National Catholic Education Conference: but who chose the guest speakers?

National Catholic Education Conference: but who chose the guest speakers?

Michael Gilchrist

The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC), based in Canberra, is to hold a conference in Brisbane from 23 to 27 September 2001. According to its Chairman, Fr Tom Doyle - Director of the Melbourne Catholic Education Office - the conference would be "an important and strategic event in the life of the Church in Australia."

The Chairman of the Conference Planning Committee, Mr Dan Bolton from the Queensland Catholic Education Commission, said the conference program was "designed to allow participants time to reflect and to share their own wisdom on the big questions facing our society and our church" including "what does it mean to be an Australian Catholic educator in the current context?"

The event might have been an opportunity for Australia's Catholic educators to come to grips with the Statement of Conclusions, which referred to "a crisis of Faith" in the Church in Australia and noted, among other things, the need for lay teachers to be "properly formed in the Faith" and for "fidelity to the Church's Magisterium" on the part of professors at Catholic tertiary education institutions.

Some of those among the four selected keynote speakers for the NCEC Conference hardly inspire confidence that Australia's top Catholic educational bureaucrats are committed to grappling with the problems identified in the Statement of Conclusions.

One might anticipate helpful input from Dr Peter Tannock, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and from Dr John Carroll, Reader in Sociology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and a non-Catholic, who recently stated in connection with his latest book, The Western Dreaming, that "in the Western world God is already dead and the rest of us are dying for want of a story."

However, the other two speakers' names - Morag Fraser, Editor of Eureka Street, and particularly Fr Diarmuid O'Murchu - leave one wondering about the philosophies of our leading Catholic bureaucrats.

The contents of Eureka Street in recent years have been generally critical of Vatican 'centralism' and of certain episcopal appointments, notably that of Archbishop Pell. And in an interview in 1998 for the Weekend Australian, Ms Fraser was frank about her own religious views.

She described the Catholic Church as "a massive, ancient, creaky institution with every contradiction known to man within it" and referred to her frustrations - "Constant, constant. I'm female. I mean, how could I not feel frustrated with it?" She added that the Church was "getting so many things wrong."

Father O'Murchu's name, while less familiar to Australian Catholics than Morag Fraser's, raises greater concerns, in the light of his publicly expressed religious views.

During an earlier visit to Australia, the Irish priest-psychologist-author told The West Australian (10 September 1994) that Christianity had gone wrong at the time of St Paul, who "switched the emphasis of the Gospel message from 'kingdom' to 'church'." The resulting Church, he said, had too much focus on "the preservation of patriarchal and centralised structures and beliefs."

He expressed admiration for the writings of Matthew Fox and his view that creation was the "primary divine revelation". No one belief system, he said, had a monopoly on truth, which continually unfolds in an evolutionary fashion. He saw the arrival of feminism as a "vital sign of hope" and a symbol of the crumbling of patriarchy: "In London, women's groups are adopting a whole new attitude to 'being church' and are creating their own rituals." He also praised the Latin American Basic Ecclesial Communities as a key to his vision of the future.

Fr O'Murchu's religious views were further elaborated during a 1998 address at a Sea of Faith Conference in the UK.

Exploring the history of mankind from the evolutionary record, Fr O'Murchu argued we need to "forge a growing sense of connectedness with so much of our sacred story from which we have been culturally and religiously severed for at least the past 5,000 years."

He said that after the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago, humans began to "carve up Planet Earth into what we now call nation states and ethnic subdivisions" and eventually "invented systems of belief (called religions) to validate our anthropocentric insatiable instinct to divide and conquer the whole creation." Prior to the emergence of "formal religion", there had been a veritable Eden where "we humans lived and behaved within a spiritual sense of connectedness with planetary and universal life."

New cosmology

Unfortunately, says Fr O'Murchu, a desire "to conquer divinity itself" lies "at the heart of all the major religious systems we know today," meaning that "religion could well be the most destructive and outrageous form of idolatry that our world has ever known."

The solution to this "crisis of faith" for Fr O'Murchu is to "bring the planetary-cosmic aspect into conscious awareness." To gain insights into this "new cosmology", we should study the works of Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry to learn "that creation itself is the primary revelation of God for us."

While he admits such ideas "fly in the face of contemporary Christian theology" they "are at the very core of what contemporary spirituality is seeking to unravel at this time."

The Statement of Conclusions might refer to a "crisis in Christology" involving "a blurring of the divinity or of the unique salvific role of Christ", but Fr O'Murchu recommends "a whole new appraisal of some traditional religious doctrines ... in particular to our traditional understanding of Christology."

Presumably these ideas will be part of his message for Australia's Catholic educators next September.

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