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 twenty-first-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, than damage-repair. Nourished intellectually by John Henry Newman and Christopher Dawson, Briel has aimed at nothing less than creating, in twenty-first-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.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.