Has Australian Catholic University just lost the right to call itself “Catholic”?

Sep 23, 2023
The bell tower of the St Stephen's Chapel in Elizabeth Street. The chapel held its first service in 1850 and was the centre of Catholicism in Brisbane during colonial times until the adjacent cathedral opened in 1875. The modern building to the right is the home of the The bell tower of the St Stephen's Chapel in Elizabeth Street. The chapel held its first service in 1850 and was the centre of Catholicism in Brisbane during colonial times until the adjacent cathedral opened in 1875. The modern building to the right is the home of the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Leadership Centre. Image:iStock / Scott Kenneth Brodie

Where’s Cardinal George Pell when you need him? Gone to God, I know, but as one of the founders and a former Chancellor of Australian Catholic University (ACU), he would be horrified at what is currently happening there. Why?

Because, as media outlets reported, ACU has decided “to axe dozens of humanities jobs … entirely disbanding institutes in philosophy and [early modern] history” (The Guardian). With a net loss of some 32 full-time jobs, theology, gender studies, social sciences and religion will also face cuts. Eighty full-time positions were cut earlier this year.
I mention Pell because this is something he wouldn’t have tolerated. He’d have insisted that being called Australian Catholic University means that history, philosophy and theology are central to its academic mission.

ACU’s own faith and values statement is unequivocal: “As a Catholic university, we draw our inspiration from the “heart of the Church”, building on the ancient tradition which gave rise to the first universities in medieval Europe. This Catholic intellectual tradition proposes an integrated spiritual and philosophical approach to the most enduring questions of human life.” It adds: “As a Catholic university, we are stewards of our Catholic tradition and our unique Australian heritage.” In other words, history (including medieval history), philosophy and theology are central to the university’s mission. Otherwise, it is not a Catholic university.

By “Catholic” here I mean a university that draws on the Catholic tradition. By “tradition” I don’t just mean living in the-good-old-days. Theologically, tradition means drawing on the past to nurture the present and develop the vision that can imagine the future.

The previous federal Coalition government decimated the humanities by making Arts courses cost double the so-called “job relevant” ones, as though deeper cultural knowledge and the ability to think critically are irrelevant in today’s job market. This indicates that nowadays the vandals are not just at the city gates, but occupy the citadel. The present Labor government has done nothing to remedy this aberration.

A quick look through the courses on offer at ACU indicates that there are many other areas like law, business and exercise physiology that are very adequately covered by other universities. To established budgetary balance, they should be trimmed or cut long before philosophy, history and theology.

An ACU deputy-vice chancellor, Abid Khan, a nanotechnologist and, according to the ACU’s website, “a passionate advocate of industry and enterprise,” claims that there’s been “inaccurate reporting” and that these job losses achieve the balance that “brings us closer to sector norms” and to “a sustainable level of staff to students.”

Sure, of course you have to pay your way, but not by destroying what is at the heart of your raison d’être. Sorry, Professor Kahn, but history, philosophy and theology are central to the reason why your university can call itself Catholic.

There are plenty of places to make cuts. I’ve already suggested a couple of course areas that could be jettisoned, given they are adequately covered in Australian education. And just how much is ACU spending on a Rome campus in what your webpage calls “the trendy suburb of Trastevere?” Having stayed in Trastevere often, I wouldn’t call it “trendy”, but there you are. Surely ACU could rent some rooms at Rome’s Domus Australia, the “pilgrimage centre” the university’s previous Chancellor, Cardinal Pell, established? And it is actually in a “trendy” area!

It’s true that the disciplines that ACU is decimating are taught at the University of Notre Dame Australia and at the ecumenically-based University of Divinity in Melbourne. It’s also true that financial pressures are forcing students to focus on so-called “vocational” courses, as though the ability to think critically was not a human calling.
The crisis that we face nowadays is the loss of our cultural tradition and of the deeper realities that make human life meaningful. Precisely because Australian universities largely neglect the courses ACU is cutting, a genuinely Catholic university should be focussing on them.

Sure, the humanities have not done themselves any favours by their widespread adoption of incomprehensible, post-modern jargon while focussing on endless epistemological gobbledegook, or theories of how we know what we know, leading in the end to us knowing virtually nothing.

What an understanding of the broad sweep of Western history, theology and philosophy does is broaden our minds, so we can comprehend what is happening and escape from the atomised individualism that drives so much of our economics, politics and art. The studies being cut or axed are the very ones that lead us to enlightenment and self-transcendence.

Come on ACU! Make sure you maintain the fundamental Catholic element of your ethos. Otherwise you’ll be just be another run-of-the-mill Australian university.

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