Wednesday 11 December 2019

Catholic fear and loathing in our universities

Former chaplain says students are labelled 'bigots', 'homophobes' and 'backward' for being Catholic

Strong belief: Fr David Barrins in St Mary’s Church, Pope’s Quay, Cork City. Photo: Darragh McSweeney/Provison
Strong belief: Fr David Barrins in St Mary’s Church, Pope’s Quay, Cork City. Photo: Darragh McSweeney/Provison

Claire Mc Cormack

CATHOLIC students are being silenced in our universities and labelled "bigots" and "homophobes" if they openly express their religion, a former chaplain at UCC has claimed.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Fr David Barrins said many third-level institutions are becoming increasingly "intolerant" towards Catholics, particularly if they have pro-life views.

"It's discrimination and it keeps people silent by using very evocative terms like homophobic and bigot . . . it's very hard to fight that because once you're labelled, it seems to stick," said Fr Barrins.

"There is a quiet fear and nobody wants to report it, simply because you can bash Catholics and it seems to be acceptable and that seems to be reinforced by a lot of the reports I get on these things over cups of tea."

The 36-year-old Dominican friar said the trend is particularly highlighted by the lack of university societies that represent Catholic views.

"You're a bigot if you're a Catholic student or if you dissent from the prevailing orthodox. You have to keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself," said Fr Barrins.

Earlier this year, a student pro-life society was refused recognition at the University of Limerick.

And last year, a Legion of Mary Society was suspended at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

However, at the time it was reported that NUI Galway suspended the society simply because controversial posters were in breach of their code of conduct.

The pro-life society in UL was rejected as it just didn't get enough votes from the universities Council of Societies for approval.

Fr Barrins believes these societies, and others, are refused because they "clash" with "modern and liberal ideologies" on issues such as abortion and the family.

In the main, Irish universities do not have dedicated Catholic societies, instead they have a Christian Union or Laurentian Society representing all students who share a belief in Jesus.

Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Cork (UCC), University of Limerick (UL), University College Dublin (UCD), Maynooth University and NUI Galway and many more, all offer a Christian Union society to their students. However, Fr Barrins argues that "this is not good enough" as the organisation is based on Evangelical Protestant principles.

"Christian Union is a very fine organisation but if you are a Catholic student, you couldn't mention things about the Blessed Virgin, that's not approved of, so it's clearly not a Catholic organisation in that it doesn't tolerate very Catholic views," he said.

Despite an absence of Catholic societies, a large amount of colleges run Islamic or Muslim societies including UCC, TCD and The Royal College of Surgeons.

"The Islamic societies have huge support and that's great but Catholic students are almost being told what they believe in and who will represent them," said Fr Barrins. University College Dublin is a rare exception as it runs the Newman Society - dedicated to the support and encouragement of Catholic beliefs on campus.

For Fr Barrins, the prevailing opinion on campuses in Ireland "is an aggressive secularism" and part of it is that "no college wants to be seen as homophobic and they don't want to offend anyone".

Professor Ray Kinsella, a leading academic who has worked at University College Dublin, University of Ulster and with the Higher Education Authority, echoes these concerns.

"I think he is right. There is a growing intolerance of the Catholic perspective which should be welcomed at the table partly because of its enormous contribution to the third level and the support it provides".

For Professor Kinsella, universities should be a place of "rigorous, open and inclusive debate" and he is concerned the trend will spill over into other areas, including politics.

"The value of the Catholic perspective in scrutinising economic and social policies in university is not respected."

He claims an increasing "secular culture", that doesn't have the same "deep roots" as Catholicism, is crowding out the Church's contribution.

"If you're not questioning things at university then God help us, the Church has often been criticised for it's intolerance but now there is intolerance at large and it is critical that we get the balance or else we are in really big trouble".

Although the retired finance professor believes the student voice is "really important", he said student unions need to be "very careful" about promoting an ideology of non-inclusiveness that pushes people out.

Over the past three years, Fr Barrins claims it has become acceptable to be "anti-Catholic" or "anti-pro life" at UCC.

During Sexual Health Awareness Week 2014 a "massive pink penis" was set up outside the Honan Chapel on the university grounds and "condoms were handed out to people going to Mass".

Even in classrooms he claims lecturers regularly and openly make disparaging comments about Catholicism. Most recently, the university has repeatedly refused to register "Love-Life" - a pro-life student organisation - as an official college society, despite having membership signatures from more than 200 students, of all faiths and none.

"Love-Life is being discriminated and worse because they are pro-life and there isn't a single society at UCC that is pro-life," he said. "The student union have an active pro-choice right across the board."

Speaking anonymously for fear of "being expelled", a Love-Life member told the Sunday Independent that it has become "increasingly impossible for Catholic or pro-life students to express their views on campus".

"Our opinions are not welcome and we feel like we are being forced out."

Despite "great support" from other societies, including the Islamic Society, the student said their college experience is being diminished.

"I feel discriminated against; we're paying huge fees that partly fund the societies so we feel like we are being robbed to a certain extent. We don't have freedom of speech or the right to association, it's an absolute oppression. It's not that we want people to agree with us, but I'm proud in my convictions and it's absolutely frightening that I must face intimidating tactics should I pose a pro-life opinion".

UCC this weekend said that the accreditation for student societies is managed by the "student governance".

It added in a written response: "The group were unsuccessful in their application and subsequent appeal. They are able to reapply should they wish and UCC Societies Guild officers are available to meet them."

Fr Barrins accepts that at one time the Catholic view was "the only view being heard", but he believes "a lack of plurality on every campus" is unacceptable.

Sunday Independent

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