An uphill battle is likely if Australia's Catholic bishops are to implement their agreed reform document, the Statement of Conclusions, as regards Australian Catholic University (ACU), to judge from a recent report in The Australian (18 October 2000).
According to The Australian, a proposal by one of ACU's pro-vice-chancellors (academic) to introduce "some core units that stressed ethics, social justice, spirituality and the more traditional areas of theology and philosophy" prompted "a backlash from staff concerned that the university was becoming too religious and that it would be dragged into the politicised culture war associated with Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop, George Pell."
An approach to one of ACU's pro-vice-chancellors on this report drew a 'no comment' response, but no indication that the report itself was inaccurate. It was obvious the vexed question of ACU's Catholic identity is highly sensitive.
The report in The Australian noted: "Ask Peter Sheehan [ACU Vice-Chancellor] if the Australian Catholic University is Catholic enough and he candidly admits he'd be putting his head on the chopping block to answer."
The Statement of Conclusions - released just on two years ago - included in parts 56-59 the following requirements regarding Australia's two Catholic universities - of which ACU is by far the larger:
* "The university itself and the bishops should be attentive to safeguarding the university's Catholic identity. The Catholic university 'makes an important contribution to the Church's work of evangelisation. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and His message, in cultures marked by secularism' (Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae 49)."
* "The local ecclesiastical authority, who may seek the assistance of the Holy See in the matter, should follow with understanding and with active concern the question of the doctrinal soundness of the theological formation given either in departments of theology in Catholic universities or in other theological centres, called 'theological faculties' in Australia."
* "The fidelity to the Church's Magisterium in these institutions and in the publications by their professors will be an important gauge of the Catholic life of the nation today and an influence on it in the future."
These considerations assume particular significance, given that Australian Catholic University is the largest single training body for teachers in Catholic primary and secondary schools - indeed a major part of ACU's function continues to be teacher education. This is not surprising, given that ACU represents an amalgam of eight former teachers' colleges in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT.
The results of a survey, released around the same time as the Statement of Conclusions, added a particular note of urgency that the Australian bishops act effectively on the document they had collectively agreed to implement.
The survey (see details in AD2000, May 2000, p. 3) was conducted by Professor Denis McLaughlin of the Brisbane campus of ACU and involved 647 first and final year student teachers at the various ACU campuses, 83 percent of whom were Catholic. The findings revealed that ACU is failing in its fundamental responsibility to the Church and the Catholic educational system. The findings indicated a large proportion of graduating student teachers were out of line with Church teachings on the Real Presence, the Trinity, the priesthood, abortion, contraception and Sunday Mass obligation.
Significantly, these results were roughly the same for first and final year students. In other words, if students enter ACU uninformed or misinformed on Church teachings after attending Catholic primary and secondary schools, ACU merely perpetuates the cycle of ignorance, despite the vast outlays of funds and human resources.
This is hardly surprising when it is noted that a number of ACU's professorial staff are running theological courses out of step with Church teachings (see "How orthodox are Australian Catholic University's staff?", AD2000, October 2000, p. 11).
Aside from its responsibility to assist in the Church's work of "evangelisation" - which would justify the word "Catholic" in its name - ACU is basically repeating in its secular courses what other universities around Australia are already doing. If ACU cannot (or will not) adequately carry out what is required by the "Catholic" part of its title, there is hardly any point in its future existence.
Yet this situation is set to continue indefinitely unless ACU is made accountable. Vague, innocuous "mission statements" open to endless interpretations are not the answer. But without firm episcopal implementation of the Statement of Conclusions, that is the likely outcome.
The report in The Australian, however, suggests that this is the way ACU would prefer to go, unless persuaded otherwise. Professor Sheehan speaks of the incorporation of "mission values" involving such vague concerns as "social justice, equity, tolerance, and dignity of all human beings." He further noted that ACU should be "unashamed about its Christian ethos and values." Which is fine, up to a point, but not particularly helpful as a clear statement of Catholic identity - as called for in the Statement of Conclusions.
Meanwhile, ACU and the Australian bishops also have to come to grips with Pope John Paul II's 1990 Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, designed to ensure the world's Catholic universities (especially the large number in the United States) are Catholic in more than name only.
Ex Corde Ecclesiae includes general norms for the governing of Catholic universities based on Canon Law, particularly canon 812, which states: "It is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority." It was issued in response to a situation prevailing in many Catholic universities - especially in the United States - where freedom from hierarchical control since the late 1960s had led to secularisation and doctrinal deviations.
It has taken ten years for the US Catholic bishops to produce an implementation document that could gain majority support at the bishops conference and the Holy See's approval. The US bishops endorsed a new set of norms - titled Ex Corde Ecclesiae: An Application to the United States - for Catholic higher education by a margin of 223-31 at their 17 November 1999 conference.
The norms required theologians teaching in Catholic colleges and universities to have a mandatum (or mandate) to teach from the proper Church authority, ordinarily the local bishop. This mandate is described as "fundamentally an acknowledgement by the Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is a teacher within the full communion of the Catholic Church." It also calls on Catholic tertiary institutions to declare their Catholic identity clearly in their governing documents.
This prompted alarmed outbursts from some heads of US universities and dissident theologians like Fr Richard McBrien about episcopal threats to "academic freedom". Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, however, reminded those concerned that Catholic students had the right "to have teaching that is in conformity with Catholic teaching: with Catholic faith and morals." It would be edifying to hear such words publicly spoken by one or more Australian bishops, for they could be equally applied to ACU.
However, ACU's amalgam of campuses scattered along the east coast of Australia makes it virtually impossible for individual bishops to exert direct control on the whole or even individual parts. The bishops conference therefore needs collectively to address the vital question of ACU's accountability to the Church, as set out in Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the Statement of Conclusions. This means setting in place mechanisms to ensure the orthodoxy of ACU's faculty and course content in the such areas as theology, philosophy, Scripture and religious education curriculum.
The present downward spiral in religious belief and practice throughout Australia is set to continue unless the bishops tackle the problem of ACU's central responsibility to the Catholic school system. To judge from the prickly, defensive reactions on the part of some ACU faculty, the bishops will have to demonstrate particularly strong leadership qualities if anything of substance is to be achieved in the short to medium term.
The earlier challenge to eliminate illicit general absolutions, in line with the Statement of Conclusions, will have been child's play by comparison.
If the bishops back away from the issue, they will signal clearly that the Statement of Conclusions is already a dead letter and they are unwilling to address the causes of the decline in belief and practice.