Studying abroad in Oxford, I did not expect to find myself among many Catholics.  After all, Oxford is home to a large, public university in a country in which less than 10 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.  So, when a dorm-room discussion suddenly veered in the direction of Catholic Tradition and the Bible, I felt a need to tread lightly.  Only moments later did I realize that 7 out of 8 students in the room—by some anomaly—were Catholic.

Granted, two of those students hailed from Notre Dame.  Even still, finding a majority of Catholics coincidentally gathering in an Oxford dormitory seems about as odd as finding a majority of unrelated Frenchmen communing in an Oxford pub—both have past connections to the British Isles but belong to the losing sides of decisive junctures in British history.

Yet the Catholic community that I have encountered in Oxford has been robust and lively, despite the historical wear and tear—political restrictions against Catholics only ended in 1829 with the Catholic Emancipation Act, followed in 1850 by the return of the first Catholic bishop to England in nearly three centuries.  Among the spires of Oxford’s medieval colleges, one can find the stunning rose window façade of the Oxford Oratory, the Dominican priory at Blackfriars Hall, and the University Catholic Chaplaincy.  In addition to offering Masses, these arms of the Church support programs for the homeless and the elderly, train friars, hold weekly talks, and serve pastoral needs.  In particular, the University Chaplaincy’s Newman Society sustains the legacy of Blessed John Henry Newman, an instrumental proponent and humble servant of the Church in Oxford.

Newman’s own story captures the progression of Catholicism in Oxford, which became an epicenter for religious thought in England during the Tractarian Movement of the early nineteenth century.  Though Newman served as an Anglican priest at the time, he and other High Church Anglicans sought to direct the trajectory of the Church of England back to its perceived Catholic roots.  As Newman studied ecclesial history and integrated older liturgical practice into the largely social institution of Anglicanism, he drew closer to Rome.  His exploration of apostolic authority, the very Tradition discussed in the dorm-room, especially challenged his theological views.  With this deeper knowledge came a deeper faith.  In 1845 he converted to Catholicism. By 1879 Pope Leo XIII had appointed him cardinal.

This story of conversion and revival endures more than metaphorically in Oxford.  Indeed, numerous students and academics have wandered the same path to Catholicism, including Evelyn Waugh, whose conversion experience is rendered fictionally in his novel Brideshead Revisited.  Newman’s story is at work in the lives of those for whom knowledge does not obstruct faith but rather leads directly to it.  A German physics student completing his PhD, a Rhodes Scholar from Virginia, a retired chemistry professor, a Polish linguist, a Harvard literature student and former naval midshipman, a French mathematician—all are faithful Catholics of diverse background and high intellectual caliber whom I have met here in Newman’s town.

Catholics, of course, do not navigate the course of knowledge and faith alone in Oxford.  As secular as the university can seem, Christianity persists in the arched corridors of colleges named for saints or with Christological references—St. Anne’s, Corpus Christi, Jesus College.

Every college, like every Notre Dame residence hall, has its chapel, though they tend to come equipped with massive organs, centuries old Gothic architecture, and Anglican chaplains.  The Christian Student Union, while not as popular as the prestigious and pricy Oxford Union debating society, maintains the religious undertones with weekly apologetics talks and posters which one can find on any college notice board.

Oxford itself has no shortage of resident apologists.  Alister McGrath, John Lennox, and Ravi Zacharias hold posts at the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, though the first two also serve as lecturers at Oxford colleges.  Vince Vitale, another member of the center, speaks of the re-emergence of Christian philosophy at Oxford in a brief video titled “God’s Not Dead,” in which he walks the town’s narrow streets quoting and refuting Nietzsche.

Oxford may have been the stomping ground of religion’s cultural despisers—the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Its worn walls still harbor a hornets’ nest of anti-Christian hostilities, though I would sooner ascribe the ebbing of faith to religious apathy and miseducation.  But the same college that expelled the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—after his contribution to an 1811 pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism—enrolled the young C. S. Lewis, who would go on to write some of the greatest Christian apologetics of the twentieth century.  People of profound religious commitment—Catholics not the least—can be found in one of England’s cores of scholarship and erudition, for the place actively produces such people, so long as they are willing to strike up a conversation about Tradition and pursue knowledge in no small capacity.


Charlie Ducey is a junior studying the languages of C. S. Lewis (English) and Friedrich Nietzsche (German).  He is spending the academic year across the pond in Oxford, UK.  Contact him at