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 senior executive staff.


Ethically, senior university leadership has responsibility for the promotion of knowledge and the search for meaning in individual lives and in society. It pursues these goals through obligations of just access, respect for consciences, wise planning and open decision-making, impartiality in the search for knowledge, and so on.

Masterclass 1.

In a Catholic university the Vice-Chancellor and senior colleagues also have certain institutional responsibilities towards the university as Catholic. Above all, they are responsible for promoting the university as truth-seeking. Of course, universities fulfil many other functions –professional training, public leadership, community engagement etc. But the search for truth comes first, and everything else a Catholic university does gains its validity from that commitment.

“Above all, they are responsible for promoting the university as truth-seeking…”

Institutionally, senior executives also have the duty to maintain Christian inspiration of the entire institution: university witness to the Gospel is not optional, and compromise of our ability to witness is something all executives will take with great seriousness. Naturally, institutional witness does not mean all staff must be Christians or should pretend to be. People form and inform their consciences in highly personal acts, and once formed, conscience should be respected.


The senior executive, continued…

That if they are Catholic, they will consider joining the senior leadership in faithful support of Catholic life and culture at the university; and if they come from other faiths and traditions, they ensure that they can conscientiously respect Catholic life.

‘Respect’ isn’t easy to interpret, but at a minimum it means people contemplating Catholic university life should feel comfortable with the commitment the institution has to the Gospel. They should not feel this a violation of their conscience and should not feel they will have to publicly reject the position of the Church, ridicule it, try to undermine it or undermine those who promote and support it within the academy.

This aspect of Catholic recruitment is both about protecting the consciences of potential employees, whom all would want to feel comfortable and happy with the institutional positions of their employer, and also protecting the institution’s capacity to witness to the faith and tradition that grounds it “from the heart of the Church”. No one wants strict vegetarians to feel forced to work in a butcher’s shop and develop their understanding and support of that trade; this would help neither the ‘Buy Aussie lamb’ campaign nor the seriously formed consciences of animal lovers.

Everyone would be aware of intense social debate over the ‘perennial’ Catholic ethics issues (protection of life from conception to its natural end, the relation of sex to the sacrament of marriage and childbirth, and so on). There should be just as much debate about Catholic ethics issues that don’t make the pages of The Age or the New York Times (truth-telling in the media; everyone’s obligation to share their private property with those in need; corporate duties beyond shareholders; politicians’ obligation to put long-term public good over factional or party interest; and so on).

The point is, in a Catholic university no one is forced to believe anything; every matter can be debated; and all debate should be conducted on the basis of reason and argument, with the understanding that no view whatsoever trumps except through that careful debate – which of its nature, may be a lengthy debate.

But isn’t Ex Corde Ecclesiae already putting one view – the Church’s – above others? In one sense, yes – this is a Catholic university, not a Mormon, Muslim, Baptist or secular one. And so, the purpose, principles, narrative, and accountability is Catholic; not exclusively Catholic – we answer also to the state – but Catholic.

In a deeper sense Ex Corde could not be further from Catholic triumphalism. For key concepts for Catholic university life – truth, fidelity, service – form the framework of academic debate and shared university life that started up in European conversations 1,000 years ago and largely continue around us today. The insistence that truth cannot rationally be denied, that intellectual debate and reasoned argument is our framework, that questions of God, meaning and the supernatural arise in every age and heart, that persons are rational and free and so due respect and service, that there are inviolable moral norms and disagreement over what these are never quite succeeds in overcoming the view that they are. These principles are profoundly Catholic, and yet structural too for university life as we know it in Australia and our neighbours.
Catholic universities welcome all people of good will who enquire into a Catholic framework and tradition and feel they can flourish and fulfil themselves here. The senior leadership maintains the balance between this act of welcome to all and their duty to ensure the institution continues to witness to the Gospel, and whenever required to make a choice will choose for Christ.
Woman with kneeling in church.
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