After a week of pressure from students, alumni, the public, its former registrar and a former taoiseach, UCD has flip-flopped on its decision to not send a representative to the canonisation of its founder Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman in Rome this weekend.
Earlier in the week the college cited its “secular” nature as the reason for why it was not going to send a representative; however, secular need not equal anti-religious. The university’s apparent attempt to distance itself from its founding president makes sense only in the context of a Catholic-phobia prevalent at UCD.
If it was any other type of ‘award’ UCD would have been quick to use the opportunity to promote the university, another aid to its placement in the world ranking and its prestige in the academic world.
Instead UCD’s behaviour has come across as at best indifferent and at worst as a snub to its founder. This would not have been so disheartening, or at least so noticeable, if it were not for the legions of representatives already lined up to attend the canonisation from the UK: royal, governmental, ecclesiastical and academic alike.
UCD’s seeming lack of interest in honouring Newman reflects a wider Irish sentiment that seeks to blot out and reject anything positive about our Catholic past.
The Catholic Church has been criticised heavily in recent years, and sometimes, indeed, for good reason. However, not every priest is a paedophile and not every practising Catholic is an octogenarian; yet so has the face of Catholic Ireland been painted.
UCD has many things to offer: from swans and lakes to some truly worthwhile degrees and programmes, but it has systematically failed to create an environment in which all students can flourish, especially those of Christian faiths. While the chaplaincy provides an essential oasis for students, there is a pervasive hostility toward Christians, and especially Catholics, on the remainder of the campus.
In my time at UCD, I experienced an endemic and tangible hostility towards my faith from a range, if not a majority, of professors, students and, undoubtedly, the UCD Students’ Union and student societies. It was not uncommon for lecturers to scoffingly dismiss the Catholic Church, ensuring to note how backwards and irrelevant it was; yet at the same time expressing their desire to “be there” for every student.
Many staff and members of UCD Students’ Union, which claims to represent all students, perpetuated the ignoring, silencing and mocking of Christian ideas through their printed material, choice of events and treatment of colleagues. Throughout my years in UCD, my experience and that of dozens of other Christian students who shared their experiences with me was one of intimidation and ostracisation for our faith and values.
As the first president and rector of what is now UCD, Newman fought hard to establish the university 165 years ago. He pushed for the university to shape well-rounded students, rather than narrow-minded specialists, and believed that teachers should have personal influence upon their pupils. There is no doubt he would not recognise the university as it is today.
Newman and his teachings live on in the form of centres, societies, clubs, foundations and even universities that carry on his name and message across the world. There are hundreds of Newman centres which, following Newman’s motto “cor ad cor loquitur” (“heart speaks to heart”), offer campus ministry, support and community to thousands of students.
The Newman Society at UCD, for example, has up to 70 students regularly attending its events – from daily Mass and student-led Bible studies to socials and campus-wide barbecues.
If UCD was the upstanding, mature and religiously impartial institution that it claims to be it would have jumped at the opportunity for renewed interest in and acclamation of its founder.
Instead it has been left to individual students and staff including a group of 25, mostly students, who plan to to meet in Rome to celebrate Newman’s canonisation. The UCD chaplaincy – with the support of the college – invited English Roman Catholic priest, scholar and author Ian Ker – an authority on Newman – to speak in UCD last Wednesday on Newman’s vision of liberal education.
There were about 100 in attendance and audience members raised the question of inclusivity and tolerance toward Catholic students in UCD. The panel had no answer – except that they were sorry.
UCD has certainly failed in two parts: one, in its crushing lack of enthusiasm to honour its founder, and two, in its inability to welcome students of all faiths, particularly the Catholic faith.
Katie Ascough is a past president of UCD students’ union