According to university rector Mark Waer, the idea of dropping "Catholic" from the official name is just one of many questions that will be considered in the debates, which run until February. Participants include prominent academics such as economist Paul De Grauwe, stem cell researcher Catherine Verfaillie and jurist Matthias Storme, as well as participants from the fields of marketing, astronomy, gynaecology and metaphysics.
"There is no acute problem, and we're under no pressure to change," Waer told Flanders Today. "The debates have been on the agenda for months. The recent headlines about child abuse and the Vatican's reaction to the Nobel Prize provide a welcome opportunity for debate, but the timing is purely coincidental."
Last week, the announcement that the Nobel Prize for medicine will go to Robert Edwards, a pioneer in in vitro fertilisation, brought a stern response from the Vatican. A senior Vatican prelate states the prize was "completely out of order", blaming Edwards for "a large number of freezers filled with embryos".
The institutional structure of the university now known as KUL was set up in 1834 by the bishops of the recently formed Belgium, and while its teaching included a major faculty of theology and one of canon law, it developed into a modern university, covering the entire range of modern learning, from philosophy to cutting-edge medical techniques.
"There's nothing that happens in other universities that doesn't happen here," says rector Waer, an immunologist and former head of medicine at the university hospital. "We carry out a full and free programme of scientific research. We follow rules on medical ethics, but those are universal and certainly not determined by the Catholic Church."
One of the pertinent questions is how international students view Flanders' higher educational institutions. "It works both ways," Waer says. "We have many students coming from Catholic parts of the world, and many come to Leuven specifically to study theology. For the rest, I don't have the impression there's a problem, though questions are sometimes asked - whether you have to be a Catholic or do you need to sign something. They think we might be like some American universities that are clearly religious. We explain that we're a university founded on Christian values, but we're not a university of the church. We don't receive a cent from the church."
But the university is run by a governing board chaired by André Léonard, archbishop of Mechelen and Brussels, the senior Catholic clergyman in the country. He's joined on the board by three former rectors and senior faculty. External members include the four Flemish bishops of Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and Hasselt.
"The board is chaired by Monsignor Léonard, made up of different kinds of stakeholders from the wider society, the university and the bishops," explains Dr Waer. "They [the bishops] are not in the majority, and they have nothing to do with the day-to-day running of the university. They don't give advice, and they don't set down conditions, and that's how it's been for the last 40 years." Like an AGM, the board is there to approve the university management's strategy and long-term policies.
The archbishop, on the other hand, sees his role differently. "Archbishop Léonard has no plans to change the way he performs his role," his spokesman said last week. "It's certainly not his intention to restrict himself to a purely formal function. The archbishop has had an academic career [at the KUL's sister university in Louvain-la-Neuve]. He knows very well how things work in the real world."
University, Church and Society
KUL's debates, which are not open to the public, go on until February and cover such themes as the international dimension of a Catholic university, the church and medical research, and science and Christian inspiration. The university is considering producing a report on the debates when the series is complete.