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.
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 Vitae, and 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.
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.
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!