Is contact with the church a thing of the past?

27 Oct 2021

The formal ties between Radboud University and the Catholic Church may have been severed, but informally there are still many links between them. Will that continue to be the case in the future?

When the two parties were still closely associated, the bishops sometimes turned up at the Radboud University campus. During the annual working visit, for example, the schedule included lunch and discussions about Catholic identity with administrators from the university and Radboud university medical center.

Until a year ago, the bishops held a formal role in the management of the university: they appointed new members to the supervisory boards of Radboud University and Radboud university medical center. But after a long conflict between Radboud University and the bishops, this is no longer the case. The formal link between the church and the university has been severed.

Buildings and finances

Does this mean that the university and the church have less contact with each other? In a recent interview with Vox, Gerard de Korte, bishop of Den Bosch, confirmed that the relationship with the university has become less intense. ‘Because the bond is no longer institutionally guaranteed, it now depends on the goodwill and awareness of board members, students and professors.’

The current bishop of Den Bosch wants to maintain close contact with Radboud University, but this does not mean that his successor will. In contrast to De Korte, most of the Dutch bishops supported the decision to take away the ‘Catholic’ designation from the SKU (Stichting Katholieke Universiteit), the supervisory body of the university and Radboud university medical center.

On the Radboud University side, too, the contact with the church now depends on individuals. ‘It’s true that we no longer have a formal administrative bond’, says Rector Magnificus Han van Krieken. ‘But we still have a theological faculty and other Catholic institutions on campus. And I’m still in informal contact with the bishop of Den Bosch, most recently a month ago.’

Han van Krieken. Photo: Bert Beelen

The rector believes it is important to emphasise that there are two types of Catholic universities: those that fall directly under church authority and those that do not. ‘Radboud University has never been a church university’, he says. ‘Bishops only played an indirect role here, in the appointment of members of SKU that acted as supervisors, not in the appointment of Executive Board members. Only the Special Faculty of Theology has a more ecclesiastical role (see boxed text, Ed.).’


Until recently, former vice president Wilma de Koning dealt with the Catholic Church dossier on the university’s Executive Board. She won internal and external praise for her knowledge of that dossier, but she no longer works in Nijmegen. Several Catholic employees on campus with whom Vox spoke are worried about her yet-to-be-appointed successor: will he or she also have an affinity with the Catholic Church?

‘It is not true that Wilma de Koning’s successor on the Executive Board will automatically be given the Catholic Identity portfolio’

At the moment, the rector is working with the director of the Honours Academy, Annemarie Hinten-Nooijen, to manage the Catholic identity dossier and the contacts with the church and Rome. ‘It is not true that Wilma de Koning’s successor on the Executive Board will automatically be given the Catholic Identity portfolio’, says Van Krieken. ‘If the newcomer has no affinity with the church dossier, there’s a good chance that it will stay with me.’

Book presentation

So, from an administrative standpoint, there is no longer any consultation between the church and the university. However, there are still many lines of communication between the two parties, especially through the Catholic institutions on campus. The connection is probably most obvious in the University Chaplaincy, where two student chaplains are members of the Catholic Parish Holy Spirit, as are two of the seven board members. ‘Naturally, I stay in good contact with Bishop De Korte’, says student chaplain Jos Geelen.

On behalf of the Special Faculty of Theology, Dean Carl Sterkens regularly converses with representatives of the church. ‘I have had discussions with almost all the Dutch bishops about our research plans and how things are going in the Netherlands’, he says. ‘And I am in regular contact with superiors of religious orders and congregations.’

According to Hans Krabbendam of the Catholic Documentation Centre, the contact between his institute and the church is still good, and has perhaps even improved since the university has ceased to be Catholic. ‘It’s no coincidence that we received the personal archives of Cardinal Simonis after his death’, Krabbendam says. And Bishop De Korte recently attended a book presentation by one of our colleagues.’

Religious institutes

The situation is different at the three Radboud University research institutes that were founded by religious orders. The Titus Brandsma Institute, the Nijmegen Institute for Mission Studies and the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies do not have formal links with the Church as an institution, but they do have links with the Conference of Dutch Religious Orders (KNR), the umbrella organisation of religious orders and congregations in the Netherlands.

‘For us, the relationship with orders and congregations is much more real than the relationship with the archdiocese’, says Herman Westerink, director of the Titus Brandsma Institute. ‘If TBI employees have contact with bishops at all, it is on a personal level.’

Berchmanianum. Photo: Dick van Aalst

‘The missionary institutes that are important to us (see boxed text, Ed.) are somewhat more autonomous with regard to the archdiocese’, says Frans Wijsen, director of the Nijmegen Institute for Mission Studies. On a personal level, he has informal contacts with the diocese of Roermond. ‘And the patron of our organisation is Cardinal Peter Turkson. I have visited him several times and he has visited us here. He is very supportive of our institute.’

The Institute of Eastern Christian Studies was founded by the Congregation of the Assumptionist Fathers but it is not linked to the Catholic Church, explains institute staff member Alfons Brüning. ‘The bishop will know who we are, but he is less involved in our activities here.’

Gerard de Korte. Photo: Erik van ’t Hullenaar

Making an appearance

Let us return to Bishop De Korte. He has said that he visits the Radboud University campus less often than he used to. ‘It’s a matter of making an appearance when I receive an invitation and I have space in my calendar.’

‘I eagerly await the outcome of the university’s identity process’

According to the bishop, the ball is now in the university’s court. Does it want to maintain contact with the church in the future? ‘I eagerly await the outcome of the university’s identity process’, he says.

That process, in which all Radboud University students and employees can participate, must be completed by the university’s centenary in 2023. Only then will it become clear what the future relationship between Radboud University and the church will be.

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