The third Melbourne Catholic Professionals (MCP) luncheon of 2023 took place on Thursday 5 October at the Park Hyatt. Keynote speaker the Hon Justice Susan Crennan AC KC reflected on the positive experience of Catholic education as she was growing up and the opportunities it afforded her in almost 40 years of working in the law, including her time as a Justice of the High Court of Australia.
She noted that her schooling at St Joseph’s in Ballarat under the Sisters of Mercy was quite different from how Catholic education was often portrayed. ‘Outside the Church, they were apprehended as quite sectarian, although this was not particularly apparent at a local level,’ she said.
As she grew up, the world changed significantly, both in the Church and politically. New horizons opened that were previously closed. At one point in her schooling, she said, her father had planned to pull her out at Year 11 because he couldn’t afford to keep her at school any longer. Generous scholarships provided by the Sisters of Mercy kept her in school, however, and after graduation, she studied arts at the University of Melbourne and law at the University of Sydney.
The place of women in her profession also changed. Justice Crennan was the second woman to sit on the High Court of Australia, the first being Justice Mary Gaudron.
‘I think that history has been on the side of women, and they now contribute very visibly as never before to the profession of the law in all its aspects,’ she said.
Justice Crennan was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1979 and joined the Victorian Bar in 1980. She was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1989, later becoming President of the Australian Bar Association. From 1992 to 1997, she served as a Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Australian Human Rights Commission), the peak human rights body in Australia. In 2004, Justice Crennan was appointed as a judge of the Federal Court of Australia. A year later, she was appointed to the High Court of Australia. In 2008, Justice Crennan was appointed a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia.
In her remarks, Justice Crennan reflected briefly on another important figure in the history of Catholic education and the Catholic Church in Melbourne in general, Archbishop Daniel Mannix:
Archbishop Mannix contributed to a strong sense of Irish diaspora, but more importantly he was central to Catholic morale in Melbourne. He radiated high hopes for a future marked by social justice and democratic freedoms. He was particularly committed to the building of Catholic schools, and he emphasised the transformative power of education.
For Justice Crennan, her Catholic faith and her career as a lawyer have coincided in important ways, demonstrating how interdependent the concepts of faith and justice are.
She draws much inspiration from the Scriptures, especially from the Book of Wisdom, which speaks of ‘the way of truth’ and the ‘light of righteousness’—or ‘justice’ in some translations (Wisdom 5:6). Verses like this make it possible to speak ‘of faith and justice in one breath’, she said.
These biblical images also corresponded with her experience of how lawyers must be as professionals.
‘For the law to be authoritative in society, legal certainty must correspond with justice,’ she said. ‘As Aristotle recognised, a sense of justice is a personal attribute, but for lawyers it’s also a professional necessity. Justice is something lawyers must believe in, and justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done.’
This also tallied with Justice Crennan’s understanding of faith, as articulated by St Augustine: ‘Faith is to believe what you do not see, and the reward of that faith is to see what you believe.’
The Melbourne Catholic Professionals (MCP) network creates opportunities for Catholic professional men and women to connect with each other and support the life and mission of the Church in Melbourne. Events hosted by MCP draw people together from a range of different industries to share their faith, listen to exceptional speakers and enjoy a meal together. Previous speakers have included Allan Myers AC KC, Associate Professor Natasha Michael and Dr Edward Simons.
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