St. Mary’s University at Twickenham, on the outskirts of London, has opened a new chapter with the foundation of the Benedict XVI Center, aimed at fostering links between theology and the social sciences. This is one of a number of new initiatives under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Francis Campbell, former British ambassador to the Holy See.
St. Mary’s is a Catholic university occupying an unusually attractive site not far from the Thames.
Strawberry Hill House was built as a Gothic folly by Horace Walpole and was acquired by the Catholic Church just over 120 years ago.
The Vincentians opened a teacher-training college, dedicated to Our Lady, initially just for male students and later for women, too.
Over the next 100 years, it provided large numbers of teachers for Britain’s Catholic schools. In the expansion of Britain’s universities a decade ago, it became a college of Surrey University, and, now, it is St. Mary’s University in its own right, awarding its own degrees.
The new center named for Benedict XVI is part of a significant expansion and renewal of the university’s Catholic message and identity.
Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics, himself a convert from atheism, explains: “The inspiration for the center comes, to no small degree, by the intellectual witness of Pope Benedict himself. Even prior to my becoming Catholic (although when, in retrospect, I was clearly already ‘on the way’), I read a number of [Joseph] Ratzinger’s works, in which he was bringing theological concerns into a serious, constructive — though not, of course, uncritical — engagement with the social sciences; his famous dialogues with [philosophers Jurgen] Habermas and [Marcello] Pera, for instance. So that’s a model I’ve had before, as my own theological work has come into closer and closer contact with the social sciences (most obviously regarding the New Evangelization).”
“More broadly, of course, the center brings together several strands of research in these kinds of areas already being done at St. Mary’s,” Bullivant added. “So, at a practical level, organizing some of this into a specific unit makes sense, in terms of planning, publicity, collaborations with other partners, etc.”
Today, the Strawberry Hill House is in the care of the English Heritage organization, and the university’s life revolves around more modern buildings, including a large chapel, refectory lecture halls and modern sports facilities. Most of the students are not Catholic, but the university is increasingly a center for public Catholic activity on a large scale, most notably a gathering of school pupils from across Britain for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
Bullivant noted that, over the past year, staff at St. Mary’s have been studying St. John Paul’s Ex Corde Ecclesia, the document outlining the role and duties of a Catholic university. “It’s quite clear there that a Catholic university really needs to bring different disciplines into a constructive and mutually enriching engagement with theology and ethics. The Benedict XVI Center is one part of that, focusing on the social sciences in particular, but the general idea is something that should be right at the heart of what a Catholic university is about,” he explained.
Bullivant represented St. Mary’s at Ave Maria University in Florida for a major conference in February on Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical on the Church’s teaching on birth control and human reproduction, and the Benedict XVI Center will be involved in publishing a book exploring the significance of the encyclical.
And St. Mary’s has a strong program of visiting lecturers from the world of politics and the social sciences, in addition to senior Church figures.
Vice Chancellor Campbell recently addressed the Catholic Union — the national organization for Catholic laypeople in public life in Britain — and spoke with conviction about the crucial role of the Church in the life of the country.
Campbell emphasized that “religious faith has a place, as of right, in a pluralist society. Our faith schools make a vital contribution as part of the wide network of education. And religion is not something extra, an add-on, to a wholesome society, but an important part of it.”
He took as his theme the message that Pope Benedict XVI gave when he spoke in Westminster Hall in Parliament during his state visit: Religion is not a problem for legislators to address, but a vital contribution to the national conversation.
As Pope Benedict told Parliamentarians and others gathered at Westminster: “The world of reason and the world of faith — the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief — need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.”
The Westminster Hall address, with its emphasis on the centrality of dialogue between faith and reason, is the theme underpinning the new Benedict XVI Center.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.