Doing things right or doing the right thing

Catholic higher education is caught somewhere between death and flourishing, writes Ronan Tobin

A senior colleague in another Irish Catholic college of higher education once asked me; “What’s Catholic mathematics?” I remember thinking initially to myself that as questions go, it was a pretty stupid one. Then, after some reflection, I realised just how significant the question was. Firstly, it was clearly a challenge to my rhetoric on the distinctive character and objectives of Catholic education, particularly Catholic higher education. Secondly, it provided me with a renewed insight into how as a professional community of scholarship, Catholic educators working at third level in Ireland lack a coherent and consensual narrative as to what it is we are about and why it is valuable.

As we transition in Ireland from an arguably homogenous self-replicating, self-referencing and self-validating Catholic culture to one that must give account of itself to an increasingly diverse society, it seems to me the need for such a narrative is critical not least because of the very significant challenges that face Catholic higher education institutions at a time of significant change to the ‘landscape’ of Irish higher education.

St Peter

In seeking a vocabulary for this narrative, St Peter has for me always summarised well our obligation to have one: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you ” (I Peter 3:15). Thus it is for each of us to offer this account of Catholic higher education to those who would question the value of what it is we do. Yes, we are rooted in and motivated by faith, but what we do is also reasonable.


In giving an account of the hope that is within me when it comes to Catholic higher education, my personal and admittedly rather simplistic view of it is rooted in the theology I learned as an undergraduate student. Its starting point is familiar; the inviolable dignity of the person (the student) in relationship. In relationship to what? In relationship to God; in relationship to others (the community and society – in all its diversity); in relationship to the world in which we find ourselves (nature and human technical creativity – creation).

The word relationship could be substituted by the word dialogue. Within this economy of relationship or dialogue is the human search for meaning and knowledge common to all faith traditions and to those who have none.

One of the core ‘orthodoxies’ at the heart of Catholic higher education, I think, is the rigorous academic teasing out of the implications of these relationships and from which should result, in my personal view, a key metric or outcome of the quality of Catholic higher education: orthopraxis or right practice or action. One might characterise it as a distinctive graduate attribute that is being sought. Catholic higher education, because it is higher education, should facilitate the transformation of students and staff through its experience and provide a basis for action informed not by ‘blind’ or unthinking faith, but rather action that results from reasoned faith, a lived faith celebrated not only in ritual but also in a critical and active disposition to action within the broader human community. Faith separated from knowledge separated from action is not only sterile – it is distinctly ‘un-Catholic’.


All Hallows College, where I work, a Catholic and Vincentian (St Vincent de Paul) higher education institution, embraces the broader project and objectives of Catholic higher education with modesty but clarity of vision and purpose. By now, there is much literature on the distinctive character of the Vincentian higher educational apostolate. A rich conceptual framework has developed that includes the exploration of a dynamic interplay between key ideas such as Vincentian personalism, pragmatism and option for the poor. However, as an institution, we state it simply: We seek to educate women and men capable of ethical leadership, passionate for justice and committed to the service of others.

These three core values are at the heart of the educational project and provide a democratic and inclusive framework for the engagement of students and staff of all backgrounds. Because we are Catholic, theology and ‘God-talk’ is included explicitly in the learning experience of many courses but more importantly it contextualises and infuses with value and purpose the broader curriculum on offer. In our case, we seek to offer an integrated institutional curriculum focused on social engagement as a concrete living out of the faith we hold.

Hence, it is not so much, in my view, the content of the curriculum that defines what is distinctive about Catholic or Vincentian higher education, mathematics, theology or otherwise, although this is important, but rather it is the orientation, the habitus and the active critical formation (not indoctrination) of the person who experiences it. No matter what career a graduate ultimately pursues, and dare I say it, how ‘good’ a Catholic they are or become, indeed if they are Catholic, what is more important are the values, commitments and dispositions to action they bring into those careers and society itself. In this way, we meet as Catholic educators our obligations to contribute to the evangelical mission of the Church, promoting graduates, educated women and men, that are a leaven for society and culture and, I would argue, unburdened by the baggage of recent history, are a seed bed and a critical resource for the renewal of the Church in Ireland.


I want to conclude this personal reflection by saying something about leadership and authenticity. In thinking about leadership, it is helpful to call to mind Peter Drucker’s classic distinction between management and leadership: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing.” It can thus be suggested that leadership by definition has an ethical content and there is a close working relationship in practice, I believe, between being ethical and being authentic. Over my career as an educator, I have seen nothing more destructive to the credibility of leadership than the discovery amongst students and staff of inauthenticity in the leadership they are subject to.

There are many ways to be unethical as a leader, but at its heart, it is the perceived and/or real disconnection between espoused values and practice where often leadership truly loses its way. For this reason, Catholic higher education must be mindful of its particular role and obligation to cultivate authentic leadership. As others rush to the secular panacea of courses in ethics in a wide variety of professional higher educational programmes as an antidote to a perceived loss of our social moral compass, we must I believe as Catholic educators hold the ground on the idea that ethical leaders are formed not taught.

Some will be quick to point out the catastrophic failures in moral leadership in the past by those, lay and clerical, who have benefited from a Catholic education in Ireland. They are right. Some within the Catholic community prefer to give account of this by citing these failures as the failures of individuals. This of course is true, but it is also the failure of a formation where for some reason doing things right somehow became more important than doing the right thing. Catholic higher education, if we are true to our values, our mission and our vocation, should above all produce authentic leaders rooted first and foremost in the values of the Gospel whether they be clerical, religious or lay. Note I did not say rooted in the values of an institution, any institution.

Collective intent

I believe Irish Catholic higher education is at a threshold moment. We are caught somewhere between death and flourishing. In the absence of a co-ordinating plan for the future of Catholic higher education, we are witnessing a kind institutional or ecclesial Darwinism where it is the system rather than our collective intent that is determining our future. If we can transition from an effective state of competition (for resources and pre-eminence) between Catholic higher education institutions in Ireland, something that is to be welcomed as a driver of quality and academic excellence, to a state of shared vision and common purpose, however that might be achieved, I believe we will flourish. We may even surprise a few people by the positive power of our presence as a force within Irish society and higher education. There is little point in us blaming society or external factors for our death. We hold our future in our own hands. If we choose life, we need to get going before it is too late. I am not the first to say this. To start, all we need is leadership – authentic leadership.


Ronan B. Tobin is Deputy President of All Hallows College, Dublin.