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 learning and teaching staff.

Man walking through a corridor.

Contemporary universities have done a huge amount of work on the concept and practice of teaching. Much of this work was necessary and of real benefit to both students and teachers.

There can be risks that some aspects of teaching and the value associated with it are lost as focus and activity crystalise around processes and accountabilities of learning. Part of mitigation here is the question of larger context and vision for teaching, and some of this work already exists. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a vision for the vocation of teaching was set down in 1990. The document calls for excellent teachers to set their teaching within the context of a coherent world vision. This sounds an obvious thing to do, but we can’t take it for granted. In a world dominated by process, methodology and externally driven standards, being reminded that teaching is opening up wisdom concerning some dimension of reality ¬– and so requires positive vision of that reality – is incredibly important.

“…teaching is opening up wisdom concerning some dimension of reality – and so requires positive vision of that reality.”

Possessing a world vision suggests having a unified perspective on the key questions that arise for people generally. It implies a framework within which people frame their questions and build linkages between the answers they offer – form ‘coherence’, as Ex Corde suggests. Vision also offers an intellectual foundation: a position which people stand up for, and stand upon. Already in the document there is the sense that teachers are wisdom-seekers, and they are wisdom-builders who reveal parts of one whole account of reality to their students.

And that account of course isn’t a monolithic or closed vision: for at least in western tradition (including Catholic tradition), part of having an intellectual vision is commitment to rational critique and to evaluating and reevaluating our opinions on the basis of the reasons that support them.

Whether the vision of reality taught is Christian or other, teachers simply introduce a view, and if this is done well, that act of teaching will include not only the view itself but also the tools for critiquing this and other views. Where the teachers are Catholics, St John Paul asks that they witness to the connection between professional competence and Christian wisdom throughout their teaching. Teachers from other traditions are asked simply to show respect for that connection.

This is a powerful teaching philosophy: Christianity is not just one option among others at a Catholic university; yet teaching it involves teaching the tools to critique it and so students have the power and freedom to decide which world vision they will adopt for themselves.

Interdisciplinarity is becoming important in our connected and changing world. Ex Corde makes clear that teachers generally teach through their main discipline base and expertise. But they cannot be unaware that full treatment of any question requires input from multiple disciplines and opens up further questions. There is, in other words, a fusion of disciplines throughout the curriculum of a Catholic university. At Catholic universities, Core Curriculum opportunities can represent that fusion in a particular way. In fact, fusion happens through the teaching of – in particular – philosophy and theology generally, as they harmonise and interrogate the fruits of all disciplines through enquiry into fundamental truth and questions of ultimate meaning.
Faith in the university opens up fresh questions for each discipline, and each discipline will raise its own moral questions to which the Gospel will have something to say. There is a tension here between the demands and obligations of each discipline to cover set curriculum and apply standards mandated by institutions and regulators. Yet that can never be to the exclusion of Christian material from the syllabus. Secular universities regularly do skip Christian positions within studies – from medicine to science to philosophy. Catholic university staff certainly do not themselves have to accept Christian positions, but they do have sufficient respect to include these positions and, as with all views, to give the strongest arguments for each position.

A key concern for teachers will always be their freedom to teach and publish – their academic freedom. The Church has always supported this idea and indeed gone beyond other institutions in explaining the underlying motivation for this idea. We value freedom not just because we enjoy and believe in the experience of being free, but because free intellectual enquiry directs and makes more effective our search for truth and our service of the common good. Thus, we exercise academic freedom ‘’within the confines of truth and the common good”, there being in fact no other ways in which an academic could exercise their freedom.

Thus, we exercise academic freedom ‘’within the confines of truth and the common good”, there being in fact no other ways in which an academic could exercise their freedom.

All universities profess a mission. Catholic universities are generally more expansive in mission than others as they include everything taught elsewhere in the fields of science, humanities and professional subjects but also include material others may exclude: Christian concepts, arguments and theories and cultural dialogue between these and other positions. This can be a fraught position. In some Catholic universities, people will slide from ‘we teach all views, including the Catholic’ to ‘we teach all views, just like everyone else, but tend to exclude the Catholic (just like everyone else).’

A better teaching philosophy for a Catholic university holds ‘the Catholic position is to teach all views, like everyone else, to include the Catholic view, and to subject Church and all other positions equally to rational interrogation.’ This is not to say that the Church’s position is just one view among others in the Catholic university: we have an institutional commitment to witness to Christ and the Gospel. But it is to say that within curriculum and excellent teaching the Church’s position is that we should honestly explore all views, and most obviously the Church’s own, and critique all, equally and sincerely, on the basis of reason.

Woman selecting a book from a book shelf in the Canberra Library.
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