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blessed john henry newman

It would be a legitimate question to ask whether one could in all seriousness write about Catholic higher education in the UK? In the USA there are dozens of Catholic colleges, and however much some might query the aptness of the name in some cases, there is a large Catholic sector to American higher education. The UK, by contrast, has four Catholic Universities (and other ‘institutes’ and ‘colleges’), in order of foundation, St Mary’s, Twickenham, Newman, Birmingham, Leeds Trinity, and St Mary’s Belfast. All were (and Belfast still is), until recently, ‘University Colleges’ and all have distinguished histories in terms of training teachers for Catholic schools, but together, they account for no more than about 0.5% of UK undergraduates. All of them talk about their ‘Catholic ethos’, and for those in this very secular society who, seeing the word ‘Catholic’, freak out, what they say should act as some reassurance.

St Mary’s, Belfast speaks for them all when its website says:

“Wherever it is found throughout the world Catholic Higher Education seeks to integrate intellectual, personal, ethical, and religious formation; and to unite high academic achievement with service to others.”

The mission is, at one level, that of every good university, to provide excellent teaching and to do good research, but where secular universities can stop there, a Catholic one needs to go further. We have to help meet the teaching and the pastoral needs of our students in the light of the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ. So we are responsible, in part, for passing on our Catholic heritage to the next generation, not as something set in aspic, or as a museum piece to be admired but disregarded, but rather as part of a living faith engaging with the trends and fashions of the academic world. But where, perhaps, others pay obeisance to the modern faith in relativism, we do that thing academics ought to do, we approach it with a proper scepticism. We do believe in the search for truth, and though we acknowledge that search cannot be completed in this world, we know that it exists. Newman saw Catholic education as developing the following attributes: freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom. A Catholic university is charged with developing a learning community which inculcates such values, and should strive to help form its students in such a way; but it also needs to engage its students actively in this process – there is no room for ‘safe spaces’ or for students to be merely passive receivers (even if such students existed and wanted to come to a university with a Catholic ethos).

A Catholic university places itself, Newman wrote, at the service of revealed truth (Idea of a University, Discourse 4). That gives us the immense task of trying to harmonise the spiritual, cultural and personal worlds within which we live, with a view to producing students who are not only well-educated in a secular sense, but whose spiritual needs (even if they are not Catholics) are being met, and who see an horizon wider than that of contemporary utilitarianism. Such students will go on, in whatever walk of life they follow, to be good citizens of this world, and we pray, through Grace, to reach their destiny in the next.

Whilst fulfilling all the intellectual needs students have, a Catholic university also values each one of them as a unique individual with a God-given destiny, and our job is to work with them to help them realise it. In addition to the ubiquitous ‘performance indicators’ of grades and exam success, a Catholic university will keep its eyes fixed on the wider purpose of education, and it will not neglect the spiritual yearnings of people. It is an impoverished vision of education which narrows it down to the acquisition of knowledge and worldly success; these things matter, but they are only a part of education, not its ultimate objectives. Education is not a commodity, even if the Government insists it operates in a ‘market’. A Catholic model of a university begins with the heart of the Church, and it teaches from there. Each person is made in the image of God, and we emphasise the inalienable dignity of each of us, and as God loves us, so, too must we love one another. A Catholic university is a community where teamwork consists not only of interaction between staff and students, but between both groups and the Church in the parish, the diocese and the wider world. We are, even in the modern, secular UK, part of a wider, global Catholic community. That, too, is the mark of a Catholic university. Whatever the politics of ‘Brexit’, no university in this country has, or could afford to have, an insular outlook. Where Catholic universities here have an advantage, is that although there may be few of them here in the UK, there is a global Catholic community of which we are already part. Cooperation between us offers students and staff opportunities which we need to take advantage of – not least at this point in history.