Briel Symposium ponders Catholicity in schools

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

What constitutes being a Catholic school or university? How do educators imbue Catholic values throughout the curriculum? Do college departments – such as philosophy, Catholic studies, business, sociology – interact using a common vision?

These and other questions were posed and discussed by secondary- and university-level school educators Feb. 20-22 at the inaugural Briel Symposium in New Orleans.

The conference was sponsored by The Newman Idea,  a new entity whose board sought to introduce concrete plans that educators could share to strengthen and, in some cases, renew Catholic-Christian education.

David Delio, Ph.D., president/board chairman of The Newman Idea, said the goal of the symposium was “to bring many disparate voices together (in Catholic education) who were doing innovative things.”

Participants included a diocesan institute in Oklahoma that helps form adults in the Catholic intellectual tradition, an intellectual ministry to students in Pittsburgh,  an urban home-school community program in New Orleans and an entrepreneurial venture with regional and national aspirations like The Newman Idea.

The idea, Delio said, was “to  begin to form a network to share successes. To that end it was a great success.”

How Newman Idea started
Many at the conference were enthusiasts of the work of Dr. Don Briel, the Catholic theologian for whom the symposium is named, and his vision of Catholic studies. Briel founded the now-popular Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota 25 years ago and consulted with other universities, including Loyola University New Orleans, on how to instill Catholicism on campuses, Delio said.

“He had this idea of Catholic Studies and sort of renewal of Catholic education,” said Don Briel’s son, Matt Briel, a symposium participant and theology professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. “He had seen fragmentation of universities as various silos that had nothing to say to each other.

“He was particularly concerned with Catholic universities (as a whole) for two reasons. You had various disciplines unable to speak to one another – philosophy had nothing to say to sociology that had nothing to say to literature – and the problem with that is there is no integrated vision of reality or truths.”

Briel said his father admired the philosophy of 19th-century thinker Blessed John Henry Newman – that  each discipline should be assessed as one approach to reality.

“You have science, you have sociology, you have literature, you’ve got business,” Matt Briel said. “But the key is that you not only do the disciplines well, but how do you see these various disciplines correct each other and have something to say to each other – to see how they connect and speak to each?”

The conference continues the work of Don Briel, who died in February 2018, to ensure that Catholic schools and universities maintain their Catholic identity along with the pursuit of academic knowledge.

Matt Briel said his father was a deeply committed Catholic who was troubled that as Catholic education became more sophisticated, it would lose its Catholic identity.

“My dad was very concerned to keep the sophistication and the cultural elevation (of knowledge), but also retain Catholic identity and realism,” Matt Briel said. “You can come to an understanding of the world as it is.”

Briel defined what makes an institution Catholic.

“The difference between a Catholic and secular understanding of reality is basically the incarnation – God becoming a human being, Christ, and that transforms what we think of God and what we think of as human beings,” Briel said. “So our understanding of reality is transformed by this event.”

It was Don Briel who had the Newman Idea of Catholic identity, formation and the study of Catholic culture. Underpinning his conviction, his son said, was that  “religion will die if it is not enfleshed in a culture.”

Briel said this is evidenced throughout U.S. society.  Catholic traditions practiced regularly in communities just 60 years ago, such as Catholics not eating meat on Fridays, priests blessing houses and families saying the rosary at home, are not as common.

“There’s been a retreat of Christianity from culture, and the result of that is Christianity atrophies and weakens,” Briel said.

Innovation at all levels
Briel Symposium organizers saw hopefulness after listening to educators from across the country speak of their programs, including the Catholic-Christian university innovations led by Jeanne Buckeye of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota; Home/Classical School innovations by Angel Parham, a sociology professor of Loyola University New Orleans; the challenges of a research university by Thomas Behr of the University of Houston; rediscovering the tradition for adult learners by Jane Wolfe of Tulane University; ways of educating by David Delio; a future for Catholic high schools by Barbara Pereira of The Newman Idea; and college closings/institute initiatives by Richard Meloche of the Alciun Institute.

Delio said the group walked away with two concrete goals:

Forming an online community through The Newman Idea website to “update each other and support each other’s initiatives.” Some of the participants did not have time to share their teaching content but will do so online.

 Hosting another Briel Symposium in New Orleans in March 2020.

The Newman Idea has an office and classroom at 7100 St. Charles Ave., suite 109, New Orleans, and plans to host weekly casual Friday conversations throughout Lent for local college students; wine and cheese nights for local university faculty interested in learning how to integrate their disciplines in faith; a late spring/early summer adult education program; and a trip to Blessed John Henry Newman’s canonization (once it is announced).

For details, visit or email

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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