13 Oct, 2016
The establishment of a public policy institute by a university is not completely unheard of, but the establishment of public policy institute by a Catholic university in Australia is enough of a novelty to require some sort of explanation; especially when the purpose of that institute is to provide the Catholic community with a standing capacity to analyse public policy issues which are of concern not only to the Church and its various services, but to the Australian community more generally.
So why are we doing this? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, it is at the core of our mission as a Catholic university to be at the service of the Church; to support the community which established our predecessor institutions, and in turn ACU, in its contribution to our country as a whole.
The services the Church provides in Australia — in health, education, welfare, social justice, family support, refugee services, aged care — are for everyone, not just Catholics; and even our services in primary and secondary education, which are primarily for Catholic families, are still open to those of other faiths or no faith at all if they want a Catholic education for their children.
ACU itself epitomises this catholicity. The Catholic community in Australia makes up about a quarter of the population, and an incredibly diverse quarter. ACU mirrors this diversity, welcoming students and staff from many different faith traditions and beliefs, as well as from many different communities and backgrounds.
This is the way Catholics do things. We have a frankly religious inspiration and some clear principles that come from this, which drive us to help anyone who needs a hand. We are clear about our beliefs, and we are a community that welcomes everyone.
One of the challenges we face, however, is that how and why we do things are increasingly not well understood. The common understandings that we could once take for granted as part of the social licence for doing what we do as a religious community, serving society at large, are eroding much more rapidly than we realise.
In part, this is because a growing proportion of Australians have little if any contact with religion. In many families you would probably have to go back to great-grandparents to locate the last ongoing involvement of the family with a faith-based community.
At the 2011 census the second largest religious grouping (after Catholics) were those who said they had no religion; 22 per cent of Australians. Among younger people the figure was higher and we can expect it to be higher again when the data from the 2016 census becomes available. Only a quarter of marriages in 2014 were celebrated by a religious celebrant.
Australia is an increasingly secular country, not just by formal religious affiliation but more importantly in the assumptions we work from and the things we accept as part of the obvious. It is no longer obvious to some people, for example, why there needs to be Catholic hospitals or religious schools or faith-based services for those on the margins.
Leave aside those who simply have an unreasoning prejudice against all things religious. Many people with no animus at all simply find it difficult to understand why organised religion (as opposed perhaps to different forms of spirituality) is important in the lives of other people, simply because it has never been part of their experience and they have never much felt (or not yet felt) the need for it themselves.
For some in this group, it is not necessarily obvious (for example) why government should support faith-based organisations to deliver community services, when the government itself or the even the private sector can do so without bringing in the unusual – even “offensive” – beliefs that religious groups hold on some issues.
So, what is not obvious needs to be explained, and what is taken for granted needs to be explored. And it needs to be done in a spirit of openness, confidence and friendship, with urbanity, and not from a siege mentality.
This is why ACU has established the PM Glynn Institute. We want to support the work that the Church and its services provide to the Australian community into the long term, by doing the deep thinking about the bigger picture, the over-the-horizon issues, and the future.
We want to draw on the immense expertise that exists in ACU’s Faculties, Research Institutes and Directorates, and our wider networks, to build a repository of evidence and ideas which will broaden the focus of public policy debate.
This is not an exercise in institutional self-preservation. There are particular challenges that we face, but many of them are part of the larger challenges facing the Australian community as a whole: where does religion fit in secular, democratic societies? What is happening to human rights? Why is there so much anger and disconnect, and what are the sources of hope and confidence that we can draw on to counter it? It is not only Catholics who need to be thinking about these questions.
Patrick McMahon Glynn, one of the drafters of the Australian Constitution, lived in a very different time. Looking down from heaven, he might be bemused to find his name given to an Institute in twenty-first century Australia to take on these sorts of issues. In fact, he is an excellent inspiration for this work. A prolific writer, a painstaking researcher, immensely learned, fearless, urbane; a Catholic, and very much his own man, the future of his country being his main focus.
The Founding Fathers at the constitutional convention were so enthusiastic about acknowledging God in the constitution that when Glynn’s first proposed it they voted it down resoundingly. There is something fondly Australian about this, although the efforts that continue today to vote God out of public life are not quite so charming.
Undeterred Glynn tried again. He made the case on principle; other delegates considered the matter pragmatically (alienating voters, after all, would not secure Federation), and this time it passed resoundingly. In this way, the Commonwealth of Australia began its existence — to quote Glynn’s words from the preamble to the constitution — “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”; as does the PM Glynn Institute today. May it too flourish and prosper.
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