Cut ties to church: SMU prof

Religious roots are not in line with everyday practice at Saint Mary's.

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Mark Mercer is a philosophy professor at Saint Mary's and writes in the Saint Mary's Journal. Photo by Peter Clarke

A professor at Saint Mary's University is calling on the school to cut its ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Professor Mark Mercer wrote an article in Saint Mary's daily student newspaper, The Journal saying,

"Saint Mary's University should sever its remaining ties with organized religion."

Saint Mary's, now a school of more than 7,200 students, was founded in 1802 by Catholics and it thrived as a liberal arts school and has expanded into new fields since. Mercer, a philosophy professor, says the school's ties to religion are becoming dated and don't represent the school as a whole.

One of Mercer's biggest issues with Saint Mary's religious connections is that the academic calendar promotes Christianity. In the statement of objectives, the calendar says Saint Mary's "gives special emphasis to the Christian tradition and values in higher education."

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Students sit on the steps of the McNally Building, which is decorated with a cross. Photo by Peter Clarke

Nova Scotia Universities with Christian Connections

  • Saint Mary's University - Roman Catholic Church
  • St. Francis Xavier University - Roman Catholic Church
  • University of King's College - Anglican
  • Acadia University - Baptist

He says the Christian tradition is not actively taught at the school and the faculty doesn't place any emphasis on it.

"Most of us are indifferent and no one's checking up on us," he said.

That part of the academic calendar is also unfair to students, says Mercer.

"Having it in the act is misleading," he says. "Students think it's a Christian school." His fear is that Christian students would read that and come to Saint Mary's expecting a Christian education and that non-Christian students would be turned off by it, preferring instead an openly secular education.

Mercer's other beef is with the board of governors at Saint Mary's. The Catholic Church still has six representatives out of the 33 total. The archbishop of Halifax and vicar general, a deputy bishop, are always on the board, along with four others that are chosen by Catholic organizations. Mercer doesn't think those board members represent the university and would like to see those six members replaced with Saint Mary's people.

Many students don't care one way or the other about the church but some are on board with Mercer. Mark Larson is in his second semester at Saint Mary's and agrees with Mercer's suggestions.

"When a lot of these schools started they were Catholic," he says, but he thinks they should evolve.

He didn't like that the academic calendar promoted Christian tradition. He feels Saint Mary's is a very diverse and multicultural school and should reflect that in its objectives.

"Definitely," says Larson, on getting rid of that Christian tone in the academic calendar. He doesn't believe that universities funded by the public should be supporting specific religions or policies.

Some of the most popular arguments against him, according to Mercer, concern not religious values, but keeping the tradition of Christianity alive at Saint Mary's. It was founded as a Catholic institution more than 200 years ago and many think that's worth preserving or that it would be disrespectful to do away with it.

"You can be grateful and admiring of who built your house a hundred years ago even as you build a skylight or wall," says Mercer. He doesn't think that turning Saint Mary's into a secular school would be disrespectful at all.

St. Francis Xavier is still tied closely to the Catholic Church. It currently has three priests sitting on its board of governors but they do not promote Christian values as a mission statement.

The school's history page says the school has evolved with the times.

"Students gained a greater voice in the affairs of the institution and lay instructors gradually replaced the priest-professors. Government became the principal source of funding."

Mercer believes that getting away from religion would be a good thing for Saint Mary's and would help to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for all students. But he believes that most students are simply apathetic towards the matter.

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