Farewell to St Benet’s Hall

How a Catholic institution capitulated to the non-binary gods of diversity


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Oxford, home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs and unpopular names and impossible loyalties.” Such was Matthew Arnold’s description, and its truth, though diminishing through time, has been part of its greatness.

Oxford harboured John Wycliffe, and defied Henry VIII’s demand for academic support for his divorce. It concealed persecuted Catholics and outlawed Jacobites. Its students still wear academical dress to sit exams, and ply its rivers in bizarre craft powered by long sticks. And it is home to some very eccentric institutions.

One of the most eccentric, St Benet’s Hall, is now closing. Few of the founding principles of Oxford’s constituent “houses” would be allowed today. One, founded to support clerics who would pray for the dead of the battle of Agincourt, is today one of the most prestigious academic institutions on the globe: All Souls College.

Others, of more recent vintage, are affiliated to various versions of Protestantism, or belong to different Catholic religious orders. These are “Permanent Private Halls”, of which St Benet’s was one. These are granted the right to admit students by the University, like colleges, but with less autonomy, and unlike colleges they are not self-governing academic communities. Instead, the Halls are ultimately the responsibility of trustees.

They were founded — to simplify a little — in order to make possible the participation in the university of Catholic religious (Benedictine monks, Capuchin Franciscan Friars, Jesuits, and Dominicans), or of non-Catholic seminarians (Baptist, low and high Anglican, Unitarian). Professed religious and seminarians, it was felt, could not simply join an ordinary college: they needed a residence and intellectual community of their own.

The Unitarian one became a college in 1996 and is today for practical purposes indistinguishable from its peers: Harris Manchester College. The Capuchins closed theirs, Greyfriars Hall, in 2008, due to the order’s lack of interest in it. After supplementing its Benedictine students with lay ones in 1990, St Benet’s’s fate long looked like a choice between these two options. It has now gone the way of Greyfriars.

I have had a uniquely long association with St Benet’s, coming up as an undergraduate in 1991, doing my graduate degrees there, and later taking up a teaching role. When I arrived, it was still full of monks, either doing theology with a view to priestly ordination, or degrees in subjects they intended to teach in various Benedictine schools.

It was a dignified holding pen

With hindsight it was perhaps inevitable that its owner, the Benedictine community of Ampleforth Abbey, and the wider Benedictine world on whose behalf
it ran the Hall, would use it as they used their other assets, schools and parishes, as a dumping ground for paedophiles. At least two of these passed through the place in my time, plus some of their facilitators and protectors, because it was a dignified holding-pen away from their schools.

There was nothing malicious about this: a monastic superior has to put his people somewhere, and the attitude of the day — between 15 and 30 years ago — was that they had an obligation to help even those who had been forced to leave their community. By the same token we received into our bosom various individuals whose seniority meant they had to be found something to do, but whose personality was such that they couldn’t remain in the community.

There is a long-standing popular narrative about clerical abuse in the Catholic Church, that links it to the Church’s unique traditions: celibacy, the special character of the clerical state, and perhaps the sexual repression implicit in its moral teaching. This narrative has become difficult to uphold now that it has turned out that sports coaches, secular boarding schools, boy scouts, the Church of England, and the BBC, have been afflicted with problems of a strikingly similar nature.

It was not the celibacy or priestly self-understanding of BBC executives, or their commitment to traditional sexual mores, which led them to excuse Jimmy Savile, cover up his crimes, and dismiss his accusers. It was a consciousness of the embarrassment and complication of taking seriously the misdeeds of a member of their own elite set, coupled with a sense that his wrongdoing was not really that serious. It turns out that it was not Christianity, but the denial of its moral framework, above all the special importance attributed to sexuality by traditional Christianity, which set the scene for the child abuse crisis.

In place of the supposedly harsh and outmoded moral principles of Christianity has come what we might call a therapeutic mentality, vaguely Freudian in inspiration, focused on the wrongdoer, whatever kind of wrong it might be. Thus, one religious superior informed me, with an air of profound wisdom, that he would not tell an alcoholic member of his community, currently at the Hall, to stop drinking. “It has to come from him,” he said.

In the meantime, he told me, controlling the antics of the narcissist the community had sent to run the Hall was the responsibility of me and my colleagues, a task for which we had absolutely no formal powers. When this individual complained to him that the Fellows were being difficult, the superior would be able to sympathise fraternally. I think the technical term for this pastoral approach is “accompaniment”.

St Benedict would have tried to reform such problematic monks with whipping, and fasting on bread and water, and then thrown them out. The older I get, the more I see his point. At any rate, replacing a more robust traditional approach with the therapeutic one has not gone well. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, set up in 2014 and still sitting, has not been kind to the Ampleforth community and its school, or to the other Benedictine communities, such as Downside and Fort Augustus, which were served by St Benet’s. The deep sympathy and compassion, which religious superiors displayed towards abusers, was not matched by a concern for the principles of justice and sexual integrity, which should have protected their victims.

As the Catholic priest and psychologist, T.V. Moore, noted in the 1950s, there is a deep incompatibility between Catholic teaching and what I am calling the therapeutic approach. The replacement of the first by the second in the heart of what should be the spiritual powerhouses of the Catholic Church, the monasteries, is part of a profound loss of self-confidence. Inevitably, such conflicted institutions attract few vocations, and their future is not bright.

This lack of self-confidence was reflected in the attitude the community had to their bridgehead into one of the world’s greatest universities. Although a great deal was said about the Catholic ethos of the Hall, and the usefulness of its Benedictine traditions in establishing an environment for academic enquiry, there seemed to be no understanding of the Hall’s potential as an academic institution as such: the value to the Church and also to the world of a place where Catholic traditions of thought could be discussed and developed, and where students and scholars could encounter a Catholic academic community in the wider context of Oxford University.

As the supply of monks diminished and the role of lay academic staff and lay trustees increased, this incomprehension of the Hall’s potential as an academic institution continued to be on display. Appointments, visiting speakers, Junior Common Room policies, and everything else, were consistently judged on the basis of whether they increased or displayed “diversity”, which meant that as often
as possible they had to cut against the grain of the Catholic identity of the Hall.

This identity continued to be applauded, officially, as what made the Hall unique and valuable, but the successive people appointed to nurture it were either unwilling to do so, or simply had no idea how to go about it. As time passed the student body and the Fellowship increased in size, from a very low base, but the number of Catholics involved remained stuck at two or three Fellows and a handful of students.

The final form of St Benet’s Hall, with contraceptives in the bathrooms and a Pride flag draped pathetically over the balcony railings, for want of a flagpole, represented what Cardinal Walter Kasper — no stick-in-the-mud conservative, he — criticised as the disappearance of the Catholic dialogue partner in the course of inter-religious dialogue. There can be no conversation between the Catholic tradition and anything else, if the Catholics are no longer there to carry it on, or if they are no longer distinctively Catholic.

St Benet’s is in no way exceptional in this regard; the slow self-asphyxiation of Catholic institutions is in fact the rule, but it is not just Catholic bodies that have lost their way intellectually. One of the roles I fulfilled at St Benet’s involved attending meetings with colleagues from other colleges on “equality and diversity”. Oxford places more reliance on academics for such things, and less on professional
administrators, than most universities. The extreme tedium of these events was only occasionally relieved. On one occasion the subject arose of the discomfort felt by students from China at being included in the category of “Black and Minority Ethnic”, or BME.

They did not regard themselves as members of an ethnic minority in any meaningful sense, and their needs and experiences had little in common with the major constituents of this sprawling category. A senior academic at this meeting remarked, in a musing way, that race was in general a socially constructed concept. It was a remarkable moment because, at this enormous table surrounded by highly educated people, someone had engaged, intellectually, with woke ideology. But it was just a moment.

It was actually very important for us that Asian students be included in the BME category. First, woke ideologues would have it so: for them, Chairman Mao would count as oppressed just because of his ethnicity. Secondly, including completely inappropriate components in a category of the supposedly disadvantaged makes the targets so much easier to attain. How do we get a certain percentage of BME students into the University? Never mind about British ethnic minorities in dreadful schools; we can fill our boots with highly educated overseas students from south-east Asia, seasoned with the offspring of Arab and Nigerian millionaires.

They have, quite literally, run up the rainbow flag

Not that anyone would actually say this — or perhaps even allow themselves to articulate it clearly in thought. But it is an administrative solution to the ideological problem. Any one of my colleagues, in that room, could have eviscerated wokism, intellectually, in a few pithy sentences, and many, I have no doubt, would have liked to do so. But that is not what we were there to do. Faced with an ideological threat to the entire raison d’etre of the University — elite education in the Western intellectual tradition — their response has been administrative accommodation. On the major issue of the day, the secular liberal academic community has disappeared as a dialogue partner. They have lost confidence in their own tradition. Instead of making some kind of intellectual response to this existential threat, they have, quite literally, run up the rainbow flag.

This capitulation is not without victims. At the same meeting — or possibly another equally tedious one — the representative of some group of woke students made an appeal for funding for the needs of the gender-non-conforming. There was a moment of mild panic until it was made clear that they were not asking us to fund anything expensive, such as major surgery, just relatively cheap things like breast-binders, which unfortunately (they explained) have to be shipped over from America.

The relief was palpable. Naturally, was the response, we can find the money for that kind of thing! The attitude of thrift is heart-warming, of course, but what was missing from the discussion was any consideration of the implications of these items for the physical or psychological health of the students. It will take another vast official inquiry, perhaps 20 years from now, to probe the complicity of the University, and similar institutions, in the grave harm caused by ill-considered “gender affirming” policies and interventions.

It was not so long ago that it was hard work to get dogmatic secular liberals to take alternative intellectual traditions, of any kind, seriously. The liberal loss of self confidence has not improved the situation, however. I think I would rather be called a silly fool by Bertrand Russell or Anthony Grayling, than be no-platformed by a mob of students whose colleges are terrified of contradicting them.

In this context, the idea of a distinctively Catholic institution within the University was an uncomfortable one, not only for the Benedictines, but for the University itself. In order for an academic institution to have a real intellectual life, in order for it to have the magnanimitas, the greatness of soul, for viewpoint diversity, it must have self-confidence. When Ampleforth Abbey announced that it needed urgently to sell the buildings — for reasons which have not been disclosed — a moment arrived, to my own astonishment, when funding was offered to buy them, richly endow the Hall, and keep the show on the road.

The difficulty was that, inevitably enough, the source of the funds were people who actually believed in the possibility of a Catholic institution, and wanted, in a modest way, to see this possibility realised. This made the University uncomfortable, and they did not let the Hall accept the money.

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