues to dominate many prominent Catholic universities today, causing multiple interrelated problems, Briel said. These problems include: the emphasis on credentialing students for careers rather than on forming their minds, the fragmentation of academia leading to an incoherent educational experience, the loss of a sense of the Church’s role in intellectual claims, the distancing of the university from forming students’ sense of morality, and ultimately the dehumanization of a culture formed without religion. To counteract these problems, Dr. Briel founded the first Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas, which now serves as a model for other universities with Catholic Studies programs. “We began with the assumption that Catholic Studies would be a work of the Church,” Briel said, “…not merely intellectual but also apostolic for we sought to form not merely a habit of mind but also to integrate intellectual and spiritual formation in an organic form.” The Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas formed a residential community focused on human, spiritual and intellectual formation in order to create a “truly Catholic community of conviction.” This small community experience is a hallmark of all Catholic Studies programs, Briel said, as these communities create endless opportunity for conversation both in and out of the classroom and create and integrated experience of education that most modern universities abandoned. “Catholic Studies seemed to us an essential response to that shift, not only in inviting students to a more radical encounter with truth but also to a new formation of life which discloses a deep sense of personal vocation.” But while Catholic Studies has proved an enriching endeavor for its students, it alone cannot ultimately solve the larger problems facing Catholic universities today. “This is the responsibility of university trustees, of the president and administration,” Briel said. “If Catholicism is to be ‘perceptively present and effectively operative’ within the university, it will require a more comprehensive effort than Catholic Studies can provide.” “Nonetheless, Catholic Studies constitutes one of those creative minorities on which larger cultures, in this case, academic culture, depend.”
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