The centre, at Britain's largest Catholic university, seeks to 'bring the riches of Catholic teaching into the national conversation'

St Mary’s University, Twickenham, Britain’s largest Catholic university, has launched a major new research centre which it hopes will play a significant role in public debate.

Speaking at a launch, the former education secretary Ruth Kelly said she was “convinced” that the Benedict XVI Centre “will play a key role in public life”. Kelly said the centre would have a strong Catholic identity alongside a research profile specialising in politics, economics and the social sciences.

The centre was first proposed after Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in 2010, when he came to St Mary’s. During his visit, the Pope Emeritus spoke about the interdependence of faith and reason, and the necessity of a dialogue between religion and politics.

The centre’s director, Stephen Bullivant, who is also a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald, highlighted these principles in his speech at the launch. He said the centre would “bring the riches of the Catholic tradition of Catholic social thought, the riches of Catholic teaching on faith and reason, into the national conversation.”

The centre’s work will include a Catholic Research Forum, providing “empirically rigorous, pastorally useful research, at the service of the Church”. It has already been commissioned by the Bishops of England and Wales to research the non-religious population of the UK.

Other immediate projects include the study of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and its aftermath – a project which will culminate in an edited volume for the 50th anniversary in 2018; a seminar series on Catholic Social Thought, Politics and Society, led by Professor Philip Booth, which will bring together the Church’s teaching with current political, economic and social questions; and a research project on non-religious belief, funded by the Templeton Foundation and carried out in collaboration with Coventry University and University College London.

The centre will also take up Benedict XVI’s call for a Courtyard of the Gentiles – a meeting-place where believers can speak to non-believers. An inaugural event is planned for later this year.

Fr Friedrich Bechina, who manages the international work of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, said he had talked about the centre with Pope Benedict and that the Pope Emeritus had give it his blessing.

Fr Bechina said a key question in increasingly secular societies was: “Where are the fora where the Church will speak openly in the public square?” He said that freedom could not be taken for granted in the light of recent legislation, but that “academic freedom is the safest place, probably, for the Church, in today’s society”.

Fr Bechina said it was appropriate that the centre took the name of the Pope Emeritus. Benedict XVI “had no fear of truth”, Fr Bechina said, but encouraged Catholics “to receive the truth wherever it is coming from”, on the understanding that no truth can ever contradict the Gospel.

St Mary’s University was founded in 1850, as one of the first acts of the newly restored Catholic hierarchy. It is the only Catholic university in London. As well as Ruth Kelly, its faculty includes Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, and Sir Vince Cable, the former Business Secretary. The vice-chancellor, Francis Campbell, was previously Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Visiting the university in 2010, Pope Benedict said that there was a place for the human and natural sciences, although they “cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart, they cannot fully explain to us our origin and our destiny, why and for what purpose we exist, nor indeed can they provide us with an exhaustive answer to the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?”’

However, the Pope Emeritus added, “The quest for the sacred does not devalue other fields of human enquiry. On the contrary, it places them in a context which magnifies their importance, as ways of responsibly exercising our stewardship over creation.”