Over the past few weeks, along with Associate Dean Dr Keith Thompson, I have been interviewing prospective students who have applied to study law with us under our Young Achievers Early Offer Program.
The Objects of the University of Notre Dame are very prominent in every room of the university where they are displayed under a simple wooden cross.
a. the provision of university education, within a context of Catholic faith and values; and
b. the provision of an excellent standard of
i. teaching, scholarship and research;
ii. training for the professions; and
iii. pastoral care for its students
We are very conscious of these Objects as they guide everything that we do in the School of Law, Sydney. Prospective students and their parents often ask me to explain what teaching the law “within a context of Catholic faith and values” really means.
It is an important question because this Object fundamentally impacts on our Law degree’s content, delivery and on our approach to students.
Propitiously, just when Notre Dame was being founded in Fremantle 26 years ago, Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical on Catholic universities From The Heart of the Church – Ex Corde Ecclesiae – was published and that letter explains what should be different about a Catholic university.
It is particularly important for the School of Law because, in my view, lawyers are the single most powerful group in Australia. Not only are lawyers advocates before the courts, negotiators, arbitrators, mediators and draftspersons but they are commissioners, judges, heavily over-represented in Australia’s parliaments, and are to be found in leadership positions across the country.
This means that learning what the law is at any particular time is just not enough. Our graduates must be provided with the equipment by which to judge the appropriateness of the laws to be passed, guidance as to the standards by which legislation is to be interpreted and the common law developed and an ethical and philosophical framework for life in the legal profession or other career that they will enter on graduation.
Our aim is for the Catholic context to be evident in everything that we do including in the pastoral care that we provide to our students, in the learning and teaching activities we undertake and the training for the legal profession that we provide.
We seek to be fully aware of the transcendent dignity of every human person in our treatment of each other and of our students. We seek to form thinking graduates who have grappled with difficult moral and ethical issues, who recognise the pervasive influence of the law in Western society as a guide for personal behaviour, graduates who are able to critique and analyse the law and are fully aware of the role that they can play in shaping and influencing it.
Translating these observations into practical terms at the School and in a manner which is also consistent with the other Objects of the University, I encourage all of the school’s staff to do the following:
(i) Consider opportunities within each of their units to talk about issues of relevance to Catholic faith and values where that is appropriate in the context.
(ii) Consider where such opportunities arise speaking on that topic themselves where they feel comfortable in doing so or else considering the appropriateness of a fellow staff member speaking to the topic.
(iii) Consider appropriate opportunities for appropriate volunteering and fundraising activities and promoting them to students.
By taking steps such as these, we want to encourage our students not only to think and to form opinions but also to participate in our society both as students and when they leave us as graduates.
Dr Michael Quinlan is dean of law at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney.