Irene Morra, new principal at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, aims to take on the “vehemently secular” challenges faced on Catholic university campuses today. (Photo courtesy University of St. Michael’s College)

Campus is place to tackle secular challenges

  • March 5, 2023

Building a culture on campus and critiquing the culture at large are what makes a Catholic college Catholic in the eyes of the new University of St. Michael’s College principal and vice president Irene Morra.

When she was an undergraduate, long before she went off to become an English literature professor at Cardiff University in Wales, Morra took Christianity and Culture courses at the Catholic college of the University of Toronto. She also took Celtic Studies courses. And there was French, English and more.

“I took a lot of courses,” said Morra.

Now, as she returns to Toronto to oversee some of the very courses that began her academic journey, Morra recognizes the university is a different place and a different experience for young people today.

“It can be increasingly difficult to articulate the importance of a program such as Christianity and Culture within an academic environment that can, at times, be vehemently secular, and misguidedly secular as well,” she said.

There are plenty of reasons why young people at universities have turned their backs on the Church and religion in general. The perception of a rigid, casually cruel and unscientific view of human sexuality has put up a wall between the Church and young people. The history of residential schools and Church complicity in colonialism globally has tainted Catholic heritage and identity.

The campus is the place to meet those challenges head on, Morra said. Rather than pushing aside contemporary debates about gender and sexuality, she wants to see undergraduates engage those questions fully.

“There’s already a very strong movement within Church circles, intellectual circles anyways, to discuss ideas of sexuality in relation to the Church and the Christian body,” she said. 

She appreciates all the ways St. Michael’s is already confronting the legacy of residential schools and Canada’s history with Indigenous people.

“(Professor) Reid (Locklin’s) seminar on truth and reconciliation — that is overtly and directly engaging with the root cause of some of the hatred of the Church,” she points out. “A strong Church is a Church that engages with those issues and engages with that hostility.”

Morra doesn’t think the aim is to shout down opposing voices. She wants an open, honest discussion that moves away from slogans and toward nuance.

But nuance can’t happen in a vacuum, or in an academic Automat, dispensing plastic-wrapped units of coursework. For Morra, a real university is a real community of learning and mutual support. 

That’s going to look different for this generation of students, Morra said.

“We can’t under-estimate the effect of COVID in terms of the socialization effect of COVID,” she said. “And how confident they even feel to come onto campus and be in a group and to be talking about ideas — let alone contemplating imminent adulthood.”

Professors and university administrators have to take seriously the mental health crisis of the COVID generation, said Morra. But her solution is classically Catholic — to build a community where students know they belong.

“If they don’t feel part of a community that is a caring community, then they’re not going to have the full education experience,” she said. “They’re not going to have the experience of adulthood that we want them to have — that sense of responsibility in society… To really establish that sense of a caring community, regardless of how they’re doing in academic life, is absolutely essential in the contemporary university.”

University should open up opportunities, and a Catholic university should be open to  opportunities to be part of the Church, “which is very, very much about social engagement and social activism in many respects, informed by Catholic faith,” she said.

Morra’s “appreciation for the unique nature of St. Michael’s will serve the university well,” St. Mike’s President David Sylvester said in a release. “As a leader, she brings to the role the experience, the insights and the imagination to further enhance St. Michael’s standing as Canada’s leading Catholic university.”

Fostering a Catholic community here and now, rather than fostering an elite to take over Catholic institutions in the future, is Morra’s focus.

“Who am I to decide what that elite is supposed to look like?” she asks. “Or, in fact, to endorse the idea of a certain kind of educated elite along a certain train of thought? There has to be a place for a recognition of different voices and different approaches toward an idea of Catholic education.”

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