Conference proceedings are not usually known for riveting reading. These, however, are an exception, combining eighteen papers of varying degrees of insight, all of which circle around the key issue of what Australians think about our civilisation and where it might be headed.
There are seventeen papers which have been selected for publication, including in subject matter Church history, the role of Christianity in healing the world, Christology, the concept of cultural Marxism and its fallacies, the gap between present-day culture and Christianity, and how Christianity might better address such issues as euthanasia, same-sex marriage and abortion. Indeed all the issues addressed are of prime if not of burning concern for getting a better perspective on the evolution of Australian and of Western society today.
The intention is to draw attention to our Christian roots and show that the advance of secularism has marginalised the most crucial intellectual-spiritual-historical element in our civilisation. Consequently, the authors are all champions of the recovery of belief, and provoke a thoughtful response for the well-being of the world. The individual essays are bound both to edify and challenge the attentive reader.
So who are these authors and what are their “burning concerns”? They are all conservative Christians, mostly Roman Catholics. “Burning Concern” is an allusion to Pope Pius XI, who, in 1937, issued an encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (that is, “with burning concern”) to the German Church when the Hitler regime was destroying the foundations of a humane and Christian order in the world to impose on society the yoke of the infernal Nazi ideology.
So what do these authors perceive going on in Australian society that arouses their burning concern? It is, as they see it, nothing less than the erosion of awareness in the Christian origins of our civilisation. That is an observation one could safely endorse from whatever corner of ecumenical Christianity one might come. And why is this happening? The answer is because Australia finds itself in thrall to what has been aptly called “sentimental humanism”, that is, a humanism that has lost sight of its Christian roots.
This collection certainly reminds one of what the Anglican priest-historian Dr George Shaw wrote in his edited collection of essays by eminent Australian historians for the Bicentenary, titled 1988 and All That: New Views of Australia’s Past. Shaw coined the phrase, “Australian Sentimental Humanism”, which he formed into the acronym as ASH in the Australian soul, that is humanity (or decency) without rigorous doctrine. In short, the secular mind that now dominates politics and education in this country is guilty of intellectual laziness and dishonesty in failing to acknowledge the essential roots of our culture.
Another Australian scholar animated by the same concerns is none other than Dr Paul Collins, a former Roman Catholic priest, with his monumental work, The Birth of the West (2013). The contributors to the volume introduced here are deeply troubled with the same kind of concern. That should not be surprising because all thoughtful Christian people will have been disturbed by the direction in which our society is turning: that is, humanism without doctrine—in short, sentimentalism without intellectual-spiritual rigour.
Regardless of whether one adopts an agnostic, atheistic-humanist worldview, the fact is that the Judeo-Christian Bible remains the bedrock of our inheritance of the values of human decency. Even if God might be a “delusion” (as Richard Dawkins argues) New Testament ethics still forms the ineradicable base of Western culture. The question is why this should be significant at all, because there were thinkers well before Jesus of Nazareth who advocated the “golden rule” for the well-being of human society. The answer is that the ethics attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, in particular the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), have been sustained in the Church’s liturgy from where it has been passed down though the centuries to our own day.
The thrust of these essays is that Australians would do well to remember that the history of the West, and what we comprehend as “Christendom”, is a combination of Judeo-Greek-Roman heritage as it was absorbed into the Mediterranean world, eventually enveloping northern Europe and the European-occupied overseas territories around the globe. This is undeniable. Out of it was formed our civilisation. And why is that sacrosanct? Because it is unequivocally life-affirming (John 10:10, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly”). It is an affirmation for all humanity, not just the Jews who first heard it. The Christian Gospel as attested to by liberal Roman Catholic theologians such as the late Hans Küng stands up still as the most refined, sensitive and searching source of universal human values. Of course, as an autonomous citizen, one is not compelled to endorse this, but it is recommended as the yardstick for all human behaviour at the personal, family, communal, national and international levels. Küng, being outspokenly anti-authoritarian, recommends an updated form of Catholicism; he does not prescribe or “pontificate”.
This advance in Roman Catholic thinking has not been welcomed universally in the hierarchy, especially in some Australian dioceses. Certain bishops and cardinals past and present have shown little enthusiasm for the spirit of aggiornamento (Pope John XXIII) and even nowadays, for the pronounced liberalism of the present Bishop of Rome, Francis.
The implication here is that Jesus of Nazareth added something new to the “golden rule”; he drew on the prophets of the Old Testament and its nation-building rhetoric to formulate the moral basis of what truly civilised human beings might become. And the core of this is, first, justice and then universal peace, because peace without justice is doomed to collapse into renewed violence.
It is not surprising that the members of the Christopher Dawson Society authored these essays. While this name will not be familiar to many Australians, it is important to recall who and what Dawson was. He was an Englishman (1889–1970) who “swam the Tiber” in a way not dissimilar from many Anglo-Catholics of his era, and submitted to the Roman obedience in 1910. The dominant theme of his literary output was that the “West” was the product of the history of the medieval church, an idea that Paul Collins has most recently developed. In fact, Collins’s work, which advocates an anti-authoritarian form of Catholicism, would not sit comfortably with the conservative Catholic approach that underpins the present collection. So the Australian Christopher Dawson Society advocates a distinctly modified conservative Roman agenda that has, since the further liberalisation of the Vatican under Pope Francis, set them apart in the position of a kind of conservative opposition. This becomes evident through reading their various contributions to the Roman Catholic press in this country, despite their nod to ecumenism. But this should be a sign of encouragement to those of us non-Roman Catholics who have grown up at a time when, worldwide, the Roman Catholic hierarchy insisted on the doctrine extra ecclesiam non salus, meaning outside the Church there is no salvation.
Such extremism has now been consigned to the dung-heap of ultra-montane theological intransigence. Rome has outlived the ethos of the pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958) and has officially (at least) endorsed ecumenism, which means that non-Roman communions are no longer vilified as in the past. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to deny that there is a residual yearning among some Roman Catholics for an authoritarian Church. Old habits of mind are sometimes hard to divest and that is evident in the attitudes of sections of the Roman hierarchy globally.
Roman Catholics who align with the Christopher Dawson Society would have now to be seen as pilgrims who are searching for new modes of “Catholic apologetics” or ways to express and revive the essential Christian values that are so essential for any civilised society. The formerly authoritarian modes are now clearly not going to win converts. Human beings are autonomous and will decide for themselves whether there is any value in keeping alive the memory of Jesus of Nazareth. How they will assert the moral authority of the Gospel in a “world come of age” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) will be crucial. So the ball is in the court of the various hierarchies. The collection of essays in Heart to Heart is a welcome contribution from concerned Christian thinkers who deserve a fair hearing.
Heart to Heart: Thriving in a Post-Christian World
(Proceedings of the Dawson Centre Colloquia 2018–2019)
edited by David Daintree
Christopher Dawson Centre, 2020, 254 pages, $35
John Moses is an Anglican priest. He was formerly head of the Department of History at the University of Queensland, and is currently a Professorial Associate of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra