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Catholic Social Teaching is still neglected. Our university is trying to change that

St Mary's: boosting Catholic social teaching

Catholic Social Teaching is often described as the Church’s “best-kept secret”, and with good reason. As a parish priest, I have often been struck that even the most devout and theologically well-read Catholics know little of the great social encyclicals. They may be passionate about abortion, but far less interested in questions such as the fair wage. When I write about Catholicism and the EU – which was founded with the help of Catholic politicians such as Robert Schuman – I am sometimes told: “The Church should keep out of politics.” But that has never been the case.

At St Mary’s University, Twickenham, where I teach, we’re trying to do something about it. In recent years, we have been running a “pilot” postgraduate certificate in Catholic Social Teaching. Now, we’re launching a Master of Arts degree in the subject – the first full degree of this kind in the UK and Ireland.

We’ve found a pleasing amount of interest, from a great variety of men and women who want to study Catholic moral teaching at this level. Students on the pilot programme included a prison chaplain, an Anglican priest who works with children with special needs, a school chaplain, a senior manager in a housing association and a financial analyst who works in government.

We also have students from a permanent diaconate formation programme which covers most of southern England and Wales: deacons are expected to be specialists in this branch of moral teaching.

The profile of Catholic Social Teaching has risen considerably in this country and also attracts attention from members of other churches. At the same time, there is a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about it, and our programme aims to help Catholics and others learn more about the tradition. The degree can be studied part time or full time; some modules are taught at the university campus in Twickenham, and some at two locations in central London, and the diaconate students are taught at the seminary at Wonersh in Surrey. We hope also soon to teach modules online.

Everybody studies two core modules. The first, on “principles and history” covers the Christian tradition on social justice and some basic philosophical principles, together with papal social encyclicals since 1891. The second looks in detail at some specific issues addressed by the Church such as employment, international relations, prisons, bioethics, war and peace and financial regulation; here lecturers have included Catholics prominent in public life in the UK and Ireland.

There are also optional modules, which students can choose between: one on political theology, including liberation theology; one on ecumenism and charities; another on global development, led by Professor Philip Booth. And everyone does a 15,000-word dissertation. If this sound like the kind of thing you would enjoy, please contact me, the Programme Director, on ashley.beck@stmarys.ac.uk or go to www.stmarys.ac.uk. For more details of the Faith in Politics programme go to www.faithinpolitics.org.uk.

This is an exciting new venture in the life of the Church and the Catholic educational community, and we are recruiting now! And before you ask – no prior theological knowledge is needed.