ST. PAUL, Minn. — After 21 years of directing the “Catholic Studies” program he founded at the University of St. Thomas, professor Don Briel has decided to retire and pass the torch to the new generation.

Briel is leaving his position as director of the Catholic Studies Center at St. Thomas on Aug. 31, where he will be succeeded by Michael Naughton, currently director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought and Alan W. Moss Endowed Chair in Catholic Social Thought, which are part of the center.  

Briel said his pioneering program provides students an opportunity to discover the Catholic faith as an “integrating principle that helps make sense of everything,” instead of seeing it as a disconnected, “private value.”

“If you really want to understand Catholicism, you just don’t understand its theology or philosophy; you understand it as a way of life — a way of life that has consequences,” Briel said.

The program was the first of its kind in the United States when Briel, now 67, established it as an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program in 1993. The program gave students and faculty an opportunity to experience the rich diversity of the Catholic intellectual tradition — politics, psychology, history, science, literature, theology, philosophy, culture and more — and understand it in an integrated way.

“I had a growing sense that something was necessary along these lines to respond to the very recent publication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which emphasized that Catholic universities’ fundamental commitments were twofold: the pursuit of the unity of knowledge and the ultimate complementarity of faith and reason,” Briel said. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education, was released in 1990.

The Department of Catholic Studies developed in 1996 into the Center for Catholic Studies, and, today, it offers an undergraduate major and minor — many students double major — as well as a master’s degree in Catholic studies (which began in 2000), a joint degree with the university’s School of Law and a study-abroad program at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome (also known as the Angelicum).


Major Decision

Briel said the critical decision in the program’s success was focusing on promoting the double major early on.

“We invited students to major in Catholic studies and major in another field — accounting, pre-medicine, history or pre-law — with the sense that, ideally, Catholic studies is not an end in itself, but a foundation for career discernment in both vocational and professional life,” he said.

The center later expanded to include the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought and the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy; a quarterly journal called Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; and collaboration with other Catholic universities in Europe, Africa and South America, to develop international programs on the relationship between Catholic faith and culture.

Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Department of Peace, Justice and Human Development, said the program not only helps students integrate their specialized field of study with the broader knowledge of the Church, but it also helps heal divisions in the Church that come from modernity’s way of pitting faith against reason, intellect against will, and public against private. One example of such a false separation is  the political “justice vs. life divide” between Catholics involved in social action, says Reyes.

Graduates who go through the program are exposed to “the John Ryan Institute for Social Thought, courses in theology, plenty of pro-life [materials],  and they’re reaching out to the different constituencies of the Church,” Reyes said. “So they are fundamental to healing the various divides that the modern world puts into our lives.”


Model Formation

Reyes taught in the program during a sabbatical year from other teaching, and he said it is “a great model” for other programs.

“What stands out to me is the intellectual and moral integration: that the moral and intellectual lives are connected, which is not assumed anymore in higher education,” he said. “It is actually forming students in a holistic way, as opposed to just informing them.”

“I think there is a rising generation of young Catholics who want an excellent education in whatever their particular field is — as business majors, lawyers or doctors — but are yearning for an integrated vision and formation that you get [through] Catholic studies,” he said.

Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, said the program was a “big part of my life for many years.”

Kraska earned her undergraduate degree in Catholic studies in 2001 and then earned a master’s degree in Catholic studies along with her law degree.

“It has a tremendous impact in the work I do daily,” Kraska said. “A big part of what I do is to bring Catholic thought and teaching to bear upon different public-policy decisions that we make here in Colorado.”

The influence can be seen when Kraska has to make statements or formulate positions for the conference on legislation or public policy, where Catholic social teaching comes to bear.

“A lot of where I learned [how to apply Church teaching] was though the ‘Catholic Studies’ program, and I’ve been able, really, to tangibly use that education in a unique way.”

Kraska said she hopes the program will continue to grow not only at St. Thomas, but also at “universities around the country and the world,” so that students can experience their Catholic faith from many different perspectives.

“It’s a tremendous gift that has been given to students like myself,” she said.

Briel is pleased with graduates’ perspectives, because he wanted to provide an integrated approach along the lines envisioned by Blessed John Henry Newman, and not “just an intellectual program”; consequently, the program gives students an experience of the meaning of the liturgy, retreats, regular Mass, access to the Blessed Sacrament in the center’s chapel and an opportunity to study at the Angelicum in Rome.

“Students see this not simply as a course of study, but as a community in which they can come to terms with the apostolic claims of the intellectual tradition of the Church,” Briel emphasized.


Catholic Studies Expansion

The first graduating class had three graduates in 1995; recently, class sizes range from 75 to 80 students.

Briel said he is happy the program has also produced more than 100 ordained priest-alumni, many religious brothers and sisters and 30 professors teaching in Catholic universities. To date, there are 900 undergraduate alumni and 120 graduate-level alumni.

Briel said the program has had 320 to 350 students participate over the past few years, but the goal is to expand the enrollment in the program to 10% of the university’s 5,500 undergraduate students.

For his part, Reyes said he sees it as a model for Catholic-education options in the U.S. The program’s flexibility means it can spread in non-Catholic institutions, both public and private, reaching more Catholic youth. “It’s an amazing model that is transportable and can happen in different institutions,” he said.

While Briel is encouraged by the more than 70 other programs that have taken root elsewhere, with more starting, “most of them are quite small,” he noted. He said the second-largest program is at John Carroll University in Cleveland, with 60 students, and the rest considerably smaller.

“My hope that Catholic studies would spark a kind of major catalyst for the renewal of Catholic education has not been largely realized to this point,” he said, suspecting that one reason may be that the other programs exist as concentrations or minors, unlike the double-major program at St. Thomas.


Briel Legacy Continues

Although Briel is retiring from his position at St. Thomas, he will not be settling for retired academic life. He indicated to the Register that he has plans to actively promote Catholic studies throughout academia, plans that he will make public soon.

Overall, Briel hopes the legacy of his program will continue to shape alumni to have a “lasting role on the world they make” possible through their contributions.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.