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I have recently been asked, rather frequently, what it means to say you are at a ‘University with a Catholic ethos’? Sometimes it is in a tone of voice which implies that one’s interlocutor is under the distinct impression that one is setting up a Madrassa; sometimes it is in a tone which implies that one’s interlocutor would rather like that, but suspects you of being lukewarm on the idea; and sometimes it is a tone of simple bewilderment. In answering such questions, I have gone along a line I want to share with readers here.

I begin with the knowledge that many, if not most, of the students coming to a University in England with a Catholic ethos will not be Catholics, and that the same is true of colleagues who work there. I also do not proceed from the, to me, odd view that this situation ought not to be so, and those who do not want a ‘Catholic ethos’ should not be there; that seems to me the opposite of a true Catholic ethos, which seeks to witness to the whole world. The existing status quo, where neither students nor staff can be assumed to be Catholic, offers a wonderful opportunity to emphasise what we have in common as children of God. University education is about so much more than simply educating the intellect and producing students with great qualifications. So, whilst doing those things superbly, a University with a Catholic ethos also realises the importance of educating the whole person, body and spirit as well as intellect. A Catholic University is a partnership between the generations, dedicated to helping shape people who will make the world a better place by bearing in mind always that we are all made in the image of God, and that everyone of us is of unique value in his eyes, and so worthy of respect and love. At a time when so many of us are worried about a rise in tensions in our society, a Catholic University is a reminder that since, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, what unites us as human beings is far greater than the ephemeral things which divide us.

Our faith should so infuse the life of the University that to those of all faiths, and none, it is evident that what we are about is helping each student to realise their full potential as a human being. I never yet met a student or an academic who thought that a university education was just about getting a good degree, and you don’t have to be religious to know that there is more to life than ‘getting on’. If we want to live in a Good Society and to be part of one, we have to help build it. A University imbued with that Catholic ethos provides, amongst other things, a space in a secularised world, where one can remind people that there is more to life than this world now emphasises, and that most of the things really worth having can’t be measured ‘scientifically’. And, of course, if its results – that is the quality of the achievements of the students educated in such an ethos – can be measured and look good, then virtue will be rewarded twice over.

Rereading Newman’s Idea of a University recently in the light of my thoughts, I realised, not without pleasure, how much of what he wrote had embedded itself in my own thinking. That was a cheering thought.

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