By Dr Ann Marie Mealey, Director of Catholic Mission at LTU and J&P Commission member
Since Leeds Trinity was founded by the Cross and Passion Sisters in 1966 as two Catholic Teacher Training Colleges, it is clear that the vision for what was then known as Trinity and All Saints College was one of transformation of lives through education which would be informed by faith.
The whole point of Leeds Trinity’s foundation was to widen access to skills and expertise that students – who may not even have believed that they could become teachers or even get into higher education – needed to carve out their futures positively.
Although today, most universities will say that they have a widening participation agenda and are keen to open access to education for those who might not otherwise have believed that they could be given the opportunity to do a degree, Catholic universities have played this role for a very long time. In fact, their very nature and foundation in the faith means that there is a requirement and an expectation that they will use their faith and their ‘raison d’être’ to make a difference in the world. There is one key document that makes this very clear: Ex Corde Ecclesiae stipulates that a ‘Catholic’ university is called in a unique and special way to work ‘for the authentic good of individuals and of human society as a whole’ (paragraph 7).
In our world which is marked by the rapid developments in technology in particular, we need to take time to reflect on the implications of this change for societies, for universities, for communities that are vulnerable in some way – in short, we need to keep hold of what is truly human. As expressed by John Paul II,
Scientific and technological discoveries create an enormous economic and industrial growth, but they also inescapably require the correspondingly necessary search for meaning in order to guarantee that the new discoveries be used for the authentic good of individuals and of human society as a whole. If it is the responsibility of every University to search for such meaning, a Catholic University is called in a particular way to respond to this need: its Christian inspiration enables it to include the moral, spiritual and religious dimension in its research, and to evaluate the attainments of science and technology in the perspective of the totality of the human person. (paragraph 7.)
The theological discipline which is focussed on finding out what is human in every age is that of moral theology or theological ethics. While the prominence of this discipline is not that visible in the current HE climate where numbers being recruited to the remaining Theology and/or religious studies type programmes on offer at our universities are decreasing rapidly, it is still an important subject for universities that wish to continue to live out their faith mission and values – and indeed invite others along with them on the journey. Everyone who works at a Catholic university is invited to join in the search for truth and ways of living that enhance our human dignity and help us to see, as Fratelli Tutti puts, beyond the ‘Dark Clouds over a Closed World.’
So many people that we work with and study with are living in this closed world that Pope Francis speaks about. Digital media is mentioned in this document too as a medium which can often lead to the gradual ‘loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.’ (Fratelli Tutti, parag. 43.). Understanding how our Catholic Mission plays out in the working of our university and the people and organisations which it serves externally involves always going to the beating heart of matters, the flesh and blood of whatever it is that might be holding people or groups back.
We are called into a space where as much as we might like to turn a blind eye to the pain and the suffering in the name of progress or financial gain, we must challenge the structures and forms of human living and interactions that are oppressive and standing in the way of what is needed to ‘really build community.’ (Fratelli Tutti 43).
For some, however, doing this through a Catholic mission perspective or the reclaiming of Catholic Mission for an organisation that was founded on this very premise is not attractive. And we have to acknowledge the reasons why this might be the case but it is clear that if Catholic Mission is to make sense to universities, to local people, faith groups and others, it must also be seen as a vehicle through which education about faith and morality can play out, be accessed and supported.
This for me is the first step: understanding why it matters. And then getting to place where people can see how they can get involved or indeed the other way around. I need to also look at what is happening and where people are at themselves and then see how Catholic mission can help and support – and even join in and learn!
Catholic Social Teaching and the entire discipline of moral theology has so much to offer the world. We know that it used to be referred to as the Church’s ‘Best Kept Secret’. But it’s not really a secret anymore in my view; we just need to get to a place where we’re being creative about how we apply it, refer to it, and use to a lens through which we can see the world with fresh eyes. It helps us to actually ‘see’ people – which although it may seem quite naïve in today’s world is something which is often neglected and forgotten.
Gaudium et Spes reminds us not only of the Council’s attempt to renew the Church itself but also of the calling into question of ‘accepted values’ and the impatience that we may feel when we are being asked or even expected to consider values. ‘Many people are shaken’, the document says. This feeling of ‘being shaken’ is a good metaphor through which Catholic Mission can be viewed as it encourages us back to the fact that people are vulnerable and need a compass to guide their path towards liberation and fulfilment.
When I was student at Maynooth, we did a module on faith and spirituality. I recall learning an Italian phrase that stayed with me and which I often share with people when they are expressing dismay about things that are affecting them in their lives: Chiaroscuro. It refers to the need for us to acknowledge that in life there are aspects of light and shade – each interacting with us as we progress through our lives. But the key aspect that stands out for us as regards our faith is that there is always more reason to embody and believe in ‘light’ and hope of there being even more ‘light’ when we focus on concrete actions that bring it about.
So, in short, this is what it means to me: faith seeking expression in action that helps ‘all persons of goodwill’ to find fulfilment socially, intellectually, professionally and spirituality. The more we can do to make the world more human through the lens of the richness of faith and spirituality the closer we will get to being able to say we are fulfilling our mission.
In a volume entitled Social Justice and Citizenship: Perspectives for the 21st Century, I wrote an article on faith and social action from a Christian perspective. I cited the work of the well-known Catholic ethicist, Johan Verstraeten, who has written extensively on theological ethics and Catholic Social Teaching to show that the ‘Catholic tradition, with its stress on individual dignity, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity…’ can help us to tackle current issues facing our communities locally and internationally (Mealey et al., 2018, p. 17). I also make mention of the ‘Jesus Quest’ – a term which is used by many biblical scholars. Some speak about Qumran and Jesus’s ministry as a ‘social programme.’ This links very much with the idea that faith should impact on how we behave and how we see the world and its challenges (Witherington 1995: 160).
Ultimately this shows that from many disciplines and perspectives, faith requires action and is lived out in how we respond to the ways of living that are less than human which we can see all around us. There is a link here with Erik Voegelin’s work on mysticism, science and politics which shows that there is a credible connection that can be made between setting the time to reflect and contemplate on what the world needs so that it can provide the necessary check and balance of the day to day workings of politics (Cf for an interesting read about politics and mysticism: Henrik-Syse1.pdf (lsu.edu)
I am really excited about the fact that my role involves finding creative ways of bringing the social teachings to bear on how the university sees itself operating on the day-to-day basis and also to working with local people who for a long time have been waiting to be invited into the dialogue about how we can make the faith relevant to contemporary living. A lot of groups seem to be working quietly on their own without a strategic focus or direction. This is not to say that their work is not valuable; it is to suggest the opposite in fact: their work is so significant that it needs a bigger platform.
I’m obviously hoping to find support from the Diocese and the parishes, but I’m also open to people contacting me directly to suggest other ways in which we can deepen our common search to live out our humanity in the most fulfilling of ways. Research projects, events, lectures on the social teaching and related themes are all of interest in this role. Of course we also need to remember that Fides quaerens intellectum – we need to always find the time to make sense of what we are being guided to do and to achieve, for, in the words of Anselm of Canterbury, “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam”. In other words, ‘I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.’