Will the bishops’ visit to Rome change anything in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Radboud University?

28 Oct 2022

In the second week of November, all Dutch bishops will be visiting Rome. As part of this ad limina visit, they will speak with Pope Francis and members of the Vatican staff. It seems likely that Radboud University, which was a Catholic university until the autumn of 2020, will be the topic of one of these conversations.

The Dutch bishops will be going to Rome for what is known as an ad limina visit in the second week of November. This working visit should in principle take place every five years, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons, the visit was postponed a few times. The last time the Dutch bishops jointly visited Rome was in 2013.

Ad limina is Latin for ‘towards the thresholds’. The thresholds in this context refer to the graves of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the Saint Peter Basilisk and Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls, which the bishops will visit while in Rome. ‘For a long time, people saw graves as thresholds between the earthly and the heavenly life,’ explains Professor Emeritus of Oecumenics Peter Nissen. ‘The bishops will combine a visit to the graves with meetings with the Pope and members of the Vatican staff, to report back on the state of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands.’

Peter Nissen. Foto: RU

Pope Francis will speak with all the bishops at once, in a kind of plenary session. ‘In this context, the Pope might, for instance, ask the bishops to devote more attention to themes on which he has written encyclicals, such as the refugee crisis and climate change,’ says Nissen. In addition, the bishops will be paying a visit to the various dicasteries of the curia, the Vatican’s ministries. Nissen: ‘To this end, the bishops will split into small groups, depending on the themes in their portfolio.’


The Bishop of Den Bosch, Gerard de Korte, is also going to Rome. The Bishops’ Conference was always Radboud University’s interlocutor and partner, until the day in the autumn of 2020 when the bishops informed Radboud University and the Radboud university medical center that they were rescinding their Catholic designation. Since then, De Korte has maintained contact with the University in his role as ordinarius loci, or local bishop. Last week, for example, he attended the Radboud University Dies celebration.

In Rome, De Korte will meet, among others, the Portuguese Cardinal and Professor of Biblical Studies José Calaça de Mendonça, who is the new prefect of the Dicastery for Education and Culture (the successor of the Congregation for Catholic Education), which subsumes the world’s Catholic universities. ‘The Prefect is known as an open intellectual and liberator,’ writes De Korte in a response.

‘The new prefect is a real intellectual’

Peter Nissen has high expectations of the new representative. ‘He is a real intellectual, with a high-level academic career, who has also published poetry collections. He was a researcher in New York, on a project on religion in the public domain. His predecessors were all hardliners or Church administrators, whereas he stands with both feet firmly in the world.’


The Dutch bishops’ visit may have consequences for the ties between Radboud University and the Catholic Church. In contrast to the decision of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, the Vatican seems to assume that Radboud University is still Catholic, as witnessed by the fact that the University is listed in the Pontifical Yearbook of 2022. Nissen interprets this as ‘a subtle rap on the knuckles of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.’

Gerard de Korte. Foto: Erik van ’t Hullenaar

There indeed seems to be a serious difference of opinion between the Dutch bishops and the Vatican. In a four-page article published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in late September, journalist Marco Ventura writes about rumours to the effect that the Dicastery for Culture and Education disagrees with the Dutch bishops’ decision to rescind Radboud University’s Catholic designation.

Going well

Whether the issue will in fact be discussed in Rome is a matter for speculation. Ad limina visits have no official agenda, let alone one that can be consulted online. And yet, Nissen suspects that the issue of the ties between Radboud University and the Catholic Church will be addressed in the interview with the new education representative.

Gerard de Korte cannot confirm this, although he informs Vox that the talks concerning the renewal of the ties between the Catholic Church and Radboud University are going well. However, he remains reserved. ‘We should not count our chickens before they’re hatched.’

‘The Church is an institution with a long history, and changes always unfold very slowly’

Can Pope Francis or the new prefect of the dicastery for education in Rome reverse the Dutch Bishops’ decision concerning Radboud University? According to Peter Nissen, it is rare for a national bishops’ conference to be publicly corrected by Rome. ‘If Radboud University ever regains its Catholic title, it will happen in a very subtle way,’ he says.

And even if it does happen, it is unclear when this will become publicly known. ‘If the dicastery decides that Radboud University should remain Catholic, we may only find out about it a few years later,’ says Nissen. ‘The Church is an institution with a long history, and changes always unfold very slowly.’

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