Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

What does Cardinal Pell think is wrong with Catholic education?

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 27 May 2004

The Weekend Australian of 8 May carried a report under the title “Putting their faith in education” about the establishment of a new Catholic liberal arts university in Toongabbie, in Sydney’s west, to be named after 16th Century English saint and scholar Edmund Campion. On 12 May, Radio National’s The Religion Report. carried an interview with the Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Professor Peter Sheehan, in which it was mentioned that Cardinal Pell described the role of Campion College as providing an authentic Catholic education. That statement is a slap in the face for the Australian Catholic University, of which Cardinal Pell himself is the President. It could only mean that he is dissatisfied with the ACU which has six campuses, in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Ballarat. Furthermore, it was revealed that Cardinal Pell has initiated a new venture, signed by the Vice Chancellor of Notre Dame University, Peter Tannock, to set up a university in Sydney in direct competition to the ACU without consulting Professor Peter Sheehan.

However you read it, this represents a major problem for Catholic tertiary education when the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, obviously dissatisfied with his own institutions, seeks to set up parallel and competing colleges and universities which will presumably produce the kind of outcomes that the established institutions do not. The problem, it seems, is that the established tertiary institutions have been marred by modernism and liberalism and as such do not produce good Catholics.

In the Australian article, under a picture of Les Murray, who supports the new college, we find the phrase: “No more modernists”. Like the word “liberal”, “modern” is not so easy to define because it represents a whole movement in history that began with Descartes and the first astronomers in the 16th Century. In other words, modernism is not as modern as we might think. Broadly, modernism is two-headed, it is both the bastard child of Christianity and a reaction against the ecclesial hegemony of the middle ages. It represented a movement in which we insisted that we see with our own eyes rather than through the eyes of the church or the ancients. As such it was a necessary movement. Modernism is inextricably bound up with the rise of natural science. Instead of reading in Aristotle how many teeth a horse had, one went to the stable and counted them. Instead of accepting that the earth was the centre of the universe, one observed the motions of the planets and found that it was not so.


Unfortunately, the success of this endeavor taught us that there was nothing to learn from the middle ages. As its name suggests, this period was understood as a vacancy in thought between the ancients and the modern. Early modernism was deeply theological, the motivation that heralded the rise of natural science was directed towards the knowledge of God. Ecclesial problems arose initially because of the question of authority but, more importantly, because the focus on the material world displaced and distorted how we thought about God, who became incorporated into the materialist worldview and became another object or subject in the universe. This opened the way to unbelief because one could argue whether he existed or not as one could carry on a similar argument about the moons of Jupiter. One thing led to another and the Enlightenment became the radical Enlightenment, mostly on the continent, which drew the obvious atheistic conclusions.

To polarise theological debate in terms of modernity being the bad guy does not make a lot of sense. Does this mean that we are to return to Medievalism, in which everyone accepted the authority of the church without question? It is obvious that our present material wellbeing is a consequence of modernity. It is just that theology went along for the ride and lost itself. But once modernity had let the inquisitive and questioning cat out of the bag no one could put it back. The only way forward for the church is to work within the new paradigm, correcting where modernity has got it wrong about God and co-operating where it has got it right in all of the new technologies that ease and extend our lives while keeping an eye on their possible dehumanising effects. Modernity is an unfinished project, as John Thornhill has pointed out. The answer is not to adopt the postmodernist stances that are intent on clearing the world of all meaning to produce a horrifying nihilism and a relativisation of all values, but to listen to the authentic criticisms of the narrow view that modernism has produced. The church should refrain from name-calling and engage in the debate.

The other "baddie" that is mentioned in the Australian article is liberalism itself - a consequence of modern thought. In theology, liberalism dismisses the universality of sin and understands that men and women are free to create their own lives according to their good conscience. Freedom of choice is the banner of liberalism. The gospel is seen as an add-on to life that provides us with some uplifting thoughts and moral guidance and exists in the private sphere. The question "what sort of person am I to be?" is forbidden by liberalism because each person chooses what he or she will be. Liberalism, as do the most seductive lies, rests on the most insistent of all human promptings: the desire for freedom. It originates in the idea of liberty from tyrants, social convention and religious dogma and is thus set it up as an unquestionable good. All president Bush has to say to a crowd is “we love freedom” and they are on his side, who would not be? To demur is to be on the side of the bad guys. Surely this is what we fought two world wars to save?

But when we make all values a matter of individual choice in the name of freedom, then we release ourselves into a world of infinite possibilities and we ignore how hard the world is to live in. In our “you can do anything” ethic we give the impression that each person is equipped to march triumphantly into the world and create his own life. We ignore the many bone-biting traps that lie around us because we have not been tutored into the subtle and destructive ways of the human heart. We are fair game for the ruinous extramarital affair; the experimentation with drugs that gets out of control; or the get rich quick merchants that play on our greed.

The other aspect of liberalism in the church, and this is probably what Pell is on about, is the rush by failing churches to cozy up to the spirit of the age in order to appeal to the man in the street. Creeds are not said because they insult the modern sentiment, liturgy is diluted and rendered uniformly happy, and biblical texts that are puzzling to the modern mind are neglected. The message is that “God loves everyone”, surely a theological truth but one which, when detached from its rich foundations, becomes a meaningless cliché. It is no wonder these churches, as Pell says, have failure written all over them. They have nothing to say.

Liberal education is founded on the idea that if we expose students to the great works of art and philosophy then they will come out as whole human beings. This is Howard Bloom’s solution to social decay and it is opposed to the literary criticism taught in our high schools and universities that takes everything apart and throws away the pieces. Thus a new polarity is set up between the truth of classic texts and their deconstruction. One wonders if students brought up on the latest French fad for clearing the world of meaning will ever be informed about the human heart by Jane Austin or George Eliot or Leon Tolstoy - let alone by the classic text of all classic texts, the Bible. This kind of literary criticism is an example of postmodernist thought, another bad guy, according to the article in The Australian. But, like modernism, postmodernism is a complex movement and has some things to commend it. Its promise for theology is that it breaks the chains of modern thought that preclude religious traditions as a source of genuine knowledge.


Cardinal Pell is concerned that Catholic institutions of education do not turn out good Catholics as has already been remarked upon in this column. There are two things to be held in tension here. First, it is curious that so many students go through the Catholic school system and do not practice the faith once they leave. Church schools and universities should not be embarrassed that they attempt to foster the faith, they rightly see that Christian faith is the ground of all knowledge and that knowledge without it is threatened and fragile. Why they largely fail to transmit the faith lies beyond the scope of this article. One thing is for sure, any attempt at coercion or manipulation of students to bring about the desired result is against the nature of the gospel and will fail. The gospel must be allowed to speak for itself. Just as the preacher must trust that his or her words, if faithful to the gospel, will do their own work, so must church educational institutions do their best to communicate its substance and trust the rest to God. To do otherwise is an attempt to take the kingdom by force. There can be no return to the church of the 50s which was held together by obedient and unquestioning worshipers. How the church works in the present atmosphere is a unique challenge to which few denominations have satisfactorily risen.

My experience of the secular Australian university has convinced me of how bankrupt that approach to higher education can be. It is scandalous that all branches of human knowledge and skill may be included in the Australian university except the study of the tradition that formed Western society. This is where liberalism has led us. It leaves students prey to fundamentalist Christianity, with which many become disaffected because of its simplistic answers and manipulative techniques. It leaves so-called educated people with a huge gap in their understanding of how we got to be where we are and where we should be going. The anomie that comes from this intellectual desert contributes to social fragmentation.

What approach will the new Campion college take? The confusion of terms in the article does not allow us to say. If it is an attempt to reproduce the Catholic Church of the 50s in which indoctrination takes the place of guided enquiry, it will fail. We cannot reproduce the church from which people like Thomas Keneally fled. The modernist cat has to be dealt with. It will not be satisfied with unquestioning obedience. On the other hand, if the theological disciplines of systematic theology, Old and New Testament studies and church history are offered in a truly scholarly atmosphere of critical and sympathetic enquiry, and the tradition is allowed to speak for itself, then we might have in store for us a great abundance of faith and understanding that will infect the nation.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Peter Sellick
Related Links
George Pell's home page
Peter Sellick's home page
Photo of Peter Sellick
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy