‘How does the Catholic identity relate to the rainbow flag on campus?’

‘How does the Catholic identity relate to the rainbow flag on campus?’

Statements about the Catholic identity of Tilburg University in the Brabants Dagblad continue to stir up emotions. Employee and student parties are critical. “We are shocked by the emphasis on the Catholic identity.”

“The church’s vision is at odds with the principles of the Enlightenment. Many have experienced the article as a slap in the face.” Mirjam Siesling, chair of the Independents party, made no bones about it during today’s University Council meeting. Done statements about the Catholic identity by the administration have not gone down well with the members.

Two weeks ago, the Brabants Dagblad published an extensive article (Dutch only) on the Catholic identity of Tilburg University, in which President of the Board Wim van de Donk also had his say. The article suggested a change of course. In the future, the university would be fully committed to its Catholic identity.

It was not intended that way, Van de Donk informed Univers. “We want to emphasize that, contrary to what the tone of the article suggests, there is no question of a new direction of our university,” the Rector Magnificus said. But the University Council wants more clarification.

Catholicism and inclusiveness

In the article, Van de Donk describes the Enlightenment as a spotlight.  “It does illuminate, but it also leaves a lot in the shade.” A statement that is causing disquiet among Tilburg University employees, Siesling informs us, “Many indicate that they do not recognize themselves in the Catholic identity of the university as portrayed in the article. They also take offence at the way the Enlightenment is portrayed in the article. Many work with pride at our university precisely because the principles of the Enlightenment stand high here.”

Another terse point: do Catholicism and inclusivity go together? “There are a lot of questions about how the Catholic identity relates to the rainbow flag and the rainbow stairs on campus,” Siesling said.

And then there are the associations of dogmatism and abuse of power attached to the church. “Isn’t it misguided for a university to associate itself with such an institution these days?” asks Siesling. That bishops still have influence over the administration of Tilburg University no longer seems desirable.

Students feel alienated

Bert Willems of TiU International concurs with the criticism. “The article seems to suggest that science is subjective, even just an opinion. A dangerous premise at a time when it is popular to doubt science.”

According to Willems, the resulting fuss should be used to have a good and open debate about the Catholic identity. What should that look like? And might it not be time to modernize and minimize Catholic influence?

The student prties SAM and Front also indicate that they read the article with surprise and have some questions. Demi Schaap of Front: “We were shocked by the emphasis on religious identity in the article, something we don’t see at all in the lecture hall.”

Firm advocate of inclusiveness and objectivity

Wim van de Donk receives the questions with open arms. “This is exactly what we wanted, an open conversation about our Catholic identity, the outcome of which is far from certain. We wanted to prepare a debate, but the newspaper misrepresented this.”

Van der Donk assures that the university’s core values have never been questioned. “We will never question our inclusiveness and scholarly nature. The independent search for facts and knowledge is of course paramount.”

However, the Rector does urge to guard against one-sided images. “There are many shameful and painful images attached to Catholicism, that’s true. But there is also another side: education, emancipation, and social involvement. That too is part of the Catholic identity. We want to talk about that, with everyone, and without taboos.”

Catholic University of Leuven

Wouldn’t it be a good idea for the university administration to control the discussion again with a statement in the national media, Siesling wonders aloud. But Van de Donk does not want to go that far. In the run-up to the new, to be developed, strategy of the university, the Catholic identity must first be discussed further, with staff and students, but also with the Board of Governors. An upcoming visit to the Catholic University of Leuven, to see how they give substance to their Catholic background, will also bring more insight. “We should not predetermine the outcome of this discussion,” Van de Donk emphasizes.


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