As China opens up to the world, the relationship between the communist state and Catholicism remains a thorny one.
Observers watching for signs of a thaw may take heart, therefore, from the activities of the University of Notre Dame, which places its faith traditions at the heart of its identity.
In Beijing, the Indiana-based institution has a “global gateway”, an academic centre that hosts students for summer programmes and year-long exchanges, and is home to a new institute for Asian studies.
It has signed collaboration pacts with institutions across China, including a joint master’s in non-profit administration with Renmin University in Beijing. Its next undertaking is its most ambitious yet: “serious discussions” about a joint liberal arts college with Zhejiang University at the Chinese institution’s international campus in Haining.
This seemingly warm reception contrasts with the recent history of Catholicism in China. Following the 1949 revolution, Catholic universities were forced into mergers or had to move overseas, and today many of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics still worship in underground churches that are outside the government’s direct control.
Nicholas Entrikin, Notre Dame’s vice-president and associate provost for internationalisation, credits alumni and other supporters with opening doors and enabling close relationships to be formed with leading Chinese universities.
Lengthy discussions with the Ministry of Education were used to emphasise that Notre Dame’s courses in disciplines as diverse as business, science and engineering included teaching in ethics and morality.