On the weekend 9 to 11 February 2001, the Thomas More Centre, North Melbourne, held its annual Summer School for young people. It took place at the University of Melbourne, with its overall theme, "Building a Culture of Life", which took its impetus from John Paul II's call for Catholics and others of goodwill to resist the "culture of death" - as manifested in euthanasia and abortion on demand.
Common to many of the papers was an analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of the "culture of life" - based on the existance of an objective moral law, binding on all human beings and knowable through the use of reason. Reason enables us to know that certain actions are intrinsically evil, such as murder and rape, and that there exist certain inherent and inalienable human rights, such as the right to life.
The speakers challenged participants to be involved actively in the promotion of the "culture of life". Christians should network with like- minded people in this struggle.
The Summer School began with a public lecture by Archbishop George Pell at the Thomas More Centre in North Melbourne. He focused on the growing interest among scientists in arguments for the existence of God, based upon the complex design of the universe and the odds against there being life in the universe.
Archbishop Pell cited the work of Professor Hoyle who argued that the odds against amino acids producing life were one in 10 to the power of 40,000. He concluded his presentation by outlining some of the benefits of the practice of religion. Studies from the US, for example, suggest that those who practise their faith live longer and suffer from less stress and health problems. Similarly, the divorce rates are lower. By contrast, those cohabiting before marriage are twice as likely to separate than those who did not cohabit before marriage.
Senator Harradine, the Tasmanian Independent, challenged his listeners about the need to ensure authentic values are present in public life and that those promoting authentic values be organised. Christianity, particularly as expressed in the writings and encyclicals of John Paul II, is concerned with the dignity of the human person. The Pope argues that democracies that deny the inalienable right of the person to life from the first moment of conception to death are "tyrant states".
Senator Harradine argued that the challenge for the 21st century was to uphold the dignity of each human being, marriage, family friendly policies and the dignity of work. There is also the need to resist the trend for non-elected élites to shape public policies.
Nicholas Tonti- Fillipini spoke about technical challenges to the culture of life, particularly in the light of new developments such as the Human Genome Project. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948), was an attempt to state the objective, moral laws that govern humanity and constituted a denial of moral relativism. In recent decades, what we have witnessed is the selective use and misapplication of the Declaration.
Dr Michael Casey spoke about the need for authority, defined as something greater than ourselves to which we assent, but distinct from coercion, whereby individuals are forced to conform. Authority is thus a positive concept as it enables people to grow and develop. When we, as Christians, choose to obey God, who never forces us to obey Him, we grow as persons and our love for God and neighbour is strengthened.
Mrs Babette Francis, co- ordinator of Endeavour Forum, spoke about the United Nations, the Church and the feminist agenda, referring to her work as a representative of Endeavour Forum at various UN Economic and Social Council Meetings.
A number of small group workshops covered topics such as "The Importance of Fatherhood" and "The Theology of the Body".
The moderator of the Missionaries of God's Love and a leading figure in the Australian Catholic charismatic movement, Fr Ken Barker, argued that we were living in an exciting and dynamic period in the life of the Church. To be effective disciples of Jesus, he said, people must first develop a deep personal relationship with Him, and not merely know about Him. It is the Holy Spirit, rather than eloquent preaching or argumentation that converts people.
This grace of conversion has led many to establish new communities of religious and faithful. Fr Barker challenged those present to be active participants in the new evangelisation that must be centred on Jesus.
Truth, goodness and beauty
Mrs Tracey Rowland spoke about the connection between truth, goodness and beauty. The perfection of these three qualities, together with unity, is to be found in God. Following the ideas of Benedict Groeschel, Mrs Rowland argued that all humans, through the intellect (truth), the will (goodness) and memory (beauty) have an understanding of and a striving for these qualities. The challenge for humans is to integrate these qualities (unity).
Promoting the importance of beauty could occur in areas such as Church architecture, which has sometimes been devoid of a sense of the transcendent, and the liturgy, celebrations of which have sometimes been banal and uninspiring. This is an area where, she argued, the laity can take the lead.
Fr Ephraim Chifley, the Dominican priest based in Adelaide, spoke about Catholic lay action in a society that has become increasingly pagan, while Mrs Kate Cleary, the co- ordinator of the Caroline Chisholm library, spoke on St Thérèse of Lisieux.
Dr Hayden Ramsay, a Melbourne Catholic lecturer in philosophy, covered the theme, "That they may have life", arguing that human beings are more than just matter and greater than animals and plants, having identity, free will and an intellect. He also focused on philosophical arguments for the existence of the soul and its immortality.
This is an edited version of a report that first appeared in the Melbourne Archdiocesan fortnightly, Kairos.