BY A S I Al I RI PORTER
ARGE N UMBERS of letters from former students expressing sympathy and support have begun arriving at Corpus Christi Institute of Religious Education, London, the majority of whose teaching staff resigned last week. Fr. Hubert Richards, the college's principal, said : "We had formed a team probably such as you would not find any place in the world. It is a terrible shame."
The resignations of all five members of the religious leaching staff were offered after Cardinal Heenan had requested that five lecturers who' ad agreed to speak at the college should have their invitations cancelled.
After the Cardinal had made his request in August, Fr. Richards wrote to him saying: "There is between us such a divergence of understanding on the nature of religious education that it would be inappropriate for us to remain as a staff in charge of your college." Their resignations were accepted last week and will take effect at the end of this academic year.
A statement from the Catholic Information Office confirms that no new appointments arc expected before the autumn. It said: "The principal and most of the staff regarded the withdrawal of these invitations as an interference with academic freedom."
A statement issued by the staff on Christmas Eve said the withdrawal of invitations from Fr. Gregory Baum. a dogmatic theology authority, Fr. Enda McDonagh, Dean of the Faculty of Moral Theology at Maynooth. and Dr. John Marshall, a marriage counsellor, "would be an unwarranted slur on men so eminent."
The staff statement continued: "They were also convinced that such a decision would put into question the nature of religious education such as they had come to understand it through long study and practice in the Odd. The totality of today's Church contains many theological points of view. which must he reflected in a catechetical institute by a widely representative lecturing staff.
"The exclusion of men of quality, highly esteemed in the Catholic world, seemed to be the beginning of a narrowing process, more explicit than hitherto, where finally only one point of view would be acceptable. Such a situation would he false to the world in which
we live. and therefore render impossible the task of the religious educator today."
In a personal statement. Fr. Peter Wetz, a member of the staff, said he wished to make it clear that "the cardinal is de facto closing the college in July 1972. He is opening an entirely new college with the same name on the same premises. He wanted the staff to leave without any fuss to avoid scandal. I feel that a silence like this would be the real scandal."
A statement from Archbishop's House, Westminster, repeated part of another made following the resignation of Fr. (now Mr.) Peter de Rosa, vice-principal of the college. and Fr. John Perry. a staff member. who left 'in the summer.
It said : "To allay the disquiet caused when they left." the Cardinal "promised to make certain changes before the college reopened. He said then that 'steps will be taken to restore confidence in the college. whose work is of growing importance to the Church' and proposed to appoint certain priests to teach theology in place of the invited lectures."
When Fr. Richards was asked to explain the "divergence of understanding on the nature of religious education" referred to in his letter of resignation, he could not pick any single major issue.
He agreed the request to cancel the lectures was only a symptom of deeper disagreements, though he affirmed the Cardinal has "given the college a very generous amount of freedom and support" since it had been founded under his patronage in 1965.
Explaining some of the ideas behind Corpus Christi's teaching under his guidance, Fr. Richards said they began by asking their students. all with teaching experience. "whether religious education is about our usual lives or about a system."
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"We try to help a person learn within his own situation rather than outside himself— there are no textbook answers. This brings up the question of faith, which is one's relationship to God," said Fr. Richards. "This can be expressed in different ways and through different theologies."
A Government report on the college has noted that there is no attempt to impose a specific point of view and that lectures invite radical exploration of topics. The highly favourable review notes that one of the impressive features of the course is liberality and breadth of view.
Corpus Christi's own prospectus promises the study of man in relation to his evolution and environment. 'I caching includes sociology, psychology and the philosophy of man. Students have access to what has been described as an audiovisual media department which is "the most advanced of its kind in the country."
Fr. Richards said: "Many religious, and perhaps even the Cardinal, still assume there is such a thing as 'the teaching of the Church'. which can be communicated through a set syllabus." He emphasised the need in each age to find new words and ways of expressing the same truths. He added: "The Council of Trent and the first Vatican Council were held at a time and against a background very different from today's."
CRITICISM Fr. Richards agreed that many bishops had not been sending students to the college of late and that several had criticised it, though never publicly. "As head of the National Catechetical Centre, I also helped to co-ordinate the work of the diocesan catechetical directors, and none of them disagreed with what we were doing."
Fr. David Konstant, Catechetical Director for the Diocese of Westminster, gave the following statement when, asked to comment on the resignations at Corpus Christi: "Having enjoyed close links with the college as a member of the original governing body since its foundation six years ago, I am deeply distressed with the present turn of events.
"My knowledge of the staff, my awareness of their work and my recognition of some of the fruits of their tabours makes their resignations and, the acceptance of their resignations saddening." The statement concludes: "The implications of this event for the development of religious education in this country remain to be seen."
Fr. Konstant went on to observe that strong opposition to catechetical colleges had been experienced in other countries. This was not unnatural as they were dealing with current theological thought. But he had never heard of another case where the whole staff had actually resigned. college T llege has 65 students aged between 25 and 45---half from America and the Commonwealth—who take a one-year course to prepare them for "responsible positions in educational and pastoral work understood in the widest sense," states the prospectus. The vast majority are Catholic clergy, half being teaching sisters.
Teaching involves seminars and a grounding in the most modern of audio-visual tecb niques. A group may, for example, spend two days studying a Fellini film and, having seen it twice, analyse it in depth as a work of art, a technical success and an expression of certain ideas on the nature of man.
Though never accused of doctrinal unorthodoxy, it has been criticised by many of the hierarchy, sometimes on what may appear trivial grounds of dress, as not all students retain their clerical collars.
Others have criticised it for its informality—such as allowing nuns to dress as lay people and permitting themselves to be called by their Christian names --and suggested it encouraged clergy to marry. Some of its supporters believe it may have suffered from over-enthusiastic graduates, who exaggerated either their own abilities or those of their pupils.
Fr. Richards said the staff worked closely together as a team, sitting in on one another's lectures to help co-ordination. The enthusiasm of the students for the college was demonstrated by the hundreds of cards from all over the world received by the principal this Ch,rykistraosu.
our students leave us with the confidence to teach, but they also like to keep in touch." said Fr. Richards. He will be spending next year at Cambridge University after seven years spent building up the college.
"I see no continuity in the work we have been doing here after we leave, but I hope that eventually there will be."