‘Make the Catholic prayer at PhD promotions optional’

23 Jan 2023

OPINION – Having a mandatory prayer at a PhD ceremony belongs to a different era, as stated by Marc Vervuurt in an opinion piece on behalf of the PhD Organization Nijmegen. He argues that the prayer should be made an optional part of the proceedings. ‘Make sure to offer an inclusive alternative for those people that don’t value the University’s Catholic identity.

Since its foundation, Radboud University has been a Catholic university, including a Catholic predicate. The decision of the Dutch bishops’ conference to take this predicate from the overarching foundation of the university and the UMC at the end of 2020 caused quite a stir. There was even more confusion when the Holy See reversed this decision in mid-2022. Is the university catholic, or is it not?

Marc Vervuurt. Eigen foto

Regardless of what the Roman Catholic Church thinks about this, the university itself has a say here. Does she (and do we, the students, PhD candidates, lecturers, administrators) think the university is Catholic? And if so, that raises the more important question: What does that mean?

One of the most talked-about examples of Catholic identity at Radboud University takes place at the graduation ceremony for a PhD thesis defense, in the form of a Catholic prayer. Although the mandatory status of this Catholic prayer has been the subject of discussion for years, the Executive Board has recently : it is no longer called a prayer (although the same Latin text is still spoken) and a doctorate is no longer awarded under the words “In the name of the Lord.”


But sticking to the identical text of the prayer, without explicitly calling it such, does not make it any less of a prayer. The defense ceremony is also still concluded with the words: “Almighty God, we thank You for Your benefits, You who live and reign for the ages of ages.” We, as PhD Organization Nijmegen (PON), hardly see this as an improvement and more as a very superficial and half-hearted attempt to change the promotion ceremony. You could even argue that this makes things worse, by explicitly incorporating religious elements into the ceremony, but removing the accompanying disclaimer.

Hardly anyone, or at most a very small minority of PhD candidates, comes to Nijmegen with the intention of obtaining a PhD here because of the Catholic identity of the university. We also very much wonder whether PhD candidates who start a PhD track in Nijmegen are aware of the fact that they will eventually have to defend their thesis under a mandatory, religiously colored flag. All this raises the question for whom these religious elements should actually be maintained in the doctoral ceremony: in any case, it’s not for the PhD candidates themselves.

‘It appears that there is hardly any support among Nijmegen PhD candidates for retaining the prayer’

This is reflected in the results of a non-representative flash poll of PON members (n = 57): a whopping 70 percent voted for an optional prayer, and 18 percent voted for total abolition. Only 12 percent voted for a mandatory Catholic prayer. It appears that there is hardly any support among Nijmegen PhD candidates for retaining the prayer.

Very regrettable

As PON, we do not find compulsory prayer to be of our time. Of course, Radboud University has a Catholic foundation, which must be preserved and cherished. But in times of internationalization and increasing (religious) diversity, such a prayer no longer belongs in an academic ceremony. Every day, PhD candidates of all kinds of identities and religions (including agnostics and atheists) are awarded a PhD at Radboud. With a bit of wantonness, the forcing of Catholic prayer on these PhD candidates could be called religious intimidation, since it obligatorily imposes explicit religious elements on the unwilling.

In addition, it is very regrettable that with such a loaded decision, which mainly affects the PhD candidates in Nijmegen, this group is not consulted at all, or at least informed about these decisions in advance. We would like to participate in the conversation about a modern interpretation of Radboud’s Catholic identity, but we do call on the rector to enter into that conversation.


We call for further modernization in the doctoral ceremony: make the Catholic prayer optional for those who value that part of the university’s identity, but also offer an inclusive alternative for those who do not.

‘The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam recently abolished her obligatory Christian texts’

Such an alternative can also do justice to the university’s religious background; look for example at the (Christian) VU University Amsterdam. She recently abolished her obligatory Christian texts. PhD ceremonies at the VU now open and close with references to the Christian foundation of the university, “in which scientific practice is linked to wonder and philosophical values”. Elected officials can also choose between swearing (religiously) or promising (non-religiously) allegiance to the Dutch constitution and the Constitution. As far as we are concerned, these are perfect examples where a modern interpretation of a Christian foundation and an inclusive and diverse attitude can go hand-in-hand.

By adjusting the prayer in a similar way, we can ensure that Radboud University can give substance to the religious part of its identity in a modern and inclusive way. We find that a better solution than hiding the Catholic elements in a set of Latin proverbs with no explanation, and then just pretending they are neither Catholic nor a prayer.

Marc Vervuurt, on behalf of the PhD Organization Nijmegen (PON)

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