The ACU Ethics Hub is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae with a ‘Masterclass on Any Catholic University’, exploring how various member groups are understood in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In this lesson, Professor Ramsay explores the role of human resources staff.


It is not an original thought, but the mission of any organisation is really in the hands of its human resources. And this is no different at Catholic universities. If you have the right staff and treat staff in the right way, then the mission will be achieved, for good hiring and treatment is half the mission, and the other half will be accomplished by those same good staff. So, what is involved in hiring and treating staff well?

Students descending stairs on campus.

A university is underpinned by a thriving business, but of itself is a body of scholars, students and those who assist them – a body of people. The basic Christian stance towards the person is to love them. Due to the debasement of the act and language of love, we tend to focus at work on respecting persons – but we should remember that to love them is also required.

“As Catholic universities respect persons, they cannot regard staff as mere resources to be used, but as contributors to the work of the university and co-custodians of its success.”

Respect means treating people as having a value different from that of an object; objects are assigned monetary value and can be swapped around for each other or for money. Persons have a value beyond price and are different from things. They cannot be swapped around, traded, used or abused. Persons are an intelligent species and so we regard them not as things but as, hopefully, we regard ourselves.

As Catholic universities respect persons, they cannot regard staff as mere resources to be used, but as contributors to the work of the university and co-custodians of its success. Whether someone is professor or gardener, technician or dean, they have dignity in themselves and they share in the value of the enterprise to which they contribute. This value should influence their work conditions and how others relate to them.

This does not mean that the university only cares for the welfare of individuals. Catholic social teaching is clear that institutions have a common good – consisting in the good of all individuals they serve, teach, partner with – and that common good will sometimes require decisions that hurt individuals, including change and termination. While the principle of respect for persons means that unintentional harm or hurt must be treated sensitively, justly and mitigated where we can, it is not immoral or ‘against mission’ if it is the result of reasonable decisions around the good of the institution, which means ultimately of all those, including staff, who compose the institution.

Human resources continued….

All Catholic institutions can feel burdened in recruitment by questions of candidates’ personal faith. Some positions must be filled by serious Catholics—they are few, for example: president, theologians, chaplaincy or ministry staff. Unprejudiced people will understand that these positions require the understanding and witness of faith if people are to fulfil their job descriptions. With most positions, however, Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s position is that while we hope Catholic staff can support the Catholic nature and work of the university, staff from other traditions are simply asked to respect it.

What does this mean? Rather like respect for persons, it does mean something important. To respect a position or view means not to mock it, ridicule it, not to be publicly hostile towards it, pretend astonishment at it; and more, hopefully, to feel proud of it, comfortable in conscience at taking a salary from it, open to learning more about it. And more by way of respect is required for some positions than for others. Academics should know something about the Catholic intellectual framework; professors and heads of programs should grasp the commitment to the dialogue of faith and reason, engagement; staff should have a firm grasp of Catholic social principles, and so on.

Much of this today is regulated and Catholic universities will of course observe all just regulation. But everyone would expect a university identifying as Catholic to do more by way of good treatment and our common work life. All Christians accept principles of altruism, sacrifice, doing good to enemies, forgiving repeatedly, giving to all in need, making peace and yet expecting persecution. It is a faith that is demanding, morally and materially; something possible because of the huge optimism Christianity has for human nature and human goodness.

Altruism at work means putting the other’s interest ahead of my own when the two conflict. Sacrifice is giving up what I want when others will benefit more than I will do. We are to forgive those who hurt us and do good to those who are ‘out to get us’. Where someone is in real need, they have a right to our surplus. In every meeting and exchange we are to seek peace and not contribute to enmity. And we are to expect from this persecution, not praise. It sounds grim.

And yet at every university I know there are people living this ethic, and where significant numbers do this workplace culture and personal wellbeing will be transformed. For those who come from different religions and traditions which accept a different morality, there is no expectation of course that they will violate their conscience by accepting Christian morality. But as Catholic, the Catholic university is an institution which shares in the Christian obligation to practise this form of common life which puts the other first and accepts hurt rather than causes it.

Where people know they will be treated not only with respect but with these principles of Christian love, they will work well and hard, and will usually end up giving back more than they are given. Above all, where this happens we know the work of the Gospel is being done and so the Catholic university returns to where it belongs: the centre of thought, choice and action that is the heart of the Church.

ACU Strathfield Campus.
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