The Secular Shift

Is StFX losing its religion?

This past week StFX welcomed a new chancellor, Susan Crocker. The appointment is intriguing for several reasons. Not only is she the first woman in the history of StFX to become chancellor, she is also the first non-priest to hold the position. The Bishop of Antigonish has traditionally also been StFX’s chancellor, in line with the universities origins as a Catholic institution. The bishop in question, Brian Dunn, is not being entirely removed from involvement with StFX. A new role called the Vicar of the Founder has been created and will allow the Bishop of Antigonish to continue to sit on the Board of Governors. This occasion may allow us to appreciate an apparent shift that has occurred over recent decades as the university has become more and more secular. 

To gain a more fulsome account of this issue, the Xaverian spoke to philosophy professor Steven Baldner. In his opinion, StFX has experienced a gradual shift ever since it started to become publicly funded in the 1960’s. It had been entirely operated by the Catholic Church before then. As Baldner explains, “The University broadened its mandate and brought in people as professors who weren’t catholic and gradually the university became, really, a secular university like every other university in Canada.” One of these major changes was related to the selection of presidents. Until the selection of David Lawless, the president before Sean Riley in the 1990’s, the president of StFX University had always been a priest.

Baldner feels that the Catholic tradition is an important part of the StFX tradition, saying, “We are a secular university with a very rich Catholic heritage, and part of the university charter, from the government, says that we are supposed to preserve this heritage…it means that in some way we try to honour that.” Baldner points to initiatives like the Coady Institute, the Catholic Studies program, and the Services Learning program as aspects of StFX that carry on the Catholic tradition and reflect church teachings. 

The long history of Catholic tradition at StFX was marred in 2009 when the then-Bishop of Antigonish, Raymond Lahey, was caught with child pornography on his laptop when arriving at the Ottawa airport. This led to a motion to move the position of chancellor away from the Bishop, making it possible for a layperson like Susan Crocker to become chancellor. According to professor Baldner, the scandal had an impact, but may not have been the only reason for the shift. “There was a motion that came from the university faculty, and the motion was to ask the board to consider a new model, rather than having the Bishop as chancellor. The effect of this motion was to refer it to the Board of Governors. The Board then took it up and returned with essentially a change in our charter that the Bishop would no longer necessarily be chancellor…I think Bishop Lahey’s crimes were on people’s minds, but I don’t think that was the principle reason. I think that part of the reasoning was that people wanted more visibility for the university in fundraising, in sectors where the Bishop might not be as effective. To get a chancellor who could have connections with business leaders and others who could help us to raise money.”

Another Philosophy professor who was able to shed some light on the subject is William Sweet. Besides his work at StFX, he also serves as the president of the World Union of Catholic Philosophical Societies (WUCPS). He concurs with Baldner that there has been a gradual, almost unconscious shift away from explicitly Catholic ways of doing things on campus. As he says, “When I came here [in the early 1990’s], the calendar would have described it as a ‘Catholic Liberal Arts University’. It couldn’t say that today. So there been an evolution, but it’s not an evolution that is unique to us…If you look at a number of Catholic universities, they’ve moved away from having the Bishop as chancellor. Not all of them, but a number of them have. It’s really more of a figurehead role anyways, so it doesn’t really influence the day to day life.”

Sweet does feel that in this shift towards more secular university operation we may lose some of what makes StFX unique. As he ventures, “I think we might lose a little bit in that, if you are attentive to your history and where you came from, that’s inspired you. Take the Coady Institute. It wasn’t just because the University decided to engage in local  work with fisherman and farmers and stuff like that. It was really part of an inspiration of Catholic social teaching. So the roots of the Coady Institute and the extension program are clearly noted in the Catholic traditions. But they aren’t Catholic anymore, you wouldn’t call them that. So I think that Catholicism is part of the history and inspiration of the place. It’s probably what distinguishes the place for some people, certainly for alumni, maybe for some students too. I think that if you lose a sense of your history, it does affect where you go in the future.”