David Mulroney looks back on his three years at the helm of the University of St. Michael’s College. Photo by Michael Swan

David Mulroney: We must renew our ‘Catholic weirdness’

By  David Mulroney, Catholic Register Special
  • June 14, 2018

After three years as president of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, David Mulroney steps down June 30. The long-time diplomat and former ambassador to China reflects on his time at St. Michael’s and the direction of Catholic education.


After more than 30 years as a federal public servant, I was surprised but also delighted to be invited to serve as President and Vice Chancellor of the University of St. Michael’s College, my alma mater. I took up the challenge because I continue to believe that our Catholic universities are essential institutions in Canadian life, educating the leaders that the Church and our country urgently need as we enter uncertain times. My three-year term ends this month.

We’ve worked hard at St. Michael’s to rededicate ourselves to what’s most important. We’ve hired new professors, created new programs steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition and re-invested in facilities that are at the heart of a healthy student experience. 

But as I survey the terrain in Canada, I am also conscious of the fact that it can be a struggle for a Catholic university to be everything that it is called to be and that we need it to be. What’s most painful is that this is largely a problem of our own creation. To borrow a line from cartoonist Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What I am talking about is a worrying failure to occupy the space that we have struggled so hard to win for ourselves. Catholic universities have come a long way from their 19th-century origins as minor seminaries huddled on the fringe of Protestant Canadian society. By the middle of the 20th century, thanks to the concept of “federation,” pioneered by people like the Basilian educator Fr. Henry Carr, vibrant Catholic universities flourished as equal partners with some of Canada’s largest public universities. We won that position by convincing our secular partners that we bring something distinctive to Canadian higher education. But it is precisely that distinctiveness that is now in doubt.

Back in the fall of 2016, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat gave a wonderful talk at St. Michael’s titled “Can you be a Harvard Catholic?” Spoiler alert: Douthat, who is both a devout Catholic and a Harvard alumnus, is proof for the affirmative. He talked to our students about his own growing conviction as a young man that religious belief, and Catholicism in particular, encourages people to paint on a larger intellectual canvas, to be open to ideas and possibilities that give a richness, coherence and meaning to life. Being open to the transcendent also connects us to the vast majority of people with whom we share this planet. Douthat describes the religious sensibility as a stimulating form of “weirdness,” something that widens our intellectual horizons and is an essential component of a truly educated imagination.

Yet it is just this weirdness, this generous engagement with the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, with the full scope of the Catholic imagination, and with the beauty of liturgy and sacrament, that is increasingly hard to find on Catholic campuses in Canada.

This is partly due to a worrying lack of self-confidence. Instead of proudly bringing to federation everything that we are, we lower our voices, tone down our distinctiveness and abandon Catholic weirdness for something approaching secular sameness. We become champions of an ecumenism that welcomes every voice but a distinctively Catholic one. We promote an approach to social justice that offers its protections to everyone but the most vulnerable among us.

Our failure to live up to our own ideals can be most evident when it comes to our engagement with our  students. Surely, what distinguishes a Catholic university is that it cares for its students, inviting them to what amounts to a four-year conversation about what it is to be a human being fully alive. This isn’t a catechism class or an indoctrination session, but a dialogue that is courageous enough to present a counter-cultural perspective on how alcohol, drugs and hook-up culture can so seriously undermine our happiness. We’ve struggled to get this right at St. Michael’s, but we’re now seeing the benefit of our efforts in terms of healthier community life and a more vibrant student leadership culture.

Perhaps the most worrying indicator of decline at our Catholic universities is their failure to read the signs of the times, as evidenced by their relative silence in the face the enforced normalization of abortion and euthanasia in our country. We should have the moral and intellectual courage to provide platforms for alternative perspectives that are otherwise silenced. Where, if not at Catholic universities, can we debate the notion, encouraged by the state, that the lives of the unborn, the aged, the disabled and the indigent are less worthy of protection? Catholic universities in this country need to play the role that great Catholic centres of learning did centuries ago, keeping alive a vibrant Christian humanism that helps us to understand who we are and what we are called to be, something that puts the lie to the culture of death.

My present concerns are more than counterbalanced by my admiration for our students. I accompanied a contingent who recently travelled to Ottawa for the March for Life. You can’t attend that hugely inspirational event without being convinced that it is powered by the faith and courage of our young people. We have much to learn from them.

We are experiencing a renaissance at St. Michael’s, refocussing on our academic, community and spiritual life. This isn’t simply the right thing to do, it’s a very smart thing. There is a real hunger out there for an education that offers the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the warmth and beauty of a community oriented to the values of the Gospel. 

Not only is this attractive to Catholic students, it has also proved welcome to students of other faiths and to students who profess no faith. They all seek to be educated in a place where they are valued and respected, where their ideas are taken seriously, and where there is room for some intellectually stimulating Catholic weirdness.

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Your early retirement as President is welcomed by the University of St. Michael's College faculty, student and alumni communities. Your statements about the loss of the Catholic identity and your criticism about the college culture has more in...

Your early retirement as President is welcomed by the University of St. Michael's College faculty, student and alumni communities. Your statements about the loss of the Catholic identity and your criticism about the college culture has more in common with Donald Trump's view of the world than it does with the USMC community. You have left a legacy of grievance and mean-spiritedness. We alumni will try to get passed your miserable, narrow view of Catholicism and student life. We will remember the legacy of the patience, kindness, and endurance in the spiritual and intellectual life bestowed on St. Michael's by the Basilian fathers and the Sisters of St. Joseph, which is alive and well today.

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David Mulroney is the best thing that ever happened to St. Michael's College. Those who attack him are shameful bigots whose hatred for truth and pluralism is an embarrassment to higher education.

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