In a time when Irish society is becoming increasingly secular, Matt Gregg investigates what role the Chaplaincy has to play on campus

UCD owes its roots to the Catholic University. Though no longer a denominated institution, UCD has certainly maintained a “catholic ethos” throughout its 157 year history. In its origins, the Catholic University sought to offer Ireland’s Catholic majority an avenue to third level education that the non-denominational Queen’s colleges or the Anglican controlled Trinity College did not. Each of the three colleges had their own chapel and the majority of the professors were also members of the clergy, while all public university functions were conducted in the University Church. When the university’s first rector, Cardinal Newman, reflected on his university he foresaw “a land both old and young; old in its Christianity, young in the promise of its future”.

Fast forward to 2011 and Christianity in Ireland certainly feels old. Secularism and apathy are on the rise as the Catholic Church, still Ireland’s main Christian representative, is rocked by scandal after scandal. Yet, even without this catalyst, religion in Ireland has long been in decline. Church attendance in the Archdiocese of Dublin this year averaged 18% of the Catholic population, while in certain dioceses this figure fell to as little as 2%.  Furthermore, youth participation is at an all time low, a plummet that has not escaped the notice of UCD’s current Chaplains.

“25 years ago, [students] would have been more conscious, I would think, of the spiritual side of life than they might be now. Nowadays, I suppose you’d have to say, a lot of students wouldn’t have a big involvement with their parish and wouldn’t know their clergy very well,” bemoans Father John Callanan S.J., Chaplain for Medicine and Engineering students. “If we conducted an experiment by walking down the thoroughfare and asking ten students ‘Do you go to church? Do you know your local priest?’ I suspect much, much less than twenty years ago where nine out of ten would have said yes to both questions. The way they see the chaplains is not as visible, and they wouldn’t be as used to being in contact with us.”

Father Callanan S.J. is one of four Chaplains currently employed by UCD. He works fulltime and has an office on campus, just beside the Arts Programme Office, which is provided using university funds. However, the appropriation of university funding for a religious purpose is not something that everyone at UCD believes is appropriate.

“The Chaplaincy does have financial support from the college, as well as office space, which non-religious students don’t really have access to,” explains Rita Harrold, UCD student and spokesperson for the Humanist Society. “There are certain areas that are really just for religious students and, while I think there should be support for students in lots of different ways, and it’s great that the college is providing a service, it is unfair for religion to get preferential treatment over any other viewpoint.”

Harrold did make it clear that she understood why students, particularly those far from home who had been involved with their local parishes, would find it helpful to have people tied in with religion on campus. But on the other hand, she didn’t feel this was a strong enough reason to justify funding a chaplaincy on campus.

“There are churches outside the campus and potentially the religious societies could assist religious students who wanted to get involved with those kinds of things and becoming members of Dublin congregations,” Rita argues. “I do see [the function of] a chaplaincy but it is another benefit that religion is getting, in this case particularly the Catholic Church, from a state funded institution which runs contrary to the ideas of an equal and secular institution.”

This is not a unique train of thought. In fact, it was a central tenet of civil rights group Campaign to Separate Church and State when they brought a case against the Minister for Education. They complained that the use of state funds for a religious purpose, including the employment of chaplains, was unconstitutional.

However, the Supreme Court disagreed. Its 1998 judgement decided that the funding of chaplains by the state did not constitute the endowment of religion and was therefore not a violation of the constitution. The case was concerned with secondary schools but it can also be seen as applicable to universities, as they too are a secular source of education that receives state funding. Of course, accusations that the constitution looks favourably on religion are frequent and would lead some to dismiss the notion that this decision legitimises the chaplaincy on campus. But that is a debate that goes beyond the Belfield boundaries.

For UCD’s Head Chaplain, Father John McNerney, the ruling provides a base for justifying the chaplaincy as part of a secular state institution, but is not the clinching argument. Instead, when asked to counter the Humanist Society’s point, he gestures to the label on his door. “Our title is chaplain student advisor. We are employed as student advisors who happen to be chaplains as well. One of the team is a psychotherapist; another is qualified in terms of community sociology. [UCD] is inundated with student welfare cases and we definitely contribute in that role and are employed on that basis.”

Father Callanan was also quick to point out that theirs is a dual role. “Because of the first part of our job, you might get some that are Catholic with a problem about a marriage or something like that. But in the majority of cases, it’s not that. It’s a much wider range of areas that people would be coming to us with. ” He continued that the question of faith was only broached at the student’s discretion and that, much like non-faith student advisors, he would pass on cases outside his competencies to UCD’s professional counselling services.

Father McNerney draws parallels between the debate over the services they offer and those of a fire station. “You could say I don’t see what the need is for a fire station down the road because I’ve never called it, therefore I’d say get rid of it. The University is also a place that cares for others. The President speaks of the UCD community and that is a multi-dimensional reality which includes the spiritual, but is not exclusive to it.”

Of course, this idea of a multi-dimensional reality applies to other religious denominations as well as secularism. The primacy of Catholicism is no longer as evident, particularly with the influx of international students who now account for roughly a fifth of the student population. In light of this, it is appropriate to explore how the Chaplaincy adapts to this.

“[The UCD Chaplains] are Catholic with a small ‘c’. Our outreach is Catholic or universal in the sense that it reaches into every part of the community,” says Father Leon Ó Giolláin S.J. when asked how the Chaplaincy caters to those outside the Christian faith. “We are interested in the human person as a whole, with their questions, whatever they are, and indeed their answers to these questions also, which can come from a faith perspective – any faith perspective – or from a ‘non-faith’ position.”

His colleague, Father Callanan, expanded on the idea and explained that “there is an interfaith, or non-faith, grouping that meets once a term. You get Baha’is, Christians, Atheists, etc. It’s an attempt really to get people to share their own values and beliefs and to understand the values and the beliefs of others.”

Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that the Chaplaincy remains composed entirely of Catholics and Methodists. A perusal of their website does indeed give prominence to an account of the interfaith meeting but it is somewhat lonely in and amongst the far more numerous mentions of Christian events.

When the subject is broached, Father McNerney admits “there are growth areas for development” and he is not alone in this opinion. Father Ó Giolláin draws comparisons with DCU’s inter-faith organisation and concedes that “Perhaps we should have an Imam. However, the Muslims [on campus] are well served by the local Mosque in Clonskeagh, which is one of the largest in Dublin. Also numerically, they are strong and in fact support themselves well, in their faith.”

For Aneeq Ahmed, auditor of the Islamic Society, the proximity of the Islamic Cultural Centre for Ireland (ICCI) does provide help for UCD’s Islamic community but operates on a different agenda. He went on to express his gratitude at how welcoming the UCD Chaplaincy was and the support they offered but also felt that providing representatives of other faiths would be a good idea.

“It would be nice to have chaplains of other faiths to help students deal with any specific issues or questions they may have,” he explained. “We wouldn’t have a big issue if [they are] in the chaplaincy or employed separately. I think the important point would be that, for example, there is a Muslim educated in Islam who is available to guide the students on campus, whether it’s as part of the Chaplaincy or not.”

In their 1998 judgement, the Supreme Court decided that funding did not have to be provided to all faiths, only those of the institution’s ethos. They said that having a Catholic Chaplain did not require the provision of religious advisors for other faiths merely to provide balance. This is perhaps a fair statement in a small school community where a clear majority ethos remains. Yet UCD’s student population is vast. Its historical Catholicism has, and is continually, being diluted by both those of other religions and of no religious allegiance at all.

Today, the Chaplaincy presents clear reasons as to why spiritual advisors still have a role on campus, both for religious and non-religious welfare, but that does not mean the role is complete. There are clear reasons to suggest that it could be expanded to support the growing range of faiths and non-faiths on campus. Bringing the spirit of Newman to 2011, UCD should have a Chaplaincy to cater for both old and young; old in its Christianity, young in the promise of a diverse future.