Each summer, as a Catholic high school chaplain, I meet with groups of students who are about to leave school and who are planning to go to university in the fall.
One of the things I often discuss is how to survive as a Catholic at university. Over the years I have become increasingly aware that faith is being squeezed out of academic life and that those who seek to live out their faith will have a much tougher time than previous generations. Starting university is a period in time when when many young Catholics are vulnerable and the temptation is to just keep their heads down or jettison the faith that they had previously held.
My fears were confirmed again this week when the Students Union at University College Dublin, a university founded by Blessed John Henry Newman, voted to remove the pro-life president of their student union. This devastating vote came after the president, Katie Ascough, had stopped the Union from publishing information about the cost of abortion and information relating to abortion pills.
The Student Union at University College, which is the largest of its kind in Ireland, has for a long while been at the forefront of controversy. The Union was threatened with legal action in 1988 when it published information about abortion in its welfare guide for students. Earlier in 1979, when the sale of contraceptives without prescription was illegal, the union was a leader in the movement which campaigned for change. In addition to this campaigning, the Student Union, as with other such unions, provides a wide range of welfare and educational services. It also offers support with student accommodation and provides a welfare officer. As an organisation, it has significant power and influence within the university and beyond.
The recent vote was 69 percent in favour of removing Ascough from office, with a total turnout of 6,611.
Sadly this case is not in isolation. There have been numerous occasions in recent times where universities and student unions have banned pro-life speakers and others with Christian viewpoints from speaking at official engagements. Just over one month ago, the junior common room (the undergraduate student body) at Balliol College in the University of Oxford, banned the Christian Union from its events to welcome new students at the beginning of the academic year. This was because it was felt that the Christian Union presence could cause harm to the newly arriving students. The University of Strathclyde has also recently taken the step to ban all pro-life groups from its campus. I can only imagine the pressure that young and vulnerable Catholics who are away from home for the first time must experience when faced with such intolerance.
The website spiked-online.com published earlier this year The 2017 British University Free Speech Rankings. This demonstrated how many of the top universities in the UK are actively censoring free speech, political ideas and religious beliefs. A potential consequence of all of this is that today’s students will lose the opportunity and ability to discuss controversial issues through rigorous and academic debate. Denouncing or banning individuals and groups instead of actively and constructively engaging in arguments with them seems so contrary to the ideals of a university.
For Blessed John Henry Newman, the founder of University College Dublin, a university should a community of thinkers engaged in a broad and liberal education which teaches students to think, reason, compare, discriminate and analyse. Restricting free speech on campus and censoring viewpoints surely undermines this vision and makes our universities less diverse and interesting places.
For those involved in ministry with young people or parents we have a vitally important role in making young Catholics aware of the pressures that they will face at university and preparing them to live in a much more secular and intolerant environment. We should also celebrate and pray for brave students like Katie Ascough against this prevailing tyranny.