Comment Opinion & Features

How our Catholic university is making the most of its roots

Graduates from St Mary’s University, which is to host Mater Ecclesiae College (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

“Diversity” is one of the buzzwords of our age, and those of us in higher education have been vigorous in advocating it. The news that St Mary’s University, Twickenham, will be hosting the pontifical faculty which has, since 1614, been awarding pontifical degrees is a sign that diversity really does incorporate a genuine pluralism. The Mater Ecclesiae College, as it will be known, is an outward and visible sign of two things: the vitality of the Catholic faith in these islands; and St Mary’s return to its Catholic roots. 

When the house of studies for awarding degrees in philosophy and theology was founded in 1614 by the Jesuits, it had to be based in Louvain; our Church was effectively outlawed in England and Wales. It was only in the 19th century that it could be located in these islands, first at Stonyhurst, then at St Beuno’s in Wales, and latterly at Heythrop College. The closure of Heythrop could have led to the loss of this historic facility, but Rome’s decision to allow the bishops’ conference to transfer the faculties to St Mary’s is a demonstration of the determination to keep this historic facility alive. 

So, what will the Mater Ecclesiae College do? The answer to that lies in the decision to have St Mary’s host it. 

It has been the modern fashion for higher education institutions with a religious foundation to move away from them towards a closer alignment with the secular model most common in the sector; at St Mary’s, our direction of travel has been in the opposite direction.  

As a university which is open to those of all faiths and none, and which takes nearly 60 per cent of its students from widening participation backgrounds, St Mary’s takes seriously its mission to educate all who can benefit from what we offer. But that mission is deeply embedded in its Catholic ethos. In an era when Newman’s vision of higher education is increasingly challenged by what one might call a Gradgrindian, utilitarian view, St Mary’s emphasises, in Dean Inge’s words, that “the aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values”.  

Values do not exist outside of a context; indeed, one mark of successful Christian evangelisation is that the values come to inform the context and, indeed, help shape it in turn. It is often said that all that’s needed for people to live a good life is for them to “do the right thing”. But as Tom Holland’s brilliant new book, Dominion, reminds us, Western thought and values are so permeated by Christianity that we easily forget that what the secular mind thinks is “good” is based on a set of values most clearly articulated by Christ and His Church. 

One can easily see why training might be mistaken for education, and the fact that there are some who talk about these things without seeing the difference is itself a sign that our higher education system is not working as well as it should. But here at St Mary’s we have never confused the two, and indeed at the heart of our intellectual DNA is an acknowledgement that, properly understood, they are complementary. 

St Mary’s was founded in 1850 as a college to train teachers for “poor Catholic schools” (no politically correct euphemisms for our Victorian forebears). It has always seen education as the road to personal development, but never as an aim in itself. We are made in God’s image and that means that we put the gifts which we have been given, and which our education helps us develop, at the service of others. 

Thus, for us at St Mary’s, the recent sight of the seminarians on campus, being welcomed and inducted into our educational community, was a cause for rejoicing. To see the seminarians mingling with our theology freshers, and with Dr Jacob Philips, the head of our Institute of Theology, talking with both about the subjects they will be studying, is to see the circle of Catholic education completed. 

The Catholic Church’s contribution to education in these islands is unparalleled, and even since 1870, when the state took on more of the responsibility for education, the Church has continued, at primary and secondary level, to provide outstanding service through its schools, many of whose teachers are graduates of “Strawberry Hill”. Now, as the university league tables show, St Mary’s is leading the way in demonstrating what the Church can do at tertiary level. 

It is fitting that the third-oldest degree-awarding power in England (after Oxford and Cambridge) should come to one of its newest and most vibrant universities, and that seminarians and students should, once more, mutually enrich one another’s experience. 

Professor John Charmley is Pro Vice-Chancellor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham