Faithful Catholic education: To retreat or engage?

“We were always arguing but we never quarreled.”

So said G. K. Chesterton of his relationship with his brother. Like Chesterton, I like arguing, but I always try to avoid quarreling. The former is a healthy disagreement based upon a mutual desire to understand things better; the latter is an unhealthy disagreement in which the absence of charity leads to the clouding of one’s judgment, thereby thwarting one’s ability to understand things better. An argument leads closer to the truth; a quarrel leads further from it. Charity leads to clarity; the absence of charity leads to the absence of clarity.

With this distinction in mind, I am minded to argue with George Weigel over something he said about Catholic higher education in his foreword to Renewal of Catholic Higher Education: Essays on Catholic Studies in Honor of Don J. Briel (University of Mary Press 2017), though I trust such disagreement will never constitute a quarrel.

Before voicing my possible point of disagreement with Weigel, I’d like to emphasize my wholehearted agreement with almost everything he has to say in the aforementioned foreword.

He begins by highlighting “three seminal moments” in the postwar history of Catholic education in the United States. The first was Monsignor John Tracy Ellis’ article, published in 1955, entitled “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life;” the second was the notorious Land O’Lakes statement in 1967 on “The Idea of a Catholic University;” and the third was the founding of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., in 1993 by Don J. Briel, which Weigel ascribes as being the beginning of the Catholic Studies movement.

Although Weigel feels that Monsignor Ellis’ essay has been “retrospectively misinterpreted,” he concedes that “there is a direct line to be drawn between the Ellis article and the self-consciousness and tacit defensiveness of the Land O’Lakes statement.” The overall sense of “The Idea of a Catholic University,” as expressed in the Land O’Lakes statement, was that Catholic universities were “second-rate, maybe even third-rate,” and that the way to be first-rate was to be like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other centres of “academic excellence.”

Henceforth these secular or secularized universities became what might be called “aspirational peers,” the institutions that Catholic universities now sought to emulate. “The problem, of course,” writes Weigel, “is that by 1967, those ‘aspirational peers’ were beginning to lose their minds, literally, en route to the postmodern sandbox of authoritarian solipsism they now occupy today.” This is George Weigel at his rhetorical and polemical best!

One of the most important things about the Catholic Studies movement Briel instigated was “to repair the damage that was done to institutions of Catholic higher learning in the aftermath of Land O’Lakes.” But this was not all. Weigel continues:

But there is far more to Don Briel’s vision and achievement than damage repair. Nourished intellectually by John Henry Newman and Christopher Dawson, Briel’s work has aimed at nothing less than creating, in 21st 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 the cultural crisis of the moment, and the cultural crisis in turn produced a political crisis in which constitutional democracy itself is now at risk.

There can be no disagreement here. All that Weigel says is indubitably true. The point of disagreement, if indeed it is a disagreement, comes in what Weigel says next. “The answer to that cultural crisis cannot be a retreat into auto-constructed bunkers,” he writes. “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.”

The bone of contention in this particular sentence—or at least the bone that I have to pick with it, is Weigel’s apparent dismissal of the wisdom of retreating into “auto-constructed bunkers.” It’s sad but true that bunkers are sometimes necessary as places to which we need to retreat, as are catacombs and fortresses. If there are no bunkers or catacombs or fortresses, it is sometimes necessary to construct them ourselves. This was the spirit behind those other pioneers who founded Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom College as havens of sanity and sanctity amidst the mayhem and madness which followed in the wake of the surrender of mainstream Catholic universities to the power of the Zeitgeist.

If the mainstream is deadly, it might not be possible or desirable to swim upstream. On the contrary, if the river of no return is leading to a cataclysmic cataract, only a corpse or a mad man would go with the flow. If the mainstream is flowing towards such an abyss or if it is so polluted that to swim in it is deadly, it is wise to get out and seek fresher water—or what Shakespeare would call the “quick freshes,” the living water that sustains life in the desert.

I agree with Weigel that “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.” The problem is that we need the well-educated men and women before any such conversion can take place. If such an education is impossible in the mainstream colleges, it must be sought elsewhere, even in “auto-constructed bunkers.” This is why parents seek to homeschool their children and why they want their children to go to Newman Guide colleges.

I agree with Weigel that Don Briel’s legacy in establishing the Catholic Studies movement has been priceless, and I rejoice that the Catholic Studies programs at the University of St. Thomas and the University of Mary, which he did so much to build, are still flourishing. I would merely insist that other pioneers took different approaches to the same problem he sought to tackle and that their contributions are equally valid and equally valuable.

It might be that Weigel agrees with me and that I have simply misunderstood what I took to be the offending sentence. If so, I am pleased that we agree where I thought we differed. If, however, the disagreement is real, I am relieved that it can only ever be an argument and never a quarrel.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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