Jason West says his new administrative appointment came as a surprise.


Jason West says his new administrative appointment came as a surprise.

July 18, 2011

EDMONTON — The new academic dean at Newman Theological College says theologians must strive to defend tradition from too much innovation and protect innovation from "a stale, narrow reading of the tradition."

Jason West, who has taught philosophy at the college for the past seven years, takes over as dean from Father Stefano Penna, who assumes the new position of vice-president for college development and advancement.

The appointments, announced by college president Father Shayne Craig, took effect July 1.

West said theology suffers when it resembles the work of a fashion designer who is always seeking to be up-to-date. But it must also avoid the trap of doing little more than reciting the teachings of the catechism. "That becomes lifeless at some point."

The goal of Newman College, he said, has always been to apply the eternal truths of the faith in the context in which people are living them.

Not only is the Church changing, but also the society the Church is trying to affect is changing even faster, West said in an interview. "We need to meet those realities without losing who we are."

West completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Waterloo in 2003 with a dissertation on how St. Thomas Aquinas used philosophy to understand the nature of Christ. Prior to coming to Edmonton, he taught at Waterloo's St. Jerome's College. He and his wife Christine have six children.

Having just completed a sabbatical year, West had spoken with Craig about taking on more administrative duties at the college. But becoming dean "was certainly a surprise. It wasn't what I had expected or planned."

Now he's looking forward to his new role. "It's a time of rebuilding, which is exciting to be part of. We can move from crisis management to having some longer-term vision."

Over the last four years, Newman College has cancelled its bachelor of theology program and laid off three long-time faculty members because of financial constraints.

It moved from its long-term home near St. Albert to Sherwood Park and then moved again to its brand spanking new building near the centre of Edmonton.

Now things have settled down. Thanks to new rules for college accreditation, Newman is re-launching its bachelor of theology program this fall.

West said under the old rules, graduate and undergraduate classes had to be taught separately. He cited the example of a graduate class in bioethics with four students and an undergraduate class running the same semester with six students. Now those classes can be combined at considerable cost saving.

Newman will also start a new program in September called Foundations in Faith, using distance education, that will aim to provide a basic understanding of the Catholic faith to students who are not seeking a university-level degree.


The college will also expand its certificate program in religious education so that Catholic teachers can take courses in Red Deer.

Penna's new job will involve trying to enlist more students in the college, especially teachers for its two graduate level programs in religious education. Newman College also offers a master of divinity program as well as two graduate degree programs in theology.

West said the college may look to hire new faculty to fill gaps such as those in moral theology, Scripture and Church history. No approval for that has yet been granted, however.

Newman also needs to ensure that it is a warm, inviting place for those — including members of other Christian churches — who come seeking to deepen their understanding of the faith, he said. The college community needs to be nurtured with social and liturgical events.

As dean, much of West's work will be dealing with people and policies at the college. He supports faculty and helps them develop without becoming himself too involved with the details of their particular academic specialties.

"It's primarily a role of service to instructors and other administrative staff of the college."