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Time called on MA in Catholicism

University cites falling admissions for closure of religious major

MA Religious Studies students celebrate graduation (Photo courtesy of the Chinese University of Hong Kong) MA Religious Studies students celebrate graduation (Photo courtesy of the Chinese University of Hong Kong)
  • ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
  • Hong Kong
  • May 18, 2012
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The first and only master’s degree program in Catholic Studies run by a Hong Kong university is coming to an end after the Chinese University of Hong Kong decided to scrap the course from September.

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 what is a secular institution.

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

Sponsored by Hong Kong diocese, the Centre for Catholic Studies was established in 2005 in collaboration with the university’s Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, offering a Catholic Studies stream for the MA Religious Studies program for the first time the following year.

Although quite popular in the beginning, the number of Catholic majors has slowly declined, said Professor John Lai Tsz-pang, the MA 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 September.

In terms of religious specialization at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, only MA courses in Protestantism will survive into the next academic year, all run by Chung Chi College’s Divinity School.

Father Taveirne said that this transition phase will see the Centre for Catholic Studies work with the diocese’s Holy Spirit Seminary College to look at how it can encourage Catholic students to study doctorates 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 therefore overhaul its post-graduate religious education programs 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 possess a religious belief but want to enrich their lives by learning from the wisdom of various religions,” he said.

Students said that studying an MA in 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 is very different from that of a seminary, of which the former is free from the aim of confession,” said 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 has studied Catholicism at the centre, said he was impressed religious subjects could be “discussed freely in an academic atmosphere without any doctrinal encumbrances,” and that this had helped his faith become more focused.

He added that he was sad Catholic specialization was dying at the university, warning that diversification across the spectrum of different faiths would mean religion would be treated in a “superficial manner.”

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

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