On Thursday 19 May, Kevin Donnelly AM, one of Australia’s leading conservative voices and senior research fellow at ACU, launched his latest book, Christianity Matters: In These Troubled Times (Wilkinson), with the help of former prime minister Tony Abbott AC. The book is a collection of essays by public intellectuals such as Peter Craven, Augusto Zimmermann, Cardinal George Pell and more, addressing the question of Western society’s religious underpinnings.
Kevin Donnelly is currently a senior research fellow at the PM Glynn Institute, an Australian Catholic University think tank, and has spent much of his life in education. He co-chaired the federal government's National Curriculum Review in 2014 and was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to education in the 2016 Queen’s Birthday honours list. He has worked on education curriculums both nationally and internationally, and is deeply committed to a liberal view of education, grounded in the truth and wisdom of Christian beliefs.
Kevin joined Melbourne Catholic to discuss his latest book, the impetus behind it and some signs of hope for the future of Christianity in Australia.
Donnelly's latest book was born from one of his growing preoccupations: ‘What I’ve been interested in for the last seven or eight years has been the place of Christianity within an increasingly secular society,’ he says. ‘Most people just don’t appreciate how deeply imbued our political and legal systems are with Christianity. It’s the air we breathe, and once it’s lost, it’s too late.’
Growing up, Donnelly’s household was ideologically divided. His father was a communist, a path he followed by joining the Eureka Youth Movement, while his mother was a devout Catholic. Donnelly lived through the ‘youth rebellion’ of the ’60s and ’70s, but in time—especially as he started teaching—he became increasingly convicted on two points: first, that Marxist ideology, despite its passionate and eloquent defenders, never worked in practice; second, that such an ideology was ‘undermining and weakening what I see as a preferable view of education, which is a liberal education within the Catholic tradition.’
In fact, he came to be deeply influenced by the late Sir Roger Scruton, a British philosopher who did more than perhaps anyone to think about what it meant to be ‘conservative’:
I came to realise, as Roger Scruton argued, that the debate now between conservatives and the radical Left isn’t about the free market or economics or socialism; it’s about living in a secular society where our institutions are underpinned by Christianity.
As a result of his gradual philosophical and political evolution, Donnelly decided to get involved in what has come to be known as ‘the culture wars’. ‘My view is that if you don’t get into the public square, if you don’t argue the case, you’ve already lost,’ he says.
Donnelly’s last book, Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March (2021), waded into the territory of free speech. Political correctness, he said, has moved far beyond an imperative to be civil or polite, instead becoming a destructive idea of groupthink and language control.
With this new book, Donnelly wanted to throw himself into the debate over the Christian underpinnings of Western society.
Young people today simply do not understand the way in which Christianity has influenced the principles governing our central institutions, he says, pointing out that they’re likely to learn more about human-caused global warming, diversity and gender issues than about Christianity.
The need for this debate isn’t merely an academic one either, according to Donnelly. The effects of sidelining religion from serious consideration, he says, are clear from the rise in anxiety, depression and self-harm. He points to the fact that in younger age groups (currently ages 15–44), suicide is the leading cause of death:
We now live in a society where there’s no sense of what religion has to offer … You need something more transcendent, more spiritual, more enriching to believe in, to survive that kind of oppression.
Donnelly has had his own experience of this. Some time ago, his son was killed in a hit-and-run accident. His subsequent struggle with depression resulted in a book called Taming the Black Dog (2013), a personal account of his experiences designed to offer hope to anyone struggling with the same thing. Donnelly speaks about how he and his wife were introduced to the English mystic Julian of Norwich, who famously said, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’
There are some people who would dismiss this kind of hope as false or illusory, but Donnelly doesn’t buy that argument. ‘Young people have a sense that they need something spiritual and transcendent to hold onto. They have a thirst for some deeper sense of understanding,’ he says.
If you ignore it or cancel it, pretend it’s not there, then you get into all kinds of trouble.
In the wake of Australia’s response to COVID-19, Donnelly thinks that the culture wars' divides have deepened, as society becomes more polarised:
I think people began to realise that maybe George Orwell got it right, and that one of the dangers we face in Western society is this move towards a more oppressive government regime.
He believes many people left Melbourne precisely because of an oppressive, authoritarian response on the part of the government. Nevertheless, he remains hopeful, taking great inspiration from figures like Pope John Paul II, whose influence in Poland was unquestionably a factor in the loosening of Communism’s iron fist. When the pontiff arrived in Warsaw in 1979, he celebrated a Mass, where he preached:
Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.
After he had spoken, the enormous crowd began chanting: ‘We want God! We want God!’
‘That’s why I keep writing,’ Donnelly says.
One sign of hope for Donnelly is the fact that Christianity is a growing force globally. Not necessarily in Western societies, or even Australia, but as he points out, the trend globally is an upward one. Even in Australia, he sees reason for hope.
Having spent more than eighteen years in Australia’s education systems, public and private, Donnelly has taken to heart the popular aphorism: ‘The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.’ The fight over education is becoming increasingly important, he argues, especially with the introduction of the Safe Schools program and what he views as the ongoing encroachment of gender ideology into the classroom.
But he also identifies some encouraging signs, such as the launch of Hartford College in Sydney, a Catholic boys school that provides a rich and unique liberal arts curriculum for its students, with similar developments in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. ‘People are lighting small fires, which I think is a good thing,’ he says.
This book is another small fire, one stoked by many sharp intellects.
Kevin Donnelly's latest book, "Christianity Matters in these Troubled Times" (2022) can be purchased at Wilkinson or other relevant service providers.
Melbourne Catholic28 November 2023
VMCH28 November 2023