Defender of the faith

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto on a public good that the UK would not accept

May 13, 2010

I work for a Catholic university. It's a rejuvenating experience.

When I was young, I had a lot in common with my pupils. We knew the same music, the same books, the same cinema. I could make jokes about Mr Wilson's raincoat or Mrs Whitehouse's proclivities, and everyone knew what I meant.

As I grew old, a cultural chasm opened up. My classroom became a place of incommensurable humour, unoverlapping allusions and mutual incomprehension. Now a roomful of young Catholics confronts me and though I still can't raise a cheap laugh by mentioning Ernest Marples, everyone gets my jokes about the Procession of the Holy Spirit. The generation gap has closed and my students and I have recovered a community of culture. It's fun and makes for effective learning.

Some readers, if they get this far, will dismiss me as self-condemned, and will despise the very concept of a Catholic university as an oxymoron. It is a common form of prejudice to suppose that Catholics are so warped by dogma or cowed by authority that they cannot engage in the disinterested pursuit of truth. Any religion, according to a widespread form of ignorance, imposes assumptions that hobble objectivity and paralyse independence of mind.

In my university, I find Catholicism intellectually liberating. We do not accept limits to enquiry and are unafraid of any truth we discover. Catholicism does not make an idol of faith or think it is the only thing that matters. Our kind of faith licenses scepticism, for what good is faith unless doubt tempers it? We think that reason and science must inform religion, and see it as the role of the university to do so.

At Notre Dame, we have a vast new science centre, which (like most of our buildings) looks rather like a church, to make the point visible. Because Catholics have the Church - a billion living co-religionists - to do their believing for them, Catholic identity and commitment can withstand interrogation that subverts faith or silences prayer, as happens from time to time in every saintly life.

Because our God is human, we have our own impassioning reason for searching human minds, bodies and cultures. Because Catholicism is an evolving tradition, we study the past with reverence, but without thralldom. The university tries to help its students along on a pilgrimage, in which it is itself engaged, between the cloister and the world.

But - at the risk of sounding Catholic - I have a further, potentially shocking confession to make about my university. We practise discrimination. Like most US universities, of course, we practise "positive discrimination", encouraging people from poor or underprivileged minorities to join as students or staff, but that is not what I mean.

We also try to reserve at least 80 per cent of our student places for Catholics, while keeping the rest for a healthy leavening of all religions and none. And we try - even to the point of preferring Catholic candidates for jobs where other considerations are equal - to attract Catholic faculty to teach them.

The university's determination to educate Catholics is a legacy from a time when they were oppressed underdogs in American society. We provide a refuge for morally anxious parents from the shabby or indifferent pastoral standards they fear in typical secular universities.

"To be a great Catholic university," as Notre Dame's beloved former president, Father Ted Hesburgh, said, "you have to be a great university." So eminent atheists, Jews, Muslims and Protestants teach and research at Notre Dame. But to keep Catholicism as an active subject of scrutiny, debate and development in the classroom and the laboratory, we also need a strong body of lay Catholic academics.

The university is candid about always being on the lookout for potential recruits, and inviting accomplished or promising Catholics to get in touch in case an opening exists or can be created for them. In the UK, I suppose, these policies - outside the houses of study of religious orders that grace a few old universities - would disqualify an institution from public funding and heap politically correct obloquy upon it.

When I first thought about working for Notre Dame, I worried about whether the system might be unfair, or lead to the recruitment of intellectually inferior staff on religious grounds. Those are dangers of which administrators have to be aware and which they must work conscientiously to avoid. Scrutiny - such as all leading US universities get, formally, as part of the accreditation process - from secular peer institutions is essential.

But I have seen the system work. I do not think that even the most vicious anti-clerical would deny that Notre Dame has made, over the years, a great and positive contribution to good in America and the world (although benighted religious dogmatists may disagree). Could the UK tolerate the same kind of goodness?

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