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From the June, 2002 issue of Touchstone


Catholic Redeemer, Protestant Trinity by Jeremy Lott

Catholic Redeemer, Protestant Trinity

An Ecumenical Experiment in Education

by Jeremy Lott

Many conservative Protestant schools still have faith statements that effectively exclude not only non-Christians but also non-fundamentalist or non-Evangelical Christians. An administrator at Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, was asked by sociologist Alan Wolfe what would happen to a faculty member who decided to “swim the Tiber.” According to Wolfe, the administrator indicated that said professor “would be asked if he would not be more comfortable elsewhere.”

Indeed, Wheaton boasts no Roman Catholics on staff and only a handful among its students. Such is the case at most Evangelical colleges and universities. Catholics are prohibited from teaching and are only grudgingly allowed to attend, even while many of the thinkers and writers taught in the courses (e.g., Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, G. K. Chesterton, and Evelyn Waugh) are papists.

But then there’s Tom Hamel, the executive director of Redeemer Pacific College (RPC). Redeemer is a Roman Catholic school, but it is overseen by Trinity Western University (TWU), a very Evangelical institution in British Columbia.

The Genesis of Redeemer

After selling his business of 25 years, Hamel, a Roman Catholic, enrolled in Trinity en route to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he had been accepted into the theology program. Life at the Fort Langley, British Columbia-based school suited Hamel, who found the classes to be of a “really great academic caliber.” At 40 years of age, Hamel made friends with both students and professors, and by the end of the semester, “I started to kind of fall in love with Trinity Western, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave.”

But in early summer 1991 Hamel moved his family to Steubenville anyway—for a day. They thought the Ohio town so miserable that, without ever having set foot on campus, they tossed the ottoman back in the U-Haul and headed home. It just wasn’t a place “where I wanted to bring up my children,” said Hamel. Once back in British Columbia, Hamel returned to Trinity Western and graduated with a B.A. in history (as has his eldest daughter Jen, who recently secured a coveted TWU president’s internship).

At first glance, Trinity Western appears Evangelical, young, conservative, ambitious, and still in the process of losing its fundamentalist baggage. On the one hand, the biblical studies faculty—including such luminaries as historical Jesus scholar Craig Evans and Martin Abegg of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute—is rivaled by only a handful of North American universities, and the nursing program is one of the best in Canada. On the other hand, TWU’s statement of faith, which faculty are expected to sign, still includes the pre-millennial return of Christ as a necessary article of faith. Students must also pledge to forgo drink and tobacco.

But the school isn’t without its exceptions. Though its statement of faith, written from the Evangelical Free Church’s perspective, would theoretically exclude most high-church Protestants, many TWU professors are Anglicans. In practice, educators are allowed to sign the statement “with reservations” as long as the dean of the relevant department allows it.

Trinity President Neil Snider claims that although no Catholic professors have ever been tenured, this is not the result of “any stated policy.” Nonetheless, several Catholic instructors serve in semi-permanent teaching posts.

Though the registrar’s office admits that it has heretofore done a poor job of keeping track of the denominational backgrounds of students, it is clear that the Catholic population at Trinity has long been both more numerous and more active than that at any comparable Evangelical university.

So when Hamel—at the prodding of TWU’s Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bob Burkinshaw—presented the idea of Trinity Western academically overseeing a Catholic college in 1995, he found a receptive audience. Snider reportedly said at the time, “I have been waiting for this for a long time.” The result of the negotiations that followed was the creation of Redeemer Pacific College, funded in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver and advised by Franciscan University of Steubenville. For the first time ever, a Catholic moon is orbiting a Protestant Earth.

The Catholic Effect

Beginning only its third school year in 2001 with about 40 students, it is too early to tell the true effect that Redeemer will have on Trinity Western (and vice versa). Nevertheless, a few features of this last year may serve as a good preview.

Trinity Catholics are becoming more vocal: Whether it be the presentations in TWU’s daily chapel about Ash Wednesday or the flurry of letters to the editor to the student paper protesting a column advocating responsible masturbation or a series of accidental anti-Catholic slurs—one writer actually said that the Catholic Church at one time opposed tampons—RPC Catholics are stiffening the resolve of their fellow Catholics at Trinity Western to speak out.

The sanctity of life is becoming an issue: Kristi Panchuk, student president of the pro-life ministry, says that at least two-thirds of the active members are Catholics.

New networks are being forged: Not only, as Panchuk says, are the future “leaders of both churches being shaped at Trinity,” but scholars and leaders who likely wouldn’t have met in the first place are exchanging ideas. For instance, Redeemer recently held a reception for Steubenville’s Dr. Scott Hahn and his wife Kimberly. Trinity’s New Testament Professor Craig Evans met with the Hahns, and they struck up an instant friendship.

Some Trinity students are “going Roman”: The Protestants at TWU aren’t the only group to whom the adjective evangelical could be applied. A few TWU students have converted to Catholicism under the influence and sponsorship of RPC students, and, says Jen Hamel, “There are people I know who are considering the Catholic Church.”

Tradition is making a comeback: The presence of RPC and Catholic students on campus is having all sorts of undreamt-of effects in the tradition department. TWU professors are freer to discuss the use of tradition in the compilation and interpretation of the Bible, and there’s a voluntary Lenten movement in the offing.

Catholics are being challenged to read the Bible: A few Bible-thumping Protestants at RPC are challenging the Catholic students to dig into Scripture to argue for things rather than relying solely on the church’s Magisterium.

Misconceptions are being dispelled: A few months after the RPC/TWU agreement was signed, a speaker gave a presentation at Trinity. “He was doing this sort of anti-Catholic spiel—you know, we weren’t allowed to touch Bibles before the 1960s, we worship Mary—the whole nine yards,” says Jen Hamel. Attendees reported that as soon as he was done, the young Hamel proceeded to embarrass him with a series of polite but pointed questions that showed the man did not know what he was talking about. And he was never invited back.

An Interesting Unity

Having watched this flawed, sometimes slow, bumpy experiment in ecumenism, Panchuk optimistically concluded: “When we truly understand each other, that’s when we’ll all be unified in Christ. And I see this as a huge step toward that.”

It at least promises to be an interesting unity. Snider was asked if, in the setting up of Redeemer, he ran into any opposition from alumni: “No.” Supporters, once they were told that Trinity would not be changing any of its beliefs, elicited “actually a very positive response.” They were happy that TWU “had the vision to enable students from other, uh, groups to participate and be part of the vision here.” It was a telling hesitation from a usually unhesitant figure.

Likewise, Tom Hamel insists that in RPC’s founding agreement with TWU, “Trinity was not changing its Reformational perspective in any way. We were two groups who would stick to our orthodoxies. And this, as they understood it, came within the purview of their mission to train Christian leaders.”

This new cooperation goes far beyond the idea of co-belligerency that undergirded such movements as America’s interdenominational Moral Majority in the 1980s. One of the announced purposes of Redeemer, dating back to 1995, was to help keep Catholic students from shrugging off their faith at a secular university. Another was to train future educators and leaders of the Catholic Church. The “groups” may in fact have hewed to their orthodoxies on paper, but in practice they have embarked on a radical new experiment.

Snider’s reduction of the potential doctrinal conflicts to the status of “shrug-offable” denominational difference, and Hamel’s constant defense of Evangelicals as a model for what Catholics should be more like are not just examples of mutual back-scratching.

This new posture is almost post-Reformational: It attempts to get around “the old debates and the old angers and the old conflicts” (borrowing Snider’s words) by sidestepping them in the name of common purpose. Under this regime, as long as there is agreement in so-called basic beliefs, the differences are left to be worked out, over time, among brothers and sisters in Christ, on both sides of the aisle. Don’t bet against its succeeding.   

Jeremy Lott is the senior editor of Spintech Magazine and a contributing editor to Books & Culture: A Christian Review. A Baptist, he attends both Redeemer Pacific College and Trinity Western University, where he is working toward a degree in biblical studies.

“Catholic Redeemer, Protestant Trinity” first appeared in the June 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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