Ryan Topping, a prominent author and public intellectual, is taking the reins as academic dean of Newman Theological College. His arrival back home in Canada is a time of great transition – but also happens amid some creature comforts.
“We are mostly out of our boxes,” Topping said of his move back to Canada with his wife and eight children. “We are so happy to be back amidst polite drivers, year-round ice hockey and Mennonite farmers’ sausage – three things we did not have when we lived in the U.S.!”
The Oxford-educated Topping, who taught most recently at St. Thomas More College near Boston, said his immediate plan is to immerse himself in the culture of Newman Theological College. He plans to do that by becoming acquainted with the staff and working with them on the college’s strategic plan.
Topping’s appointment as dean, as well as a full professor of theology and religious education, comes as Newman Theological College prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Over 6,000 students have graduated from Newman since its 1969 opening.
Topping noted that “there is a deeper hunger among a certain segment of Christians to know more” and “Newman is in a unique position to continue to provide that.”
Nevertheless, Topping recognizes that it’s not easy to live as a Catholic, especially at a time when critics say its institutions – from schools and hospitals to the Church itself – are seen as outdated or irrelevant.
“Perhaps what is unique about the conflict that is occurring now, is that the point of conflict is at the most fundamental level,” said Topping, a frequent speaker on Catholic radio and TV.
“And the question has become ‘Can you be good without God or not?’ There’s one group that thinks ‘Yes we can’ and there’s another group, which includes the vast majority of religious people … who say ‘No, God needs a place in the public square.’”
To that end, Newman Theological College guides its students on their faith journey, and Topping – who grew up in a Mennonite family in Saskatoon – has been on his own circuitous path to the Catholic faith.
“I didn’t, unfortunately, grow up amongst Mennonites who rode tractors and buggies. If that would have been the case, I would have stayed longer,” Topping joked. “It’s just such a wonderful way of life to be on the farm.”
While both Topping and wife grew up as Mennonites, and met at college in Winnipeg where Topping was studying philosophy, “somewhere through our college years, the seeds of doubt were planted.”
The Toppings then began searching for a religious home.
“We knew more about Catholicism because Catholics were those that you tried to evangelize when you were a kid. They were the ones that smoked and drank and never went to church,” Topping joked.
Nevertheless, the Toppings were neophytes in the Eastern Orthodox Church when an intellectual encounter with a Dominican priest, and a chance arrival in Rome – along with millions of others for the funeral of St. John Paul II – changed all that.
“What was before us was the Catholicity of the Church. The totality of the Body of Christ was present in a visible way, and everyone was under 30,” Topping recalled.
Twelve years later, Topping and his family have no regrets about becoming Catholic. “We don’t feel like we’ve rejected everything about our past. It’s more that the good seeds found their final flowering.”
Topping said the current cultural conflict comes down to big questions, such as the fundamental definition of freedom itself.
“The new view of freedom is one which is totally abstracted from nature on the one hand, from God on the other and even from our own selves and our own bodies. This idea is [that] our freedom is damaged if anything limits it or directs it from the outside, and that includes the body,” said Topping, an expert in religion and culture.
“The Church stands as last great defender of human freedom, the last great defender of the dignity of love and sexual expression in marriage, where everyone else wants to drain these beautiful things of their significance and reduce us to mere animals.”
In response, “Catholics certainly need to be more aggressive about their faith, in a charitable way,” Topping said, and that can be as simple as strengthening faith and the family.
“Most of my time is spent with my family,” Topping said of his life outside the professional sphere. “Lots of wrestling. Seven of our children are boys, so a lot of time is spent throwing each other around rooms in good fun.”
The Toppings also spend a lot of time reading with their kids. Their current reading list includes an adaptation of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid – “lots of blood and gore, so it holds their attention!” – and playing games, which can get quite competitive with eight kids.
Topping grew up playing hockey and he has also passed his love of the sport onto his children.
So that begs the question: Now that he’s a hockey fan in Alberta, Edmonton Oilers or Calgary Flames?
“The right answer is the one I have in my heart,” Topping demurred, laughing. “I’m looking forward to getting into that too.”