As China opens up to the world, the relationship between the communist state and Catholicism remains a thorny one.
Observers watching for signs of a thaw may take heart, therefore, from the activities of the University of Notre Dame, which places its faith traditions at the heart of its identity.
In Beijing, the Indiana-based institution has a “global gateway”, an academic centre that hosts students for summer programmes and year-long exchanges, and is home to a new institute for Asian studies.
It has signed collaboration pacts with institutions across China, including a joint master’s in non-profit administration with Renmin University in Beijing. Its next undertaking is its most ambitious yet: “serious discussions” about a joint liberal arts college with Zhejiang University at the Chinese institution’s international campus in Haining.
This seemingly warm reception contrasts with the recent history of Catholicism in China. Following the 1949 revolution, Catholic universities were forced into mergers or had to move overseas, and today many of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics still worship in underground churches that are outside the government’s direct control.
Nicholas Entrikin, Notre Dame’s vice-president and associate provost for internationalisation, credits alumni and other supporters with opening doors and enabling close relationships to be formed with leading Chinese universities.
Lengthy discussions with the Ministry of Education were used to emphasise that Notre Dame’s courses in disciplines as diverse as business, science and engineering included teaching in ethics and morality.
Dr Entrikin said that, while Catholic social teaching comes from very different roots to the policies of the Beijing government, this was an example of how it could coexist with the importance China attaches to the social benefit of education and the development of moral character.
“Once we became known and the quality of our programmes became known, it became somewhat of an advantage to us,” said Dr Entrikin of Notre Dame’s Catholic heritage.
But he concedes that there will be “interesting negotiations” as plans for the liberal arts college progress, particularly when discussions about the curriculum get under way.
With formal agreement on the project yet to be made, he said the parameters were clear for Notre Dame. “We don’t hide our Catholic identity, but we also have to recognise it’s a different culture with its own set of traditions. We have to be as flexible as we can, without losing the sense of who we are,” he said.
The goal for Notre Dame in China and beyond is to widen its global reach by forming institutional partnerships, and by attracting a more international mix of students to its US campus in South Bend.
It has six global gateways in cities ranging from Jerusalem to London to traditional Catholic locations such as Rome and Dublin. All offer opportunities for Notre Dame’s students to study abroad and for staff to engage in collaborations.
What Notre Dame is not looking to do is to set up transnational programmes that offer its degrees around the world. Dr Entrikin stated that he did not want to “dilute” Notre Dame’s reputation for high quality undergraduate tuition.
“Partnerships, to me, help people better understand Notre Dame and the distinctive and very positive things I think it offers in higher education,” he said.