Challenging times for Catholic universities

Challenging times for Catholic universities

Babette Francis

In the USA there is concern among practising Catholics — and some bishops — about the orthodoxy of numbers of Catholic universities which seem more dedicated to "freedom of academic expression" than to their Catholic identity.

It is a vexed question as at the tertiary level there should be healthy debate about philosophical and religious issues, but what is worrying is that certain issues are presented by invited speakers who offer viewpoints at odds with Catholic principles with no one defending the Catholic position.

If the audience is lucky, someone might be allowed to ask a question, but this is usually preceded by an injunction from the Chair, "Please do not make statements, just ask a question". This gives the speaker the opportunity for more time to defend his/her particular stance, and little reassurance to the questioner.

An egregious example of this was when President Obama, the most pro-abortion president in US history, was invited to give the graduation address at Notre Dame University, Indiana. The fallout is ongoing with pro-life protesters still facing jail time.

Course on Islam

Nothing so awful has happened with Australian Catholic University and its various campuses in Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria, but I was deeply concerned to learn that one of the campuses is offering a course in "Understanding Islam" because I am informed that the course is being funded by a Turkish Islamic Trust.

A bishop has reassured me that the Trust rejects the Wahhabist version of Islam, nevertheless I fear that the "understanding of Islam" will not be my experience of Islam.

I have lived in what were Muslim-majority provinces of India before the Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, so I know how Islam functions, especially in regard to its backward treatment of women.

Furthermore Turkey, which is funding this course at ACU, is moving politically towards an alignment with theocratic Iran while weakening its current alliance with Europe and the West.

The course at ACU, if it is to be balanced, would need to include critiques of Islam from scholars such as Father Zakariah Botros, an Egyptian Coptic priest who regularly debates Islamic clerics on radio — and wins — so much so that he is the target of death threats with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Other scholars who should contribute to ACU's course are Wafa Sultan and Aayan Hirsi Ali, who deal with the unjust treatment of women in Islam, and Rev Mark Durie, Anglican vicar of St Mary's, Caulfield, author of The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.

The inclusion of such analysts would ensure that the course on Islam would not be merely a one-sided propaganda exercise.

Meanwhile I have communicated my concerns to Professor Ismail Albayrak, Fethullah Gullen Chair in the study of Islam and Muslim-Catholic Relations, Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, ACU, and look forward to his response.


Another controversial involvement by ACU was with the Australian Science Festival talks at Australian National University, Canberra, on "Dying with Dignity". This event, held on 3 August 2010, was promoted as being "supported by Australian Catholic University" (presumably its Canberra campus).

The publicity for the talks stated: "What choices do we have about dying? What extent of control can we have over the situation? How can we maintain our dignity in the process … ABC Radio National's Paul Barclay will explore this controversial topic in a special live Australia Talks program with Founder and Director of Exit International, Dr Philip Nitschke, Australian Catholic University's Associate Professor Patrick McArdie, Palliative Care Australia's President-elect Dr Scott Blackwell and Dr Kaarin Anstey, Director of the Ageing Research Unit at the ANU's Centre for Mental Health Research."

Moral issue

Pro-life groups around Australia were dismayed that ACU appeared to be supporting this Canberra venture which gives Nitschke a 'respectable' veneer by engaging him in debate. I conveyed my concerns to Professor Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor of ACU, and to his credit, the statement that the Festival was "supported by Australian Catholic University" was quickly withdrawn from the Festival website. However, it is still on page 7 of the handbook of the Australian Science Festival circulated with the Canberra Times.

Kath Woolf, President, ACT Right to Life Association, writes: "It is difficult to understand why such a controversial topic has been included in a Science Festival. The push for legalised euthanasia has nothing to do with science, except, negatively, in so far as it ignores medical advances in pain relief and facts about the now well-resourced palliative care movement.

"The matter of appropriate treatment of the suffering and the dying is a moral issue and a challenge to medical ethics. Including this topic 'for discussion' in a forum being heavily promoted to tertiary and secondary students is an outrageous step. The project should be ignored under protest. To participate in it is to give dangerous, albeit innocent, support for the project."

With euthanasia Bills pending in WA, SA and Tasmania, it is difficult to understand why ACU is giving respectability status to Dr Nitschke by agreeing to debate him.

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