The tolerance of Canadians, and our multicultural co-existence, are strengths of our country and in turn our universities. CNS photo/Nick Lacey

Canada’s beauty reflected in Catholic universities

  • February 2, 2013


TORONTO - One of the greatest privileges of my life is that my entire postsecondary education occurred at different Catholic universities on three different continents. I was exposed to the variety and beauty of Catholic higher education in general, and the unique identity and mission of Catholic education in particular.

My early education in my home country in Eastern Nigeria was done in a Protestant school run by the Methodist Church of Nigeria. This introduced me early to the dignity of differences and the grace of diversity in Christian education. This was particularly brought home to me by my parents, both teachers, who gave me and my siblings a wonderful family immersion into Catholic education and spirituality to complement what we were being offered at the Methodist school.

Another great privilege is that I now call Canada my home and that a greater part of my graduate studies were done at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, the oldest Catholic higher education institution in English Canada. I was drawn to study in Canada because three of the African theologians I respected most when I attended seminary in Nigeria were trained at St. Michael’s and Regis College. Indeed, the fact that there are many students from the Global South, the United States and Europe training in Catholic higher institutions in Canada is a testament to the quality of Catholic higher education in this country.

Canada’s Catholic universities and colleges reflect the beauty and challenges of a changing Canadian society. In A Passion for Identity: Canadian Studies for the 21st Century, the authors argue that Canadian identity is convoluted; it has passed and continues to pass through many phases as Canada has developed a strong mechanism for national integration, the foundation of strong nation building. The strength and tolerance of most Canadians, and the talent for multicultural co-existence, have combined to build a strong Canada with an infinite capacity for innovation.

The coldness of the Canadian climate is often ameliorated by the warmth of her peoples and the joy of shared living. This is not to say that there are no stresses, because there are serious challenges of social integration and inequality that Canada must face with honesty and courage. Canadian identity and Catholic identity in Canada reflect the dynamics of cultural pluralism, as well as the conflicting moral and spiritual claims about what is needed for a flourishing country. In a sense, being authentically Canadian and authentically Catholic — and for me being authentically African — offers considerable challenges and opportunities.

Most Canadian Catholics are asking serious questions about what it means to be a faithful and authentic Catholic. What are the expectations of parents who send their teenage children to Catholic colleges and universities and how are these expectations being met? What should inform the values and judgments made as a Catholic amidst the social changes of our times and the cultural pressure to conform to untested social experimentation? Some of these cultural expectations are being presented in popular media and in some versions of theology as progress, and are being proposed by some Catholic scholars in the spirit of Vatican II. Is there any distinctive Catholic way of thinking, living and existing in Canada? Is there a Catholic culture?

We need Catholic higher institutions to ask the big questions and provide answers through serious theological reflection and in conversation with our traditions, culture and the experience of modern times. This already underlies the ancient wisdom of the Catholic Church that all Catholic universities and colleges must have a program, department or faculty where such theological, philosophical and ethical questions are being proposed.

The challenges for Catholic higher institutions are the same as those Catholic education has faced across the ages. They must be places that embrace, uphold, celebrate, communicate and profess a faithful, authentic and distinctive Catholic identity and mission.

In my personal experience in pastoral ministry in at least three dioceses in Ontario, I am very impressed with the quality and depth of faith of many Canadian Catholics. This is not what I expected to find based on my studies of religious history two decades ago in Nigeria. I had the impression that North Americans didn’t take their faith seriously. But I have found convinced Catholics, who love God, and the Church, and are proud of their Catholic heritage. These young Catholics need a Catholic higher education that can accompany them in their faith journeys with deep theological and philosophical reflections, and with resources to give them strong doctrinal conviction and moral insight through a well-formed conscience.

The entire educational environment should permeate with religious flavour so that administrators, teachers, staff and students see their university experience as a divine encounter for faith formation. The pluralistic Canadian milieu offers great opportunities but immense challenges in the way we conceive, live, propagate and defend our Catholic identity through Catholic education. Pope John Paul II once observed that a faith that does not become culture is no faith. The Canadian Catholic academy is called to embrace with joy and seriousness the questions Canadian culture poses to our faith.

Culture should be encountered as a friend not a foe, so that the signs of the times can be discerned and answers found so Catholics, as Thomas Groome said, can bring their life to faith and their faith to life.

By doing so, Catholics will be led to reject the notion that one can live their Catholic faith according to self-defined goals and objectives. There are two significant dimensions to this which point clearly to the path Catholic academies should follow.

The first reality is that Catholicism no longer plays a decisive role in the shaping of the moral, ethical and spiritual vision of contemporary Canadian society, nor is it a strong moral voice or force in the public square. The second reality is a frightening decline in church attendance and the practice of the faith, which has affected Church finances and vocations. This has limited the ability of the Church to invest in Catholic education and social services as in the past.

Most Catholic universities and colleges in Canada struggle financially. There are tensions on issues like job security for faculty and staff, program redundancy, governance and even the survival of our Catholic colleges and universities. Some have blamed the situation on the post-2008 economic crisis. But there are deeper explanations. First, there is a declining number of Catholics of means who wish to invest in Catholic higher education. Second, there is a shrinking number of male and female religious congregations in Canada, and a decline in vocations. Religious orders are struggling financially and lack the personnel to run the colleges and universities. The laity who now manage these colleges often require more formalized contracts and salaries and benefits commensurate with other universities.

Catholic higher education needs to reinvent itself in order to survive. Most Canadian Catholic colleges and universities are already in full partnership with secular universities, offering joint degrees and programs which help with the financial burden. However, these partnerships must be constantly evaluated so that Catholic identity and mission are not sacrificed. The priorities and mission of Catholic colleges and universities often fail to correspond with that of secular universities. That is a change from the past, when Catholic universities flourished and their governance, academic programs, identity, mission and priorities were defined by an ecclesial vocation, rather than by a partnership with secular universities.

There is also a need for greater collaboration and resource-sharing among Canada’s Catholic universities. This is particularly so with regard to the sacred sciences and ecclesial studies. There has been a drop in enrolment in most theological faculties, which is a corollary to the decline in vocations and active participation in the Church. In Canadian culture today, many young people question the purpose of theology because they can’t see how it will help them get a job. Thus arises the question whether we need so many Catholic universities and colleges in Ontario, for instance, all competing in a shrinking market. Other questions are whether we need to increase programs and degrees in Catholic universities and colleges, and can we find ways to share our academic resources while leveraging the strengths of each college and university.

It bears repeating that Catholic education is a treasure like no other for the Catholic community. I see this treasure daily in my life and in my students.

They are seeking an integration of life, learning and faith. This dimension of integration is of fundamental importance. As Cardinal Thomas Collins said: “A Catholic university, however, needs to resist the temptation to crave the approval of the secular world, and to feel insecure and academically inadequate when it acknowledges the foundational reality of faith and reason.”

(Fr. Chu Ilo is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael’s College. His latest book is Discover Your Divine Investment, published by Catholic Register Books, and is available by calling 416-934-3410.)

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