Saint Mary's is a secular institution. The Chancellor is the Archbishop of Halifax. The Vice-Chancellor is the Vicar-General of Halifax. Both men sit on the Board of Governors of Saint Mary's University, as do four others appointed by Roman Catholic organizations. The Board of Governors is the university's highest authority. And, yes, this means that at least six people on the 33-person board that oversees the university were seated at the pleasure of institutions of organized religion.
A bishop is one who exercises teaching authority from his cathedra, or bishop's throne (i.e. from his Cathedral). An archbishop is a bishop charged with such duties in a diocese of great size, importance or a combination of the two. By the Saint Mary's University Act of 1970, one of the Objects of Saint Mary's is "to give special emphasis to the Christian tradition and values in higher education." It would appear, then, that Saint Mary's University falls under jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Halifax who, because he sits on the Board of Governors, has the "powers necessary or convenient to...achieve the objects of the university".
It is to the Christian tradition and values, not the Roman Catholic tradition and values that is being emphasized as one of the Objects of the university. It seems highly unlikely that Catholicism is implied by use of the term "Christian". It is an ecumenical term these days that is more apt to mean someone that adheres to values not Jewish, not Muslim, not Buddhist etc. It seems even more unlikely that the Archbishop of Halifax, (a large and important diocese requiring a talented intellectual to govern), would accept the position of Chancellor of a public university, expecting to govern it as if it fell within his domain. The public university, while vulnerable to the Archbishop's criticism, is not subject to his authority.
Requiring the Chancellor of Saint Mary's to be the Archbishop of Halifax seems to be rooted in a desire for continuity in the transition from private religious institution to public institution. Considering that St Mary's operated as an extension of the Archdiocese of Halifax for nearly 200 years, it is understandable that during the changeover a remnant of its previous character remains. And, although six out of 33 people are assigned to the Board of Governors, it is by no stretch of the imagination an outright majority. Religious identity appears to be more of a problem for those concerned with specific persons on the Board of Governors than it does for the student body.
Some would say that "...very, very few professors at Saint Mary's care one way or the other whether their work is in line with Christian tradition and values." Let us suppose that Saint Mary's has professors with doctoral degrees amounting to 80% of the professors at Saint Mary's. Those professors are experts, nay, specialists, in their chosen fields of research. We are in a predicament already.
On the one hand, these men and women who have spent many years going over the minute, miniscule details of their area of study, missed one of the Objects of the university: being in line with Christian tradition and values. And if one misses such obvious terms of employment conditions, what more is to be missed when such a person instructs others? Or conducts future research? It seems incredible that such a high percentage of highly trained people would miss such details.
On the other hand, perhaps the professors read the Objects of the university, give them passing value, and it is business as usual. Again, instruction and research has been undermined as the character of the instructor/researcher is in question. It does not seem plausible that a large majority of the faculty at Saint. Mary's is of questionable integrity.
What is evident is that fomenting dissent upon being gainfully employed (especially after attaining tenure) is an all too common practice. Imagine telling a potential employer during the interview process that you will be taking off a "mental health" day every week, and not the same day either. Instead, now imagine many years later getting tenure. How many questions are going to be asked when every week a "mental health" day is taken, couched as a sick day? It is much easier to undermine the principles of an institution from within than it is from without.
I think that Dr Mercer has raised some salient points in his article regarding the secularity of Saint Mary's University. He has rightly questioned the role of the Roman Catholic Church in such a high position of responsibility within the life of a public university, and done so without the usual anti-religious banter. The final severing of ties between the university and the Office of the Archbishop, which was set in motion in 1970 (Saint Mary's University Act), is about to reach fruition. I suggest that a name change should also accompany any discussion of Saint Mary's future, that none should be blinded or misled by its name.
That Saint Mary's is secular is without question. It has a mosaic of different cultures and religions represented at the student level, at the professor level, even at the Board of Governors level. It is like Halifax itself. The Saint Mary's University Act is about to come before the provincial legislature for amendment. There is currently a worldwide economic crisis. With some exceptions, there is a worldwide crisis of faith in religions: it is not that people believe in nothing, rather they have a lack of belief in anything. They look instead to vestiges of religion in their culture to nourish and sustain each individual, both personally and socially. Now is not the time to agitate to have all ties with organized religion cut.
Lastly, it may be for reasons of nostalgia and tradition that Catholics will send their children to study at St Mary's, but it is for the eventual conferring of a respected degree that St Mary's exists now.
Aaron E. Glover
I am writing as a supporter of Saint Mary's University, my alma mater and the beloved source of my Christian vocation, in response to the recent article, "The Place of Organized Religion at Saint Mary's" in the CCEPA publication, Ethical Voices.
It was through Saint Mary's University Chaplaincy Services that I came to understand the importance of community, as we studied, prayed, and worked as a team. This is where I learned the importance of self-transcendence and service to the community. It was also, where I met my spouse, as did other colleagues of the early 1980's. This is the place where the faculty of the Department of Religious Studies welcomed me and encouraged me as if I were a member of a family. Upon completion of my MA, I returned to Saint Mary's to teach part-time in Religious Studies for 17 years.
Over the years, I was appreciative of the ways that Saint Mary's evolved and its breadth has impressed me as it has grown. Sensitive to Saint Mary's Jesuit heritage, and Christian foundations, when the late Rev. Dr. Lawrence Murphy, SJ retired, a position was secured to maintain a commitment to Christianity and Roman Catholicism in the Religious Studies curriculum. This was a wise move in my view; that is, to maintain tradition and to embrace one's foundational roots by continuing to hold the values under which the institution was founded and out of which it has grown. The public relations statement: "Where Tradition Meets the Future" summed up so well the wisdom of Saint Mary's University leadership in balancing a rich scholarly tradition inherited from the Jesuits since 1940, with a forward-looking need to secure a future inclusive of all people.
In recent years, this has changed to "One university. One world. Yours." signalling this very outreach into the world with its secularity still in tact. One day soon after the completion of the Sobey building, a new sign at Saint Mary's which indicated "Saint Ignatius of Loyola building (to the left) and the Sobey Building (to the right)" stopped me in my tracks. I thought to myself "what a symbol of change"! Indeed, it was symbolic of that developing outreach beyond Saint Mary's religious roots. This is positive as the world has changed and Saint Mary's has wisely changed too. As we have recently seen a shift in the position of University Chancellor with the Archbishop of Halifax, named Episcopal Visitor for the university, Saint Mary's is at another important crossroad of change. Nevertheless, that does not mean as Dr. Mark Mercer suggests that the University should sever its ties with its Catholic Christian roots.
Dr. Mercer's suggestion puts up a red flag for me. I do not understand how a commitment to the Christian tradition and values infringes upon Saint Mary's mission, inclusiveness or human freedoms. The implication is that if an institution holds onto its religious values then this is somehow an infringement on rights or that Christian values might contaminate the so-called secular culture. Too many institutions have lacked the prudent judgement of Saint Mary's and abandoned their founding religious traditions and values in the name of inclusion or secularization. Saint Mary's is no less inclusive or broad because it holds Christianity as a value in its charter. There is nothing shameful about holding onto such a positive inheritance as part of institutional identity and values. In fact, this commitment to the Christian tradition has been an integral part of Saint Mary's since the university founding in 1802 and instead of harming it, Saint Mary's University can continue to boast about its graduates, its programs and research throughout the world.
Dr. Beth McIsaac Bruce
Sessional Faculty and Acting Director of Roman Catholic Lay Formation at Atlantic School of Theology
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