It is easy to forget the vital role of the Catholic education system which, alone for almost a century, upheld the right of parents to a faith-based education for their children. A recent address by Cardinal Pell, reproduced in this issue, reminds us of the sacrifices made to build this system.
The winning of "state aid" in the 1960s ensured that this right could be enjoyed by all parents - not just Catholics - and an increasing number of Australian families are its beneficiaries.
In 1980, the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) - a coalition of teacher unions and other opponents of Catholic schools - conducted a High Court challenge to "state aid"; but the High Court dismissed their case.
However, the achievements of the past remain open to attack by anti-Christian forces. The NSW Teachers' Federation recently announced it would investigate financing a new High Court challenge to public funding of non-government schools on the grounds that it is "unconstitutional". And the Australian Education Union has not ruled out joining in.
But religious schools are also challenged by an increasingly secular and individualistic culture, which is profoundly critical of religion in general, and Catholicism in particular. This culture threatens to secularise these schools by a denial of their specifically religious, Catholic character.
It was for this reason that the Pope last month told visiting American Bishops that Catholic institutions must reflect the moral and religious principles on which they were established. He said that Church institutions - universities, schools and hospitals - must be "genuinely Catholic" and conform to official teaching on "respect for human life, marriage and family and the right ordering of public life."
John Paul II emphasised that it was of "utmost importance" that Catholic institutions remain "Catholic in their self-understanding and Catholic in their identity."
This remains the great challenge facing Catholic institutions in Australia today.
- Peter Westmore is Publisher of AD2000 (www.ad2000.com.au)