Last night I was privileged to be able to attend the formal launch of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Amazingly I was even invited to the pre-launch drinks and post-launch supper. I was privileged to see some familiar faces (Dr Jacob Phillips for example) and meet some new ones (Ben Ryan from the ecumenical think-tank Theos, and Dr Chris Altieri from Vatican Radio). It was good to be there as there a clear feeling that something good was afoot for the Church in England and Wales.

The Vice-Chancellor, Francis Campbell, was a visible and active presence at all the launch events, which reflects the value being placed on this new Catholic research centre. It exemplifies the sterling progress that St Mary’s has made in the last few years. Originally opened by the Catholic Poor Schools Committee in 1850 as a teachers’ training college, then a university college, and as of 2014 a fully-fledged university. It has attracted to its staff in the last couple of years such figures as Dr Ruth Kelly (a former Labour cabinet minister), Sir Vince Cable (former Liberal Democrats cabinet minister), Dr Mary McAleese (former President of Ireland) and the eminent economist Dr Philip Booth.

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The Rt Hon Dr Ruth Kelly

These appointments are not to be reduced to headline-catching. They reflect the university’s desire to situate its teaching and research squarely in the midst of the contemporary socio-political reality of the UK. If the Church is to conduct a dialogue with society through its academics then it must be able to comprehend society fruitfully and it must be able to make itself comprehensible to society. These eminent figures, all of whom have significant intellectual clout, are effectively bridges across which this two-way traffic of dialogue can pass.

St Mary’s is now a university, and at the heart of a university is its research. That is, research both for its own sake and for the sake of the teaching it is able to provide its undergraduates. The Benedict XVI Centre is a fruit of this commitment to research. The really heartening thing is that theology and related disciplines are taking the lead in these newly-expanding horizons of the university.

Dr Ruth Kelly acted as a sort of compere for the launch proper, for which she was well suited. The other speakers were the Centre’s founding Director, Dr Stephen Bullivant, and Fr Friedrich Bechina, Under-Secretary at the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. Dr Bullivant gave a lively, indeed fervent, explanation of the Centre’s aims and projects, revealing that it has already been very busy with several projects soon to bear fruit. The first of these will be a fascinating report, a collaboration with the Bishops of England and Wales, Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales: a statistical report based on recent British Social Attitudes survey data, the author of which is Dr Bullivant himself. It is not to be a mere exercise in statistics, but an attempt to measure the lie of the land in contemporary Catholicism, to see where it is weak and where it is strong, as a basis for trying to explain why this is so. Other projects are in harmony with this, such as the survey of lapsed Catholics it is conducting in Portsmouth diocese, and major research into Bl Paul VI’s watershed encyclical Humanae Vitaeand what role it and its conflicted reception have had upon the tangible decline in Catholicism that marked much of the post-conciliar period till recently.

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Dr Stephen Bullivant

The choice to name the Centre after the Pope Emeritus is more than a touching homage to a great pope and a great theologian. Nor is it merely a grateful nod to Benedict XVI’s visit to St Mary’s itself in 2010, and the fillip this gave to the university. It acknowledges the role Benedict XVI (or Dr Joseph Ratzinger prior to his papal accession) has had in the Church’s dialogue with modern society. The crude and ignorant caricatures of Cardinal Ratzinger as “the pope’s rotweiler” when he was Prefect at the Holy Office ignore his profound influence on Vatican II, his role as one of its authentic commentators and interpreters, but even more his proven ability to engage fruitfully in a profound dialogue with society, social theory and secular reason. It is this Benedictine heritage that the Centre seeks to tap into and extend.

Fr Bechina’s speech was remarkable, and caused some interesting debate afterwards. Apart from being full of warmth, and centring Catholic research and teaching on the person of Jesus Christ, he identified the vital role Catholic academia should play in modern society. He noted that while society still pays some respect to the religious freedom of the individual, the same freedom is not so respected for the Church as a body. However, since academic freedom is still held sacrosanct, Fr Bechina suggested that this might prove to be the safest place from which the Church could engage the world and express its teaching to a world in dire need of it.

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Fr Friedrich Bechina

Implicit in Fr Bechina’s words, at least to me, was the conferring of a mission on modern theologians, especially lay theologians who are set soon to dominate Catholic theology. Lay theologians are ideally located to engage society from the position both of their membership and understanding of the true nature of the Church and its teaching, and of their academic roles and the freedom this gives them. Fr Bechina quoted Benedict’s XVI pithy observation that the Church has nothing to fear from the truth; likewise society has nothing to fear from the truth, nor from the Church who is committed to the truth.

Some of those whom I spoke to afterwards were not wholly convinced of the safety that academic freedom could offer. They cited the recent self-defeating phenomenon of no-platforming that has arisen in many universities, where students refuse to allow those with they disagree to speak at all. However, it was noted in response that these were student bodies acting within their own small spheres of influence, and not the universities themselves denying a speaker the right to speak. Moreover, it strikes me that undergraduates have been for decades prone to silliness, and that they are not the measure of academic life and endeavour. Universities will still be able to allow even the controversial to speak, and to encourage the properly academic form of opposing that with which we disagree—reasoned argument.

So, St Mary’s University. Watch this space!

5 thoughts on “The Rise and Rise of St Mary’s University

  1. As someone who lent Dr Bullivant one of his first books at University, and indeed knew him before he became a Roman Cathlic, this makes me very proud indeed. He’s come a long way. He even paid his library fines…..

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  2. This is a hopeful post—and to see it having its impetus there in Great Britain—the seat of Anglicanism yet a far growing secularism….is indeed truly hopeful.
    I noted your last thoughts concerning the rising trend on college campuses of students not allowing counter thoughts or ideas of their own to be expressed by speakers, or other organizations and I couldn’t help but think of that very situation here in the states…
    We have stories after stories of our college campuses becoming hostile environments to anything counter to our students and to their latest issues of defiance and extreme liberalism.
    They are the ones who have been screaming overt tolerance yet will not in turn offer that same tolerance to those who differ in opinion.
    Whereas I am somewhat reminded of the unrest on campuses in the 1960’s… of the demonstrations and protests over the Vietnam War—today there is not a unifying issue such as an anti war crusade—rather it is more an anti establishment, anti morality, anti Christian, anti conservative, sweeping mind set–
    And whereas the undergraduates do often seem silly or of typical angst of youth..their vehemence has become alarming—

    Yay for the wonderful tribute to Pope Benedict–that he and his prolific writings are to be remembered and echoed
    Thank you Father—

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  3. Dear Father Hugh,

    Thank you for the article on St Mary’s. My husband received his teacher training there in the early 1940s. That was prior to joining the British Army and serving in the Italian Campaign. He went on after the war to receive his university degree from London University. His experience at St. Mary’s changed his life. You didn’t mention that St Mary’s is located at the site of Strawberry Hill the home of Horace Walpole. My husband actually attended class in the house. I think the fireplace in your pictures could be at Strawberry Hill.

    Gail Qugley

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    1. Hi Gail.

      No I did not mention the architectural heritage of Strawberry Hill, mainly because I thought I was going on too long already. Indeed the fireplace you saw is in the old house, one of several magnificent rooms still in use at the University.

      It is wonderful to hear that the time your husband spent at St Mary’s had such a positive effect on his life. Let’s pray that this is a tradition they will maintain!

      Blessings.

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