If anywhere in this country can be labelled a Protestant town, it is Cambridge. The pulpit where the first Protestant sermon in England was delivered survives here. It is where many leading English Reformers were educated: Hugh Latimer, Thomas Cranmer, Matthew Parker. More than Oxford, Cambridge absorbed and advocated the Protestant faith, partly because of geography: with it being close to the coast and the Continent, reforming ideas found an easy route here, and fears of a Catholic invasion were rife.
The 39 Cambridge alumni who were martyred for the Faith attest to an enduring hostility towards Catholicism, and Catholics were not allowed to attend the university until 1895. In contrast to Oxford, there is not a strong institutional Catholic presence in the city: one parish church, a small Dominican priory, the university chaplaincy at Fisher House – and that’s it.
This history can lend a psychological sense of exclusion, or dispossession, to Catholics at the university. Over the marketplace loom the University Church and King’s College Chapel, both medieval Catholic foundations now part of the Anglican establishment. Fisher House, the student chaplaincy, was founded as a bastion against hostile forces surrounding it, its library an armoury of Catholic theology. As Reformation gave way to Enlightenment, Catholicism was faced with scientific atheism, and the New Atheism of scientists such as the Cambridge-based Stephen Hawking who famously said, “Modern physics leaves no place for God in the creation of the Universe.”
Cambridge, renowned for its research and innovation in technology and genetics, promotes science as a fully adequate explanation of creation. The oft-declared polarisation between religion and reason is especially acute at Cambridge; academics snort with laughter at the notion of a supreme deity, and Catholicism is dismissed for opposing scientific reasoning and creative speculation. In addition, the Church’s own scandal reinforces to critics what they already knew about Catholicism – that it is pernicious and corrupt. A Catholic student can anticipate awkward conversations and negative responses from colleagues.
But it isn’t all bleak. One can be surprised at how accepting and interested most people are, and there is more engagement, conversation and genuine enquiry than might be expected. One of the reasons we go to university is to experience new systems of thought, and Cambridge students understand that.
Catholic students, too, grow by encountering new ways of thinking, in a dialogue guided by truth, anchored in a secure identity, but motivated by humility. St John Henry Newman saw universities as places where students should learn “to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse”. A university, Newman argues, should educate the individual so that he or she will make good judgments.
That said, this journey of discovery needs adequate provision, and this is the role of the Catholic Chaplaincy at Cambridge: to support Catholic students through its sacramental and social life, and deepen their knowledge through talks, lectures, and its library.
An essential element is community. Even the most assured, crusading Catholic student needs some downtime to be themselves with other Catholics. It is healthy to relax with others who do not judge your Catholicism as odd or eccentric. This is not an inward-looking mentality; our communion with each other leads to engagement. Nor should you imagine that the only topic of conversation at the chaplaincy is religion. On the whole, there is remarkably little religion talked about in Fisher House.
In a university environment, the Eucharist becomes food for the journey. Fisher House is a community that is created at Mass, and everything else is an outworking of that. Our clubs, societies, social life, religious life, are intimately connected with, and a consequence of, the Eucharist we celebrate together. Confession is a roadmap through the terrain of university. The baptism and confirmation of students spark faith within all of us. Along with the sacraments, regular prayer enables the student to put experiences in context, to process them.
Here (as I remind them) they have the assistance of 39 former students who witnessed to their Catholic faith with their lives and who know the seasons, and joy and stresses of life at this university. They also have the example of Thomas Merton, but as his short Cambridge career was devoted mostly to drinking and rioting, discretion is advised!
Catholic students cannot “coast” through Cambridge, in faith any more than in academic work. But they can find a deep, rewarding experience that will enable them to take up their roles as key people in business, society, politics. It is truly a school in the Faith.
Mgr Mark Langham is Catholic Chaplain at Cambridge University