A Catholic university in Ireland is not the way forward, but Catholic university residences are

In discussions about the future of the Irish Church, a topic sometimes raised is the need for a Catholic university in the long-term. 

Many insightful voices have called for this, and with some justification. 

Almost 250,000 people are now enrolled in higher education, and with a majority of Irish young adults continuing to identify as Catholic, there is clearly a demographic to be catered to. 

Compared to countries like Italy and Spain, the lack of a Catholic university in Ireland is indeed a historical anomaly, particularly stark in light of the fact that around 90% of Ireland’s primary schools and 50% of our secondary schools have a Catholic ethos.

Parents can still opt for a Catholic education for their children up to Leaving Certificate. At this point, religious formation as part of a holistic education ceases at precisely the moment when young people leave home and enter early adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the point when many young Catholics cease to practice, and there is some evidence in the United States that those who attend Catholic colleges are less likely to stop attending Mass, although the percentage difference compared to secular colleges is less than some might assume.

Given all this, one could argue that the Church should prioritise the establishment of a Catholic university. 

But that argument would be mistaken, particularly as a more achievable option lies within our grasp.

On a practical level, setting up a university is no small feat. St. John Henry Newman could attest to that, as could those involved in the failed Newman College Ireland project.

It is important to remember that Newman’s struggles occurred within the devoutly religious Ireland of the mid-19th century.

Building, staffing and operating an independent college without any State support would be a massive undertaking, within an environment where the overwhelming majority of students are non-practising.

More importantly though, consider the fate of that faithful minority, and whether they should be asked to forego the advantages of attending a leading college like University College Dublin in favour of an unproven Catholic alternative.

Those advantages include access to top-quality facilities and professors, and close links to a range of leading employers, not to mention the prospect of acquiring a degree carrying a substantial cachet when entering a job market. 

Should an 18-year-old Catholic who wants to study business or computer science be encouraged to jeopardise their future career prospects in this manner, and would it be right to ask them to do so?

This is not a materialist concern. The future of the Irish Church – and our nation – depends on having dedicated Catholics succeeding in all areas of society, and it also depends on lay Catholics having the material resources needed to sustain it. 

Encouraging young Catholics to opt out of the mainstream college system would be an act of collective self-harm, and devoting money or resources to any such project in this area would be unwise. 

But that does not mean major work does not need to be done to support Catholics formation within the third-level sector, and this needs to go beyond chaplaincy services operating under the supervision of often hostile academic authorities. 

Rather than building a new university, the focus should be on expanding the number of Catholic college residences so that at least one such facility exists in every college town.

A template for how this can be done effectively already exists in the form of Opus Dei university centres, while in Cork, the Dominicans have now developed a Catholic student residence in Cork as well.

Student residences can play an important role where no Catholic university is available

Student facilities like this provide a supportive and intellectually enriching home environment for young students. They are a natural location for activities aimed at both residents and their fellow students, and thus serve as a natural bridge for engagement with the wider college community.

Best of all, there are many properties in urban areas owned by dioceses and religious orders which are likely to be closed down or sold in the coming years: properties which could quite easily be converted into student centres.

The escalating accommodation crisis is affecting Catholic students as much as any other group, and developing more Church-operated facilities would be an feasible way of responding to an urgent need while boosting prospects of a revival in the longer-term. This is also an opportunity to build on the strong foundations laid by earlier generations while nurturing the generations to come. 

With a little imagination, a vibrant Catholic alternative at college level could be built without laying so much as a brick.

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