Kaft in rood en wit van het boek 'Katholiek? Geen punt', van Jurijn Timon de Vos
Kaft in rood en wit van het boek 'Katholiek? Geen punt', van Jurijn Timon de Vos

Catholic identity? No reason to fret, for Radboud University administrators

De-pillarisation, secularisation and a shrinking church: religion in the Netherlands is said to have been in a downward spiral since the 1960s. Yet the Catholic University Nijmegen, now Radboud University, always stood out for its Catholic roots. On Wednesday 12 June 2024, historian Jurijn Timon de Vos will defend his PhD on this university's History. 'For university administrators,' de Vos argues, 'Catholic identity was never a tragic story, but a special aspect of our university that they simply worked on.'

Relationship with the bishops

De Vos was given access to confidential archives. They gave the historian a unique insight into the administrative discussions on Catholic identity between 1950 and 2005. Among other things, De Vos saw how presidents and rectors courted the archbishops. 'In the 1960s and 1970s, Cardinal Bernard Alfrink was a house guest.'

'Alfrink raised the alarm with the Executive Board (BoG) when he had concerns,' De Vos recalls. 'He did so in 1975, for example, when he learned that Nijmegen professors were resigning because of Marxist influences. The Executive Board shared this concern and took action. With the later Cardinal Ad Simonis, contact was somewhat more difficult, partly because of the IVF-policy of the Sint-Radboud hospital. Nevertheless, the university administrators always set out to maintain a good relationship, sometimes  with the added aim of diluting episcopal influence.'

From KUN to Radboud University

Another recurring theme was the issue of the university's name. What should Nijmegen University continue to call itself? A striking find here is the 'Nijmegen compound' in the early 1970s. Statutorily, the name then changed from 'the Catholic University' to 'a Catholic University'.

De Vos: 'No one immediately noticed the difference, but the commitment of the conservative professor of constitutional law Frans Duynstee was clear: the indefinite article placed stronger emphasis on the Catholic - a Catholic university - without the then boisterous students noticing.' In the 1980s and 1990s, some administrators began cautiously considering the name Carolus Magnus University. It eventually became Radboud University Nijmegen in 2004.   

Revival and 'spherisation'

'Each period acquired its own Catholic identity,' De Vos analyses, 'and that identity depended on the wishes and capabilities of the administrators.' In the 1990s, for example, they wanted to teach students Catholic-intellectual culture, but around the year 2000, the administrative focus shifted to a quality narrative and on climbing the international rankings.

Catholic identity did not disappear, but took on a different form. 'What started then,' says De Vos, 'is what I call a process of spherisation: Catholic identity was increasingly interpreted as an atmosphere or nice ornament. It was no longer a mandate for special action.'

Sober 'no-reason-to-fret mentality'

De Vos concludes that Nijmegen university administrators soberly stuck to the Catholic foundation, without ever dogmatically cementing it in terms of content. Thereby giving the university community room to look for its own interpretation. 'In retrospect, this sober and flexible working method has guided the Catholic identity through time,' says De Vos.

At the same time, the historian also comments on the prevailing 'no-reason-to-fret mentality' among administrators. 'Surely more internal identity reflection befits an academic institution.' There was a lack of this, according to De Vos, particularly during the name change to Radboud University. In the run-up to that decision, a discussion among administrators about the relationship between name and Catholic identity was simply brushed aside, arguing that Catholic identity was not at issue now. 'As if another name could ever be separate from identity.'


On 12 June 2024 Jurijn Timon de Vos will defend his PhD at Radboud University. His dissertation will be published by Eburon publishers under the title ‘Katholiek? Geen punt. Een bestuurlijke identiteitsgeschiedenis van de Nijmeegse universiteit (1950-2005)'.

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History, Radboud then and now, Religion