Don Briel (l) and Michael Naughton (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

Where have we been, where are we going?

After 21 years of Catholic Studies, the visionary founder of the Center, Dr. Don Briel, has decided to retire. While the departure of any founder is unsettling, Briel has prepared for this transition so the Center in collaboration with the Department will continue to flourish. At this moment of change, it is important to reflect upon where we have been and where we are going. For hindsight of the past and foresight of the future are necessary components for the insight to act today.

When Briel founded the Catholic Studies Department in 1993 and the Center for Catholic Studies in 1995, he and other faculty grounded their vision in the “heart of the Church” (ex corde ecclesiae). We envisioned a Center whose programs would remind the university of the comprehensiveness and integrity of the Catholic intellectual tradition. We were concerned that as society becomes more secularized and pluralistic, pressures would push Catholic higher education to substitute the deep claims of the tradition with generic values that would not have the capacity to carry its full mission and identity. Recognizing the need to get to the roots of the matter, Briel worked with others to develop new forums for reflecting on the unity of knowledge and the relations of faith and reason.

In collaboration with the Department, the Center has become regionally, nationally and internationally recognized. Over the past five years, for example, the Center has initiated more than 120 events – including 66 public lectures, 14 seminars, seven retreats, 18 public debates, 11 conferences and six leadership institutes – creating a vibrant dialogue and vital presence on and off campus of Catholic-related issues and concerns.

Off campus, the Center has propelled the University of St. Thomas to broad recognition as a national and international leader in examining the importance of Catholic mission and identity and in terms of the contribution the Catholic universities uniquely provide to contemporary culture. On campus, the Center serves as a college of sorts for the university as understood by John Henry Newman, who argued that liberal education requires the complementary forms of the college and the university; furthermore, the Center’s institutes create a way of life and a new community in which scholarship, learning, debate, liturgy, recreation and friendship find an organic and fruitful relation.

We are hopeful for a bright future for the Center. While university education and, in particular, Catholic higher education have significant future challenges, we stand on the shoulders of people who have contributed and sacrificed much to make Catholic Studies what it is. Some of those people include Monsignor Terrence Murphy, Father Alan Moss, Father Dennis Dease and Monsignor James Habiger, as well as the Kochs, the Sitzmanns and the Bernardis, past faculty and staff, and many more. Briel, however, played an indispensable role in envisioning and institutionalizing Catholic Studies. All of us who worked with Briel are grateful for his profound insights on the Catholic intellection tradition, his extraordinary administrative skill, his generous spirit and his deep connections to the larger ecclesial life. He founded and developed one of the most vital and creative centers in Catholic higher education. He will be greatly missed as director, but as a colleague and friend we look forward to future collaborations with him. We in the Center and the department are fully committed to move forward on this vision and to find new and creative ways to express its articulation.