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Academic Honours for Fr Fergus Kerr OP

Friday, March 27, 2020

At 12 noon on Monday, 9 December, 2019, an academic procession entered the beautiful Raeburn Room at Old College, Edinburgh. The procession was made up of four people in full ¬≠academic attire: a beadle carrying an academic mace; Professor Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh; Professor David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh; and Fr Fergus Kerr, Dominican friar and member of the Edinburgh Dominican Community. The occasion was the conferral of the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity on Fr Fergus for his many contributions to Scottish Catholic Theology. 

Professor Fergusson, speaking in the name and by the authority of the Senatus Academicus of the University of Edinburgh, gave a laureation in which he explained why Fr Fergus had been chosen for the high honour. He then called upon the Vice-Chancellor to confer the honorary doctorate. This was done in the Edinburgh style, in this case an unwittingly ecumenical gesture, by tapping the head of Fr Fergus with ‘the Geneva Bonnet’, a hat supposedly made from the breeches of the noted Scottish Reformer, John Knox.  

In his laureation Professor Fergusson said the following:

“The recently published History of Scottish Theology describes Fergus Kerr as the most distinguished Scottish Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. That seems an unassailable judgement. In at least three areas, he has made an outstanding contribution to contemporary philosophical theology. His appropriation of the work of Wittgenstein has enabled us to understand the extent to which the human person is not an angel but an animal. We are embodied creatures, set in a social and material world. As he shows, theologians have too often failed to recognise these features of the human condition, yet they are vital for understanding the significance of ritual, liturgy, and meaning. In his work on Thomas Aquinas, Fergus Kerr has awakened us to the contrasting interpretations of his theology which reflect the different historical circumstances in which Thomists have worked. Aquinas himself emerges here as a contextualised thinker who can better be understood and appreciated as a great and innovative thinker of the thirteenth century. And Fergus has also taught us much about the richness of ¬≠twentieth-century Catholic theology with its patterns of retrieval and development of church doctrine. What sets him apart is that he always writes in a style that is lucid, measured, irenic and wise.  Perhaps that is why he has proved such an effective preacher over many years in both Oxford and Edinburgh.” 

 

In this Professor Fergusson drew attention to something of fundamental importance for Dominican engagement with theology. Yes, it is meant to involve rigorous scholarship and in-depth reflection, but this is directed ultimately towards enriching the Christian culture and the engagement of the People of God with the Gospel. In other words, it is about preaching in a way that empowers others to engage with the Christian message more deeply. Fr Fergus has indeed been a highly effective preacher from the pulpit in Oxford and Edinburgh; but through his writings and his presence within the academy, his preaching, in a broad sense of the word, has reached across the world.

After the formalities of the conferral, and fittingly for a celebration of a theologian noted for reminding us that we are social and embodied creatures, Dominican friars and members of the Edinburgh Divinity Faculty joined the Vice-Chancellor and Fr Fergus for a convivial lunch during which the good health and happiness of Fr Fergus were toasted. 

– John O’Connor OP

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