The Von Hügel Institute (VHI) was founded in 1987 as a means of continuing the St Edmund's College’s mission of service to Catholic life and thought. This was thought necessary as by then the College had ceased to be owned by the Catholic Church in England. In 1985 the Church had given St Edmund’s College and all of its assets to the Fellows, this being the necessary step for the House to eventually become a fully constituent college of the university. Nevertheless, there was concern to ensure that the Catholic character, heritage and mission of St Edmund’s House should be continued. In 1968 Cardinal Heenan, the Archbishop of Westminster, had given the House the significant sum of £50,000 which had originally been intended to support a Catholic Institute of Higher Studies. In 1987 the Fellows set aside this sum for the purposes of supporting what eventually became the Von Hügel Institute.
The Master and Fellows defined the purpose of the Institute as being to assist in the preservation and development of the Roman Catholic tradition as an important aspect of the life of the college. In this sense it was entirely appropriate that the Institute should be named after Baron Anatole von Hügel as it was thanks to his vision, energy and commitment that St Edmund’s House had been founded as a place for Catholics to study within Cambridge. The Institute was to fulfil this mission not only by undertaking relevant academic work in the fields of Christianity and society, the historical role of Christianity within society and issues of social justice but also by overseeing the Von Hügel lecture. Since its establishment in 1990 the VHI has also assumed responsibility for organising the Lattey lecture. This was endowed by Fr Reginald Fuller on the occasion of the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of its foundation at St Edmund’s in 1940 by its first President, Fr Cuthbert Lattey, S.J.
The Institute’s was based at the White Cottage, on the College grounds: its first Director was the then Dean, the Rev Dr Christopher Moss, S.J. In 1990 the Rev Dr Francis McHugh, a predecessor of Moss as Dean, was appointed VHI director, followed by Fr Frank Carey WF (2000-2002), Professor David Bridges (2003-2008), Fr David Clark (2008-2011), and Professor John Loughlin (2011-15).
Under the directorship of Professor David Bridges the activities of the VHI were re-organised into three separate research centres: the Centre for the Study of Faith in Society (CSFIS) directed then by Dr Bernadette O’Keeffe and Rev Dr James Sweeney and later by Francis Davis and Dr Andrew Bradstock, the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) Directed by Prof. David Bridges, and the Capability and Sustainability Centre directed by Dr Flavio Comim. All centres shared a commitment to the pursuit of social justice and social inclusion, and produced valuable academic research materials over the years.
Since the appointment of Professor Loughlin in 2011 the VHI has undergone a renewal of the internal structure as well as the research activities, and it started hosting regular events, including an annual themed seminar series, public lectures, a reading group and the newly resurrected Von Hügel Lecture and Lattey Lecture, which was last held in 2001.
Following Professor Loughlin's retirement, in 2015 the College appointed Dr Philip McCosker new Director of the von Hügel Institute and College Fellow.