Today’s believers will need to fight a vicious form of secularism if they want to pass their faith onto the next generation of Australians, a leading educator has warned.
Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor and president Professor Greg Craven said that the recent battle over school funding was a “classic example” of the war on religion being wrought by aggressive secularists in positions of power.
He said it’s incumbent on the churches to enter into debates about the future of health, welfare and education equipped with the skills and resources to present the truth with integrity, intelligence and professionalism.
“In any fight, even an intellectual fight, if you don’t start to fight back early in the piece you will lose,” Prof Craven told The Catholic Weekly.
Prof Craven discussed his views at the Freedom, Autonomy and Responsibility conference held at the ACU North Sydney campus last week.
He said Catholic leaders, both lay and ecclesial, will need to work together to counter a culture that has moved from benign indifference to religion to outright hostility as seen during the attacks on Catholic school funding.
See related story: Ignorance and prejudice bans chaplains in the ACT
“That was a very vicious battle [and] a much wider argument than equity,” he said.
ACU Adjunct Professor and National Catholic Education Commission member Stephen Elder told The Catholic Weekly faith was the key issue of the present moment.
“The great civil rights issue of our time will revolve around tensions between religious liberty and those who wish to impose a politically correct orthodoxy through the coercive power of the state,” he said.
“In essence, the question is whether the 63 per cent of Australians who identify as Christian will be free to practice their faith traditions openly in the face of hostility from those who deride and deny those beliefs?”
Prof Craven said that during the attacks on funding of Catholic education “there was hostility towards the teaching and preaching of Catholic or Christian theology as such and that’s a great threat to Catholic education.
“In other countries around the world that threat has destroyed Catholic schools.”
He said the advantage of winning the school funding debate could not be underestimated as it let politicians know how many people cared deeply about Catholic schools.
“That’s an enormous advantage because what they understand is losing votes. But if anyone thinks that that’s going to stop the wave of secularists from continually attacking Catholic school funding I think they would be very silly indeed.
“We’re in a good position but we have to fight to retain it.”
Prof Craven said one of the ways forward for the church would be to change the way bishops are trained.
“We have bishops who are wonderfully trained in theology and tremendously pastoral people and they are like battleships going into war without the air cover of media training or policy public speaking and getting sunk.
“We say it’s the bishops’ fault but that’s not reasonable.
“The whole Catholic community has got to get clever about how to support our natural leaders in being able to develop these types of skills in a world where secularism is aggressive.”
The conference was hosted by ACU in collaboration with The Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Institute for Educational Initiatives, University of Notre Dame (US), the Congregation for Catholic Education, and the European Association for Education Law and Policy.
See related story: Archdiocese cool on new confession law
ACU professor of canon law Michele Riondino said that an institution which boasts of having the title of a Catholic university “can never be exempt from addressing challenges, even the most inaccessible, present and future”.
“Failure to do so would betray the ultimate value of a Catholic institution: be at the forefront even in adverse moments.
“Only by embracing this challenging and rewarding demand can we help build a society made up of men and women who are becoming experts in humanity.”
Prof Craven said Catholics have got to face the fact that they “will have to fight for our Catholic schools, to fight for our right to preach and teach and to fight for our right to be a part of public discourse.
“That’s just the way the world is.”
Church leaders, both lay and ecclesical, need to be professional and effective in the running of their mission and persuasive in telling the Church’s story, he said.
“We as a church are most effective when we are absolutely clear about the truth and absolutely urbane in the way we speak it. When we speak the truth in love we are very effective.
“A lot of people out there are not highly secularist agents, they are people of good will watching a debate and trying to understand what the right position is.”