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 research staff.


ACU building interior.

“The tradition values the intrinsic good of knowing and researching, as well as the many other benefits –social, economic, academic, personal – research brings.”

The term ‘research’ has meant many different things over time and means very different things today, even to people inside universities. A Catholic understanding of research will include a number of completely uncontroversial aspects (a scrutiny of reality, systematic study according to a methodology accepted by practitioners, demonstrated discipline expertise). It will also advocate for the view that whatever other value research has, it has an ‘intrinsic’ value. That is, irrespective of whatever good new knowledge can do, advancing knowledge is good for people just because of what people are: they have minds. So, the tradition values the intrinsic good of knowing and researching, as well as the many other benefits – social, economic, academic, personal – research brings.


Research, continued…

Ex Corde teaches that four special characteristics mark research. First, the integration of knowledge. Universities often encourage compartmentalisation, specialisation, expertise, siloes. But even the most excellent work in a narrow research field is aware of its incompleteness. High-quality work in biology cries out for its completion in physics, theology, sociology. Serious health research opens up further questions in ethics, politics, and management systems. Each quality achievement is a fragmentary contribution to its own discipline, and obviously, a yet more fragmentary contribution to the whole project of human knowledge. Reality is a single whole which we study by breaking off fragments, but the scholar’s hope is that the jigsaw can be completed.

As well as the ideal of integrating knowledge, we have the ideal of the interdependence of faith and reason. While disciplines have autonomy over their own principles, methodologies and goals, any truth a researcher discovers will be compatible with the faith. This may sound strange but there is really no alternative. Truth is a unity: we do not have things true ‘in mathematics’ and then a quite different set of things true ‘in faith’. There is simply truth, and each and every truth, including those of faith, is compatible with every other.

In fact, faith opens up research questions discipline-rationality on its own would arguably never raise – in philosophy and theology, but also in our meditations on society in law and business, on innate dignity and ultimate destiny of persons in health, in truth and tradition in education. Faith has a role in research, whether or not the research team and their topics are particularly ‘Catholic’ ones.

Ex Corde points out research also includes an ethical dimension, for research brings knowledge and other benefits to persons, and therefore ethics questions arise about how this is to be done responsibly, honestly and with concern for wellbeing. Research officers and committees include great expertise in the administration of research, but researchers themselves cannot be ignorant of the dimension of human ethics, whatever their discipline.

Finally, research is marked by theological awareness. It might seem weird to say that research in exercise science or accounting standards should be concerned with theology. In fact, questions of ultimate meaning – the purpose of the research and its relation to deep questions of the sense of meaning in life and the purpose of human communities – are never completely absent from good research, any more than the questions of integration, unity and value already mentioned.

Thus research in Catholic universities has a characteristic tendency towards intellectual integration and the search for unity, value and meaning.

Research may be rankings driven but presumably no good researcher is. Serious academics inevitably develop focus on highly precise questions with their own voluminous literature and debate. Yet research dissemination is ultimately for people who will read, consider, digest, comment on and use what they encounter.

At a Catholic university, ‘engagement and impact’ always forms part of the research aim, and well before this was labelled so as a research metric.

We address other people most successfully when we have awareness of a larger context, further purpose, deeper meaning, more probing ethical questions and the overall moral relevance of our contribution to human need. And this is really the dimension of research to which Ex Corde Ecclesiae is drawing our attention.

The document moves next to apply these considerations to teaching, considering in the classroom the role of interdisciplinarity, integration, ethics and questions of meaning. And it is interesting that St John Paul generalises here from research to teaching: research is very much here at the heart of a Catholic university.

One final thought: Catholic universities must be centres of research; indeed, our research should be at least as strong in priority areas as that of secular universities. But more, Catholic universities have research possibilities open to them in areas secular universities generally will not touch. Specific Catholic principles in health, business, education mean that we can invest in distinctive research topics – life and fertility, freedom to incorporate religion in school education, solidarity and the option for the poor in corporate Australia, radical principles of forgiveness, debt relief and the limitations to private property in criminal law, and so on.

In Catholic universities, research is not just about keeping up; it’s about changing the agenda.

Abstract view of an ACU campus building.
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