Interview: Benedict XVI, a new university, and the future
Joanna Bogle meets Philip Booth, who runs the Benedict XVI Centre
at St Mary’s University.
St Mary’s University has been known to generations of Catholics in Britain as a teachertraining
college. Those who studied here knew it – and know it still – as Simmeries.
Founded in 1850 at Hammersmith, it moved to Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, in the 1920s,
and a visit there on a summer’s day is an agreeable experience: green lawns, pleasant
wooded walks, a sense of history. It adjoins Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole’s
gothick folly mansion now run by an independent Trust and open to visitors. The University
itself occupies modern buildings and the site is dominated by an imposing chapel built
after World War II. Pope Benedict came here in 2010 and the Centre that bears his name
was founded following the visit.
Dr Philip Booth is a cheerful, busy person with an open and approachable style, and was
happy to answer FAITH magazine’s questions
Tell us about the Benedict XVI Centre
The Centre was established to research the role of religion in society. It ranges quite
widely. Its work includes research on sociological trends relating to religion in modern
society, a subject on which Prof. Stephen Bullivant, the director, is an expert. There are a
number of us who work on Catholic social teaching and we have an MA in Catholic social
teaching which gives us an opportunity to link research and teaching.
The research of the centre has had a high profile including launches in parliament and
widespread press coverage. Stephen Bullivant, Andre Alves, Fr. Ashley Beck and I all write
widely in the Catholic and other media.
The Centre also has a series of events linking Catholic social teaching and public policy.
Most of those are public. Some are held in central London, some at St. Mary’s and others
elsewhere in the country. The Centre is, by nature, cross disciplinary and there are natural
links with other areas of research at St. Mary’s such as public policy, bio-ethics and modern
slavery. As such, it has been attractive to PhD students. All-in-all, we have come a long way
in less than three years.
And about yourself - involvement with the Institute of Economic Affairs, author of several
My last job was Academic and Research Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. In
many ways, this was a dream job. The the interaction between policy and the academic
sphere was extremely fulfilling. There are some people who write about Catholic social
teaching who are highly critical of the IEA as they see it as a purveyor of everything
liberal. However, that is to misunderstand the institution. The IEA promotes the idea of
limited government. But it has always been a broad academic church within that context.
Throughout its history (from 1955) it has had Christians, Jews and Muslims write for it
including some prominent Catholics. Most IEA authors have a strong belief in civil society
institutions as a necessary part of a free economy.
To me, economics should start with trying to
understand human behaviour in the economic sphere.
Immediately, then, ethics becomes important. Part of
our human nature is that we are imperfectible - and
there are limits to our knowledge. It is this that makes
me sceptical of a large role for government in economic
life. People can make up their own mind by reading Catholic Social Teaching and the Market
Economy, a good part of which is actually about business and consumer ethics (something
that seems to have totally passed some reviewers by!).
Your particular interest in Catholic social teaching raises the whole question of the role of
Catholics in public life. Do you see any problems ahead, for example with Catholics being
banned or sidelined because of their commitment to the Church’s teaching on marriage,
or on abortion?
The answer to this is clearly “yes”. Perhaps this is best explained through a secular
political philosophy lens. Freedom of association and freedom of contract (for example
the ability to set up a company that chooses not to sell cakes with slogans supporting
gay marriage written on them) is under threat as positive rights and the principle of nondiscrimination
seems to trump any other principle in law. This is going to make Christian
practice increasingly difficult. It also dehumanises work. In the Ashers’ bakery case, they
would have seen their work as a vocation. But, the law forces them to write something
they do not believe on a publicly displayed cake. In other words, at work, they have to do
what the law tells them rather than what they believe God is calling them to do.
Another warning of problems ahead comes from the reaction to the abortion
referendum in Ireland with some MPs (including Christians) now suggesting that the law
should be changed in Northern Ireland despite the fact that abortion is a devolved issue.
How does a practising Christian Conservative MP manage to leap from a referendum
result in Ireland to a belief that the constitutional settlement in a different country (the
UK) should be changed so that the British government can impose a law on Northern
Ireland without the consent of the people of the province? It seems that all semblance of
rationality has been replaced by an ideology that does not even conceive of the possibility
of an alternative point of view. This kind of intolerance is dangerous.
I can see education being next in the firing line. The belief that parents should not
send their children to Catholic and other religious schools is quite widespread amongst
politicians. How long before religion is then confined to the weekends? And if parents
cannot send their children to a faith school because it is somehow divisive within society,
why should they be allowed to bring their children up in the faith at all?
Do you have any concerns about what appears to be a trend towards restrictions on
freedom of speech, especially in universities?
This is certainly another worry. At St. Mary’s we have a very robust academic freedom
clause in our contracts. And I have been impressed sby the wide-ranging intellectual
exchanges within the university. That happens partly because St. Mary’s is small. In
addition, much of the work at St. Mary’s is inter-disciplinary. Often research ideas will
range across a number of areas. That is particularly true of the work of the Benedict XVI
I often get asked why we should have Catholic universities. Indeed, I have been asked that
by a high-ranking official from the government department that used to be responsible
for universities. I often answer that question in terms of institutional pluralism. Why
should we not have a variety of institutions with different missions and ways of working?
Interestingly, however, I believe that St. Mary’s Catholic mission makes it closer to the
society it seeks to serve than many other universities. Modern universities are often
monochrome. Academics in general are overwhelmingly left-leaning (perhaps around 90
per cent on average) and the idea of normative ethical values based on truth and natural
law often does not get a look in when it comes
to teaching and research. Indeed, it is this that
gives rise to the intolerance of other points of
view and so leads to freedom of speech being
undermined: if you believe there is something
called “truth” when it comes to ethics, you are
seen to be intolerant and so you cannot be
tolerated! But most non-academics don’t think
that way. The exploration of subjects such as
bio-ethics through a normative moral lens might be incomprehensible to the majority of
academics in that field, but it is perfectly comprehensible to society at large.
So, we are wedded to academic freedom. Some academics at St. Mary’s have views
and undertake research that readers of this magazine would find baffling: academic
freedom runs both ways. At the same time, many academics are doing a great service by
undertaking teaching and research that has been squeezed to the margins in academia
in general. Our Catholic mission ensures that they are encouraged at St. Mary’s and can
be a light in the modern world. I am dodging here the question of exactly what a Catholic
university should be. However, I am answering the question as asked. Yes, free speech
is under threat, but at St. Mary’s academics are free to say things that would be met with
hostility in many other places.
Tell us a bit about your own faith. It’s very usual today for people to announce - even to
boast - that they are lapsed Catholics, but you have taken a different path...
I find it quite difficult to transmit an understanding of my faith in words. Perhaps that
is not unusual. I have always been a Catholic and never lapsed. I had an incredibly poor
understanding of the Catholic faith until my wife converted and I read what she was
reading! I always had a good understanding of broad Christian principles. Indeed, when
at university, I went both to Mass and to the rather non-Catholic Christian Union. But,
there cannot be more than one truth, can there? I began to understand that and Catholic
theology and the nature of the Church and her teachings more generally in my late 20s
when my wife became a Catholic.
It is interesting that coming through my political-economic beliefs and my moral and
religious beliefs is a strong understanding of the limits to human knowledge. That is one
of the reasons why I believe that governments cannot plan the economy or even regulate
it with any predictable benefits. Similarly, the Church teaches us to trust in God and to
trust in its teaching authority and accept the limitations of our own understanding.
We all have different intellects. I must say that I was
hugely impressed by Pope Benedict’s gentleness and
humility and I like his way of writing which has certainly
nourished my faith. His encyclical Deus Caritas Est is a
Our faith teaches us the virtues which, when one reflects on them, are a good manual
for management training and are far more useful than expensive management training
courses. We are trying to bring this way of thinking into the way we teach students about
business and economics (and other subjects too). I hope that students will identify with
this unified way of expressing the faith, which is a characteristic of a number of staff at St.
Mary’s and that it rubs off on the students (as well as on other staff). With all the abuse
scandals, many have found the Church a difficult institution to like: practising Catholics in
institutions such as St. Mary’s need to help repair that damage.
There is widespread ignorance of the Christian faith in Britain today: in the general
culture, churchgoing and knowledge of the basics story of the Old and New Testaments
simply don’t form part of life for most people. Is this a concern, or should we accept that
Christian are a small club of people on the margins of society?
It is extremely important that St. Mary’s is not just nominally Catholic. It is also extremely
important that the Catholic aspect is not confined to a few Mass-goers and theology
Knowledge of the faith, its precepts and its fruits should be visible in a wide range of
the University’s activities. So, when we teach business, we can talk about virtue ethics; in
education we obviously teach a large number of Catholic (and other Christian) teachers
and work through Catholic schools; and there are specific courses such as bio-ethics and
medical law that allow
students to examine
a range of questions
through a normative
We are also trying
to develop a module
that students will be
able to take that will
examine the unity of
knowledge across a
range of subject areas
politics, and so on). So,
St. Mary’s is well placed to do these things. What we cannot do easily is fill the gaps in
knowledge that you mention. We can’t teach all sports students the Bible stories they
missed at school, though we can give them voluntary opportunities to learn such things.
Of course, we can be of great service to the Catholic community more generally in
improving understanding of theology, bio-ethics and Catholic social teaching. They, in
turn, will then be better informed as they take their own place in society. We can also be
of great service to the Catholic community by training the next generation of teachers and
by providing for the continuing professional development of teachers.
What projects are coming up at St Mary’s in the new academic year (lectures, events with
the BXVI Centre)?
One exciting project currently under way is research examining the relationship between
public policy interventions, such as sex education programmes, and outturns in relation
to variables including abortion and teenage pregnancy. The British data show that
those interventions do not seem to help – indeed, they may have had the opposite of
the intended impact. The main objective is to analyse this problem more rigorously and
internationally. This project involves a researcher, Juan Soto, working with Prof. David
Paton from the University of Nottingham and Prof. Stephen Bullivant.
As far as events are concerned, we are running a series of three events with Theos and
Together 4 the Common Good. These are public events and will be held in Putney. We are
also holding a series of more academic seminars on human dignity with the Las Casas
Centre. We are about to hold one examining the plight of those at the margins of the
St Mary’s began as a teacher training college, a small institution with a very specific aim.
How is it coping with the transition to a full-scale university with a quite different role?
The Vice Chancellor has been joined by a number of impressive people since 2014. They
are ambitious, have great ideas and you can expect over the next 20 years continual
change as we pursue our mission as a Catholic university while working to bring higher
education to groups of people to whom it was not previously accessible.
We are applying for research degree awarding powers this year. Indeed, we already
have a thriving doctoral programme with degrees conferred by Liverpool Hope. We hope
this will include a professional doctorate in ministry.
The fact that there is so much to be done perhaps suggests that more should have been
done earlier! There is no shortage of work to do.
Joanna Bogle is Editor of FAITH magazine