Catholic Studies Programs and a Coming Renaissance

Interview with Don Briel, of Minnesota-based University of St. Thomas

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ROME, MARCH 27, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Catholic colleges and universities, particularly in the United States, continue to struggle with the question of their identity, especially since the publication of the apostolic constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesiae)."



Some have gone farther than others in embracing the secular model and aims of the university, while a flurry of new Catholic colleges and alternative institutions have arisen in response to this phenomenon of secularization.

One school, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, started the first "Catholic Studies" program in 1992 to offer students a comprehensive Catholic education shaped by the broad Catholic intellectual tradition.

Now a department with undergraduate and graduate programs, Catholic Studies enrolls 160 undergraduate majors and 30 minors. The experiment has inspired dozens of other programs around the country.

During a recent visit to Rome, Don Briel, founder and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas, spoke with ZENIT about the rise of such programs.

Q: Could you briefly describe the concept of "Catholic Studies" and tell us how the idea for the program came about? Why is this type of academic program needed at a Catholic college or university?

Briel: The idea of Catholic Studies emerged in the early 1990s out of a concern that undergraduates at Catholic universities seemed to lack access to a comprehensive study of a rich and complex Catholic intellectual tradition.

Of course, there were many courses in theology, philosophy and history which introduced students to disciplinary perspectives on Catholic life and thought. But the increasing specialization of academic departments made it less and less likely that students would be able to gain a broad sense of the tradition as a whole.

We found a new generation of Catholics who had begun to realize that they had been deprived of a rich and noble intellectual tradition. We had also been struck by the variety and depth of their intellectual interests. We confronted a generation of students suspicious of narrow specialization.

Catholic Studies programs remind both students and faculty of Catholicism's claim that it might engage, and indeed transform, all areas of intellectual inquiry from the arts to the social sciences, to business and to law, to medicine and to politics.

If a Catholic university has little to say about the common good of political societies, or the distribution of wealth promoted by various economic systems, or the notion of beauty in the fine arts and in liturgy, or human freedom as understood by contemporary social sciences, then it was unclear to us what might be distinctive about Catholic higher education.

However, it seemed increasingly unlikely that these broader issues and contexts would arise without the development of interdisciplinary programs committed to their sustained investigation.

Q: Do you believe that Catholic Studies programs produce sectarianism on campuses and allow other academic departments, such as theology, to shed their Catholic identity?

Briel: It has always been the case that only a small minority of faculty at Catholic universities have systematically engaged the complex intellectual search for a unity of knowledge presupposed by a Catholic view of reality.

In the past, this task was largely carried out by the religious communities that founded and sustained most Catholic colleges and universities. Their communal conversations and shared scholarship established a broad framework and context for the institution as a whole. The decline in numbers and influence of these religious communities has left a large void in Catholic higher education.

It became clear to us that the work of these communities needed to be sustained by a now more voluntary and diverse group of lay scholars committed to an ongoing interdisciplinary reflection on the integrity of Catholic life and thought. They too would necessarily constitute a relatively small minority of the faculty at large.

It seemed to us that Catholic universities will continue to depend heavily on the existence of such communities of faculty whose work might serve as a sign and catalyst within the university as a whole.

At the same time, as Pope John Paul II has noted, all departments have their own contribution to make to the idea of the Catholic university. The existence of Catholic Studies programs does not diminish the importance of those contributions. In this sense, Catholic Studies programs may be an indispensable but insufficient response to the need for renewal in Catholic higher education.

The most successful Catholic Studies programs have also developed campuswide initiatives including faculty development seminars and symposia, public lectures, grant programs for course development and scholarship, team-taught courses and joint degree programs linking various university departments and schools to the interdisciplinary work of Catholic Studies.

The largest programs have developed centers of institutes to develop and sustain these broader programs. Among the largest and most comprehensive of these centers are the Centers for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas and Seton Hall, the Institute for Catholic Studies at John Carroll and the Institute for the Study of Catholic Culture and Tradition at Loyola University, New Orleans.

Q: How does Catholic Studies contribute to the intellectual and cultural life of a Catholic university? Could these programs offer anything to secular universities?

Briel: Catholic Studies reminds the rest of the university, Catholic, private or state, of the comprehensiveness and integrity of the Catholic intellectual tradition at a time in which there is a tendency to view Catholic life and thought as a series of disconnected assertions and claims.

The Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas has sponsored a variety of weeklong summer seminars in which faculty from across the university have gathered to discuss the Catholic identity of the university, management education in a Catholic university, the implications of James T. Burtchaell's "The Dying of the Light" and Philip Gleason's "Contending with Modernity," the relations of theology and the natural sciences, and the Church and the Holocaust.

We have found that faculty are rarely indifferent to these questions but they lack both time and a common vocabulary with which to engage them. In addition, we developed Aspen [Institute] style seminars in which faculty from specific schools and colleges such a law, business, social work and education come together to discuss the relevance of Catholic thought for their professional development and teaching.

In 1997, we developed a new quarterly, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, in order to explore the rich interdisciplinary character of Catholic thought. We developed the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought to disclose more directly the importance of the Church's social teaching.

The institute has sponsored a series of international symposia on Catholic social thought and business including the September 2001 conference on "Work as the Key to the Social Question," co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and the Catholic University of Leuven. The institute also sponsors a number of programs on campus and in the local area.

In 2001, we created a graduate program in Catholic Studies which in its second year enrolls over 40 students. In 1997, we developed a Catholic Studies program at the Angelicum in Rome and we later purchased and renovated a residence in the city to house our students who spend a semester or full year studying in the faculty of social sciences at the Angelicum.

The center sponsors a wide variety of lectures, book discussions, student and faculty retreats, and conferences designed to enhance the Catholic intellectual tradition of the university. Similar programs can be found at in private and state universities. One of the most prominent of these programs is the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago.

Q: How have Catholic Studies programs been shaped by "Ex Corde Ecclesiae"?

Briel: In "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," Pope John Paul II stressed the importance of recovering the Catholic university's traditional emphasis on the unity of knowledge and on the ultimate complementarity of faith and reason. This has clearly influenced the development of Catholic Studies programs.

The Pope also stressed the importance of the search for meaning, not simply "the meaning of scientific and technical research, of social life and of culture," but also "the very meaning of the human person."

In our own time, this task will require a sustained interdisciplinary reflection and collaboration at a moment in which the increasing specialization of disciplines threatens to turn the university into what Francis Cardinal George once famously called a "high class trade school."

The Holy Father's emphasis on the Catholic university as a "primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture" has also had a significant impact on the character of Catholic Studies programs.

Q: Does the interest in Catholic Studies and the growth of new Catholic colleges signal a resurgence in Catholic intellectual life?

Briel: I think it is the case that the interest in Catholic Studies and similar programs around the country does signify a resurgence of Catholic intellectual life. We confront a new generation of students which is less cynical about life and who are clearly committed to a reflection on the meaning of their lives and the wider societies in which they live and work.

They are no longer satisfied with an accumulation of information but rather understand their studies in the context of a search for wisdom. At the same time, they are often very practical and are committed to pre-professional studies of one kind or another within this larger context of the search for meaning.

They tend to have broad interests, unusual maturity and a great capacity for friendship. They have a strong sense of personal calling and they are seeking a kind of intellectual fellowship in a community of study and conviction in which to discern their larger vocation. I must say that they represent a remarkable promise for the future of Catholicism in the United States.