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I agree with George 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…

“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 Mr. 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 Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’s 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, MN, in 1993 by Don J. Briel, which Mr. Weigel ascribes as being the beginning of the Catholic Studies movement.

Although Mr. Weigel feels that Msgr. Ellis’s 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 centers 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 Mr. 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 instigated by Don J. Briel 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. Mr. 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 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 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 Mr. Weigel says is indubitably true. The point of disagreement, if indeed it is a disagreement, comes in what Mr. 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 Mr. 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 madman 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Republished with gracious permission from the Journal of the Cardinal Newman Society (March 2018).

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thank you, Mr. Pearce, for bringing up this distinction. I have often heard the argument about the bunker — and why we must not retreat into it. In almost every case those advancing this argument are people who have a certain personality as well as a store of personal energy that many of the rest of us don’t have.

    Sometimes I would like to remind the good-hearted (and admirable) Catholics who tell me not to retreat into a bunker (with the children that I am already fighting so hard to keep out of the muck) that not everyone can swim in the toxic river without getting dragged under. I like to think that the vibrant Catholic community of homeschooling — our bunker — is our life preserver. If you know you don’t have the strength to swim, are you wrong to put on the life jacket? If you are without the weapons of war and the ability to use them, are you wrong to at least lock the door?

  2. Sibyl, thank you for the lovely comment and metaphor! Our family is a part of that vibrant Catholic community of homeschooling. It does feel as though our lively home and homeschool is a life raft. Cheery, with good tools, a mission, and in lieu of retreating – our ultimate goal is to head out INTO the world to encourage others to build their own boats or hop into ours for comfort and hospitality along the way. We make those little forays daily.

    Mr. Pearce, cheers for your entire commentary. Thank you for identifying and clarifying the tiny grain of sand that left me unsettled the first time I read the original piece by Mr. Wiegel. Our homeschool life does not feel like a running away from the real world or a refusal to engage the culture. And should our young men head to colleges, they will either be a heartily Catholic ones or secular schools that offers a thriving Catholic ministry near or on campus (ie. Texas Aggie Catholics). Cultural disengagement? Or a seeking of good soil for tender plants to thrive and continue growing roots?

    Your point can also be illustrated by pondering the difference between our public and communal worship together on Sundays, and the quiet and solemn individual Holy Hour spent when visiting the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration. We cannot live our entire lives in the Adoration chapel. But those who spend frequent time there, are generally stronger, more resilient, and happier Catholics on Sundays and beyond as a result of that dedicated time!

    God calls us to Him in many ways. He strengthens us and feeds us. So that we can be IN the world, but not OF the world. Christ told us to be salt and light. To place our lamps on a stand.

    Our little homeschools and the thoughtful and intentional and authentically Catholic Universities are not automatically lights being shoved under bushels baskets, but rather spaces where we can nurture our lights, grow them, build sturdy stands, withstand the hurricane seeking to drown them out, and then collectively set them high. May God bless the light and all of those seeking to add to it!

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