The Chinese Government has given permission to allow 30 students from the mainland to attend the Catholic University of Saint Joseph in Macau, provided they do not enroll in philosophy or theology courses.
Despite the restrictions, the decision represents a breakthrough in terms of trust between the Communist government and the USJ, which answers directly to both the Portuguese Catholic University and the Diocese of Macau.
The USJ is one of four universities in the former Portuguese territory of Macau, which like Hong Kong is part of China but treated as a Special Administrative Region, however it was the only one which, until now, was barred from accepting mainland students.
“The USJ is the only university that, with its connection to Portugal and Western style of teaching, truly preserves the tradition of higher learning in Macau. That interests the authorities. They are aware that the Catholic Church gave rise to the European Universities. However, they are concerned about the motivation behind this investment in teaching. Having observed the USJ they were able to see that Catholic universities are not moved by a desire to proselytize, but to develop knowledge and promote an intelligent and fraternal dialogue between different cultures,” said Fr Peter Stilwell, who was rector of the university between 2012 and 2020.
The Lisbon based priest added that Beijing’s suspicion was spiked by the Hong Kong protests. “Many of the young protest leaders in Hong Kong were educated at Christian institutions. The Chinese Government will have wanted to ensure that the only Catholic University in its territory would not be inciting social unrest.”
Fr Peter said that during a recent visit to Beijing the USJ delegation felt great enthusiasm from both the Government office that oversees religious matters and the Catholic Bishops Conference for the possibility of sending students to complete Theology and Philosophy courses that are internationally recognised by the Church, but the political authorities have shown themselves unwilling to take that step.
He remained cautiously hopeful, however, emphasising that both the Vatican and the Chinese Government tend to think in terms of centuries, rather than years.