In 1969, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave what came to be recognised as a prophetic speech. In a radio broadcast titled, ‘What will the Church look like in 2000?’, now republished in the book Faith and the Future (2009), he reflected on the changing nature of the Church, what will likely happen and what the sources of renewal will be.
The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods …
The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.
He went on to say something else that was prescient: ‘Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely.’
In reading Kevin Donnelly’s latest book, Christianity Matters in these Troubled Times (Wilkinson), it is hard to avoid recalling Ratzinger’s words. The book is a collection of essays by prominent public Christians—from Cardinal George Pell to Baptist Minister Rev. Tim Costello—reflecting on the Christian underpinnings of Western society.
The book, in essence, is a call to embrace that ‘wider reality’ Ratzinger spoke about; a call to consider the religious roots that have given life to our central institutions: our democracy, our law, our health and social welfare systems, our schools, our universities and even our arts.
Through a process of wilful amnesia—as Greg Sheridan said, ‘like a patient requesting their medical records and burning them’—the West has found itself in a place without roots. We have achieved technical mastery in so many areas, including medicine, technology and the sciences, but in the midst of this proficiency we have forgotten the most human thing of all: the need for roots; the need for a reality wider and deeper than the present moment.
This is by no means a new thesis, but this book is one in which some of Australia’s sharpest intellects rally together to provide readers with valuable insight into just how many of our roots have been forgotten or lost, and what it might look like for us to recall and recover them.
There are eleven essays in total, written by: Stuart Piggin, Cardinal George Pell, Augusto Zimmermann, Peter Craven, Stephen Chavura, Stephen Elder, Tim Costello, Martyn Iles, Wanda Skowronska, Peter Rosengren and Tess Livingstone.
Here are some highlights.
In 1983, the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—a man who became a prisoner of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and whose Gulag Archipelago brutally undermined the credibility of communism as a workable, moral or desirable reality, argued in his famous Templeton speech:
Atheist teachers in the West are bringing up a younger generation in a spirit of hate for their own society.
Ironically, he said, the freer and more prosperous we are, the more vehement our blind hatred becomes. The realm of education is a significant battleground in this regard.
This book contains a pair of essays on education well worth reading. Stephen Chavura, historian and author, traces the development of universities and their ennobling, Christian vision. He also argues that universities have traded this vision for a utilitarian approach to education, and that there was an intentional program by intellectuals of the New Left—notably Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse and C Wright Mills—to penetrate the universities, turning them into centres of activism.
The answer to this problem, Chavura says, lies not so much in reforming universities as it does in exploring alternatives to them. A sign of hope lies in those often privately funded institutions that are committed to an education in the liberal arts—the ones dedicated to the great books of the past, who are willing to take up the challenge of introducing people to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world,’ as Matthew Arnold once wrote.
Stephen Elder, a leader in Catholic education for many years, also offered his thoughts on ‘The Challenge of Preserving Catholic Education in a Post-Christian Society’. He is frank about what he regards as the present threats: threats to religious freedom and to academic freedom, and threats posed by those desiring the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists.’ But around the world, he notes, parents are starting to take the challenge to the schools, holding them accountable for what is being taught in the curriculum. In order to resist the ideologies encroaching on Australia’s curriculum, he says, parents will need to be switched on and ready to make a ruckus if need be.
Peter Rosengren is editor of The Catholic Weekly in Sydney, with a long career in journalism. His essay is arguably one of the most important, as it deals with the question of Christianity’s underbelly: the sins of the past (and the sexual abuse crisis in particular), which have so tainted its reputation that wrestling with them constitutes a major part of re-embracing our roots.
A courageous honesty is needed, he argues: both to recognise how deep the rot has become in the Church, and to recognise that this rot is not the truth of the Gospel but the very thing Christ came to conquer.
Finally, two others are worthy of note. Augusto Zimmermann, a Professor of Law in Western Australia, provides an excellent overview of the ways in which Christian thought has influenced the development of the Western legal tradition. Whether through the Magna Carta of 1215 or the Bill of Rights of 1689, the separation of powers or the civil rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr, Christianity has undoubtedly left an indelible mark upon our political apparatus.
There is one thing in particular that Christianity has provided to Western law, he says: the idea that law is not its own justification. There exists outside of civil law a natural and eternal law to which it is accountable. This idea is so important because without it, there is no defence against those who seek and exercise authoritarian power.
Finally, in the opening essay, Stuart Piggin, a respected historian of Christianity in Australia, tells the remarkable story of Maria Yellomundee, an Aboriginal girl who became an outstanding success story of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s schooling initiative. She was a girl who voluntarily agreed to be schooled, outsmarted and outperformed all of her European peers, and went on to own property in her own name, get married and establish a family ‘dynasty’—a descendent of which now leads the recognition of country at Macquarie University graduation ceremonies.
If Australian history is to thrive in the future, Piggin argues, then stories like these—the success stories of Aboriginal and European interactions—will need to be told just as much as the darker stories. He believes this will go a long way to ameliorating people’s contempt for their own nation’s history.
In all, this book is short but well worth your time. Despite the calibre of the intellects that have produced it, it never gets too bogged down in academic discourse. Each essay serves as a thoughtful introduction to the topics at hand, with a bit of personality and punch to sweeten the deal.
Hopefully this book can be the source of an ongoing conversation that is much needed in a country that often seeks to evade its religious roots.
Melbourne Catholic12 September 2023