Reconciling UCD’s past religious ties with the modern university

Image Credit: Rattankun

Michael Bergin explores the history of UCD’s religious ties, and how efforts to reconcile these links with a secular present can create not just problems, but opportunities.

When expanding upon his aims for the establishment of a university, the first rector of what would become UCD, Saint John Henry Newman, once posited that “A university is a place of teaching universal knowledge, […], It’s object is on the one hand intellectual, not moral, and on the other is the diffusion and expansion of knowledge, rather than the advancement.” 

Thus, the basis for his university is laid out, with the clear focus on student experiences being the centrepiece.

Now, much has changed since Newman wrote those words about 170 years ago. UCD is an entirely secular institution. Whether or not the student experience is prioritised over the potential for lucrative advancements in knowledge is most certainly up for debate. And there is absolutely no chance that anyone on the University’s management team may one day be made a Saint.

Setting those institutional differences aside, the student body of UCD is also incomparable with that which would have attended Newman’s university. Today, UCD boasts a student population of about 30,000, from myriad different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The number of students who now profess no faith is at an all-time high.

And so, the need to re-examine UCD’s Catholic origins presents itself, in order to reconcile what once was, with what very much so is.

UCD owes its foundations to the Catholic University of Ireland, established in St. Stephen’s Green in 1854 to serve as a rival institution to Trinity College. Since the 1780s, Catholics had been admitted to enter Trinity, as well as its traditional Anglican base, though Catholics were prevented from entering administrative positions within the university. Thus, a Catholic-run university was mandated, and John Henry Newman, an English convert, was appointed as the first rector. 

After leaving the university due to the financial difficulties it was to constantly find itself in, during the perilous first few years of its existence, Newman was replaced by Bartholomew Woodlock. 

Woodlock ran the university until 1879, when he was replaced by Henry Neville. In 1880, the Royal University system was established, in which the Catholic University, now under Jesuit leadership, began participating in 1882.

Gradually, this system streamlined universities, until, in 1908, the university was renamed University College Dublin, and became one of the constituent colleges of the National University of Ireland, under the Universities Act. Thus, UCD as we know it today began to take shape.

However, there remained a lingering sense of religious commitment in choosing which university you wished to attend. Though nominally a secular institution, an order from the Catholic Church forbidding attendance at Trinity College meant that in actuality, the vast majority of UCD’s students, right up until the 1970s, came from Catholic backgrounds.

As such, reconciling UCD’s religious past with a secular present is an arduous task, and though not the express task of any one college body, the college chaplaincy often takes responsibility in shaping religious discourse and conduct on campus.

Speaking with Fr. Brendan Ludlow, one of the three members of UCD’s dedicated chaplaincy team, I posed the question of how the chaplaincy works to include members of different faith backgrounds, a key aspiration to have when reconciling past with present.

“I think the UCD chaplaincy, right throughout the academic year, tries to provide as many opportunities as it can for students of all faith traditions to gather”, he tells me. “Events such as our interfaith gatherings are designed to ensure that students of all faiths can gather and learn from each other’s traditions and experiences.”

Going further, Fr. Ludlow emphasises that “we also are at pains to point out that we serve students of all faiths and none, and that as chaplains we’re here to assist students, both with their ordinary personal lives, […], and some students, who wish to raise faith.” 

The focus, then, on the indiscriminate service to students of all faiths and none, has been identified by the chaplaincy as one measure to be used in historical reconciliation. This multi-denominational outreach is not limited to providing services for those who need it, however, but in active outreach to students, too.

“We reach out to all of the religious societies at the beginning of each year, and will have contact with the Christian societies and also, we’ve had a gathering of Jewish students in the last few weeks, and we’ve reached out to and met members of the Islamic society.” 

There are still a number of areas of contention when it comes to UCD’s past ties to the Catholic Church. For instance, when, in 2019, it was announced that John Henry Newman was to be canonised a Saint, lines became blurred.

On the one hand, there were those who wished to celebrate a central historic figure in UCD’s story. On the other were those who were reluctant to celebrate what they viewed as an inherently religious event, given the changed nature of the modern university.

In the event, there were muted celebrations around campus, while a sizable contingent from UCD’s Newman society travelled to Rome. This case illustrates the troubles that exist in ignoring UCD’s past. Very often, commemoration is about contemporary society just as much as it is about celebrating the way that things used to be. When we devote inadequate attention to historical commemoration, it can leave students confused as to the identity of their university.

For Fr. Ludlow, at least, increased secularisation can help to liberate services such as the chaplaincy when dealing with student issues. Citing the role that chaplains play in armies, whereby they hold the rank of whichever soldier they are talking to, so as to ensure equality, Fr. Ludlow views a secular university as a place where a chaplaincy can operate most effectively, when it comes to servicing personal, social, and spiritual needs.

Perhaps, it is in this spirit of innovative outreach, that UCD’s historic links to the Church can most responsibly be reconciled to the present.