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What does it mean to be a Catholic University in the public square? By that, I mean a University which is part of a national system which is filled, very largely, with secular universities, and which has many students, and staff, who are not Catholics? It would be easy to answer that in these circumstances it either is not Catholic, or, that in order to become so, it must become exclusively Catholic. Setting aside, for a moment, the question as to whether the Catholic equivalent of a Madrassa is desirable, one might well conclude it is not viable; are there enough Catholic students who want to come to a Catholic University, and are there enough staff? And what, in the meantime, would one do with those staff and students who are not Catholic? Then there is the little question of what ‘Catholic’ might mean in a world where some Catholics doubt that the Pope is a Catholic (but still maintain their faith in what bears do in the woods)? Easiest, perhaps, to retreat into vague talk about a ‘Catholic ethos’; but that does not provide us with much of a refuge.

St John Paul II – a man whose life was much enriched by a Catholic higher education – gave us his thoughts on this in Ex Corde Ecclesiae back in 1990. There he wrote, inter alia that:

‘It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth. This is its way of serving at one and the same time both the dignity of man and the good of the Church, which has “an intimate conviction that truth is (its) real ally … and that knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith”(7). Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God.’ A Catholic education is not only preparation for a career, but preparation for the rest of your life; but what does a “Catholic education” mean in the West in the twenty-first century?

In a society which has moved ever further away from the idea that there is any such thing as ‘truth’, that makes a Catholic University an interesting phenomenon. It cannot fail to engage with the modern relativism, but it begins with something that the modern relativist lacks – a scepticism about such claims. As St John Paul recognised: truth is a ‘fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished’. As we have seen when looking at the ‘option for infanticide’, it is not easy to construct a non-Christian argument for why that option should not be taken. Scoence and technology have immeasurably enriched our lives, but provide, in themselves, no moral frameworks: the job of Catholic higher education is to do just that – to suggest, nay more, to explore and assert those values which follow from our religion. Our job, he suggest is to assist ‘in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities’. That means that:

“In a Catholic University, therefore, Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities in accordance with the proper nature and autonomy of these activities. In a word, being both a University and Catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative”


We cannot, and indeed should not, shy away from the debate between faith and reason, for the Truth has nothing to fear from such a debate. But for us, ethical and moral considerations underpin everything – from our research, through our teaching, right into the conditions of employment for our staff. In an era where it is increasingly common for universities to farm out non-academic related services to ‘service providers’, Catholic universities should resist that. We should pay our staff properly (in the UK the ‘living wage’) and recognise them as a critical part of our community. That has to be at the heart of our Catholic higher education – a spirit of community, where everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic, (all) staff and students, feel a sense of being part of a common endeavour. As St John Paul recognised, this brings its own rewards if you get it right:

“The source of its unity springs from a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person and message of Christ which gives the Institution its distinctive character. As a result of this inspiration, the community is animated by a spirit of freedom and charity; it is characterized by mutual respect, sincere dialogue, and protection of the rights of individuals. It assists each of its members to achieve wholeness as human persons; in turn, everyone in the community helps in promoting unity, and each one, according to his or her role and capacity, contributes towards decisions which affect the community, and also towards maintaining and strengthening the distinctive Catholic character of the Institution.”

That all sounds excellent. But that was 1990 – and is anyone bold enough to make the claim nearly 30 years on that we have achieved that? The USCCB produced a 25 year report which is is rich in comments about ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation’, but somewhat lacking in specifics. And that, of course, is in the US – so may not offer much to the UK – except an example of how opaque prose discourages serious questions. America has many ‘Catholic Schools’ and the USCCB at least has some views on these things – whatever may be the criticisms of it. Here, we have made a start, of sorts, with the ‘Cathedrals Group’ of Universities whose members ‘share a common faith heritage and a strong commitment to values such as social justice, respect for the individual and promoting the public good through their work with communities and charities.’ That’s good to know, but does not take us further into the question of what a Catholic University in the UK might look like.