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Low enrollment leads university to axe Catholic studies programme

 Hong Kong (UCAN): The Chinese University of Hong Kong has decided to axe the first and only master’s degree programme in Catholic studies run by a Hong Kong university.

Father Patrick Taveirne, the director of the university’s Centre for Catholic Studies, admitted it had been difficult to run a Catholic post-graduate course in a secular institution.

“We don’t have a full-time professor who specialises in Catholic studies,” he explained. “Otherwise, it would be more advantageous.”

Sponsored by the diocese of Hong Kong, the centre was established in 2005 in collaboration with the university’s Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, offering a Catholic studies stream for its religious studies masters programme for the first time the following year.

Although quite popular in the beginning, the number of majors has slowly declined, said John Lai Tsz-pang, the religious studies coordinator.

This academic year, only five people majored in Catholicism, with two other designated religions—Taoism and Buddhism—seeing even fewer numbers, meaning they will also be dropped from the curriculum in September.

In terms of religious specialisation, masters courses in Protestantism will survive into the next academic year, all run by Chung Chi College’s Divinity School.

Father Taveirne said that in the interim, the Centre for Catholic Studies will work with the Holy Spirit Seminary College to look into encouraging Catholic students to take up doctoral studies that focus on their faith.

Meanwhile, the centre will focus on research and other academic activities while promoting links with other religious departments and centres.

Lai, a Protestant scholar, says the university will overhaul its post-graduate religious education programmes to better account for how faith interacts with society and culture, life and wisdom, while also exploring inter-religious dialogue.

“We are responding to the demands of our students who may not have a religious belief, but want to enrich their lives by learning from the wisdom of various religions,” he said.

Students say that studying Catholicism at a secular institution had been both beneficial as well as something of a difficult exercise, not least for the overall survival of the course.

“Studying Catholicism in a secular institution differs from a seminary, as the former is free from the aim of confession,” expalined Imelda Lam, now a PhD candidate in religious education. “(It) is beneficial to cover a wider perspective in the teaching content.”

John Wong, an architect who studied at the centre, said he was impressed that religious subjects could be “discussed freely in an academic atmosphere without any doctrinal encumbrances,” and that this had helped his faith become more focussed.

He added that he was sad Catholic specialisation was dying at the university and warned that diversification across the spectrum of different faiths would mean religion would be treated superficially.

A deeper knowledge of the history, strengths and weaknesses of Catholicism had given Elisa, a student from mainland China, the opportunity to “understand what I believe in and to find guidance in my life.” 

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