The Proliferation of Secularism and the Corrosion of Education

They had barely arrived, 200 years ago, when the colony’s first Catholic chaplains, Philip Connolly and John Joseph Therry, set about building a chapel at Hyde Park and a school in Parramatta. The chapel, eventually Australia’s mother church and Sydney’s cathedral, was dedicated to “St Mary Help of Christians”. That title, though an ancient one, had only recently been added to the liturgical calendar. In a mortal struggle for the soul of Europe, the forces of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire had sought to wipe out Catholicism in Europe, closing churches, convents and schools, confiscating property and imprisoning two popes. Having exhorted the faithful to pray the Rosary for the Church’s survival, Pope Pius VII marked his liberation by instituting the Feast of Help of Christians. For Fr Therry to choose this title for patron of our church and country was clearly a loud statement against any version of secularity antithetical to religion.

So, too, the establishment of the first officially sanctioned Catholic school: though it was open to all, not just Catholics, as our schools have been ever since, Therry was concerned to transmit the faith to a new generation in danger of losing its heritage. As settlers spread through the continent, they brought with them their religious and educational aspirations, and by 1839 there were nineteen Catholic schools in New South Wales. But Catholics were on the whole the poorer part of the population and received little external assistance, and so the facilities, teachers and resources left much to be desired.

Meanwhile, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Wesleyans were also starting schools, for they too believed education was a work of the Church and religious instruction best integrated with the rest of education. Anglican schools were privileged in various ways with crown land, capital grants and recurrent funding. Challenging this sectarianism, the Irish-born whig Governor, Richard Bourke, pushed for equal endowments for “the three grande Divisions of Christianity”. Though Catholics represented more than 20 per cent of the population, they continued to receive only 10 per cent of the school funding. Over time the Anglican establishment made its peace with the idea of state schools, as long as church schools were “left without interference”. Many Catholics, however, feared their Protestant and indifferentist assumptions and their potential for proselytising. These fears were confirmed when a state Education Council was appointed with entirely Protestant membership and when school inspection and funding authorities demonstrated repeated bias against Catholic schools.

The editor-proprietor Henry Parkes was colonial secretary during the passage of the Public Schools Act 1866. A strong advocate of state schools, he equivocated on just how “secular” they would be and how much the state would support or interfere with surviving church schools. He promoted a settlement whereby state schools would provide a kind of Anglican-lite “General Religious Education” (including prayers, hymns, Scripture and history) and allow some “Special Religious Education” (SRE) provided by visiting denominational clerics; church schools would still be permitted and to some extent funded, but the state would assume a greater regulatory role. For Parkes “secular” meant non-denominational or neutral; but for others it meant agnostic or even atheist. Cultural historian Christopher Dawson has argued that state schooling was the single most powerful weapon of enlightenment liberalism in reshaping modernity—a rare matter upon which radical secularists and anti-secularists agreed!

Doctrinaire secularism was on the rise amongst Australia’s ruling class. Though Governor Fitzroy thought a university modelled upon Oxford would serve “the better advancement of religion and morality” as much as “the promotion of useful knowledge”, the University of Sydney was self-consciously non-religious from the beginning. Archbishop John Bede Polding immediately set up St John’s College so Catholics would not miss the opportunity of a university education but also so they could be formed in what we would call today “a safe space”. (In the next century Kathleen Burrow would be a pioneer in creating such opportunities for Catholic women.) Polding’s successor, Roger Vaughan, lived in St John’s College through his time as archbishop, and viewed Catholic education as the bulwark against secularisation.

Henry Parkes was Premier by the time of the passage of the Public Instruction Act 1880. Though New South Wales was more tolerant of religion in schools than Victoria and Queensland, and continued to grant a “right of entry” for denominational SRE teachers, the state now took formal command of the curriculum and discontinued state aid to church schools for a century. With the future of Catholic schools very much in jeopardy, the New South Wales bishops issued a pastoral letter in June 1879 with some colourful rhetoric from Vaughan, insisting that true education requires a doctrinal and moral element. If children are denied this, they said:

Their faith is visibly enfeebled, not to allude to their morality: their manners are rough and irreverent: they have little sense of respect and gentleness: they have no attraction for prayer or for the Sacraments … Our clergy look on the future of such wild, uncurbed children with grave misgivings.

“Irreligious” schools would stud the colony with indifferentists and infidels, reduce it to barbarism, and be “absolute peril to religion”. Denying state aid to Catholic schools was also a grave injustice to Catholic taxpayers and families. Priests were directed to preach against these evils and advised not to absolve “such parents as are willing to expose their children’s souls to the blighting influences of an alien creed or secularist system”. Vaughan issued a rolling series of pastorals and orations expanding on these themes. He quoted the newly created Cardinal Newman on “the great apostacy” that would “block out all religion”, “throw off Christianity” in particular, and “substitute a universal and thoroughly secular education” for the authority of the Church. State schools, Vaughan warned, would be “seed-plots of future immorality, infidelity, and lawlessness”.

With this campaign the number of Catholic schools doubled in the 1870s and 1880s, and by 1883 four out of five Sydney Catholic children were enrolled. Gathered in Plenary Council in 1885, the Australasian bishops declared their common determination to give families in every town and suburb the choice of a Catholic school. That was made possible by the arrival by that time of Charity, Mercy, Presentation, Dominican, Loreto, Brigidine and OLSH sisters, Christian, Marist and Patrician brothers, and Benedictine and Jesuit fathers, as well as home-grown Good Sams and Josephites; more orders came in the following decades. With meagre resources, religious built and ran most Catholic schools for more than a century, with the help of lay staff, some of the calibre of Kathleen Burrow. Catholics seethed at the injustice of having to pay full taxes while being denied access to education funds. Yet even without them, they built the world’s most comprehensive system of Catholic schools relative to population, out of solicitude for their children and in response to the threat of secularisation.

After the Second World War, Catholic education faced new challenges due to large numbers of baby-boom and migrant children, population shifts from rural centres, the rise of new suburbs, and the decline in religious vocations. There were as many as eighty students in a class in third-rate facilities. When in 1962 the Canberra-Goulburn diocese found itself unable to comply with directions to improve toilet facilities in its Goulburn school, Bishop John Cullinane famously instructed families to shift their children to the state school. Unable to accommodate them and facing a major public reaction, Prime Minister Menzies re-introduced some state aid for church schools. This was amplified in the following decades under the Whitlam, Howard, Gillard and Morrison governments. Not only did this correct a historic injustice towards Catholic families, it allowed their schools to aspire to first-rate facilities, teacher training, pedagogy and curricula. Now, after two centuries, Catholic education serves over a million students at a time—an enormous contribution!

But it was not uncontested. The “Council for the Defence of Government Schools” opposed state funding of church schools and pressed a much more radical secularism in education; though they lost the famous DOGS case in 1981, moves to cut Catholic school funding recurred from time to time, most recently under the Turnbull-Birmingham government. Parts of the educational bureaucracies, teachers’ unions and media remain unrelentingly hostile to Catholic education. So each generation must make the case afresh for social support for these schools. By the late twentieth century, a century after establishment Christians had acquiesced in the forfeit of state aid to church schools, evangelicals came to see that state schools, far from being essentially Christian, were often seriously secular, and began building their own network of low-fee “Christian schools” modelled on the Catholic ones. That church schools in Australia were conceived, in significant part, as a response to secularisation is an important part of their story; but it would be naive to imagine that they have been immune to secularising trends themselves.


Challenge: competing secularities

For the first 150 years or so Catholic education in Australia was self-consciously a response to secularisation; in the following fifty years it was as often infected by it as converting or preventing it. But there are many competing secularities. In some parts of the world it’s said with respect to church and state that “ne’er the twain shall meet”: religion must be kept out of the public square. In other places religious institutions dictate terms to government and society, even to non-believers. Some countries, such as the US, mix both extremes.

The Australian take on these things has been to distinguish church and state, recognise that each has its own sphere of activity, goals, methods and actors, and seek as far as possible to “live and let live”. This disinclines Australians to radical ideological divides and allows that God and Caesar need not be enemies: mostly they leave each other well enough alone; where they intersect, they will sometimes be rivals for people’s loyalty; but often they will find ways to collaborate to their mutual advantage. This Australian live-and-let-live, co-operate-when-you-can version of church–state relations has underpinned Catholic schooling in recent decades: the Catholic community puts in most of the cost of land and buildings, the Commonwealth contributes the salaries, and the parents and states put in the rest. Church schools teach the same curriculum as other schools, if sometimes with a particular accent, as well as their own spiritual curriculum, with which the state does not interfere. It mostly seems to work well, even if, as I said at the beginning, every generation must make the case for this anew and the relationship necessarily evolves over time.

In her history of free, compulsory and supposedly secular education in Australia, Catherine Byrne bemoans the all-too-friendly relationship between church and state in New South Wales, which she thinks has led to a faux secularity. She insists that any genuine secularity in education requires state control in place of “clerical influence”, teaching based on sound rationalist principles and eschewing all religious doctrine, and an inclusive, agnostic regard for all faiths and none. But her “caffeinated” secularity is only one version of “neutrality”: one that denies religion is a fundamental good of human beings, presumes the perniciousness of clergy and doctrine, and ignores the role of the spiritual in supporting the very respect and care that underpin Western democracies and even secular tolerance.

Probably the greatest contemporary authority on the secular is the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his magnum opus, A Secular Age. By his account religion has been retreating from the public square on-and-off for centuries now, and belief and unbelief have become rival accounts of reason, nature, community and happiness. Whereas in the “enchanted” world of pre-modernity people’s self-concepts, communities and cosmologies assumed God’s active presence, belief in God has become difficult for many in the progressively disenchanted scientific age.

Of course, Christianity has itself been responsible for some secularisation. Other civilisations put sacred and profane power in the hands of the same people and identified their interests; religious leaders and texts controlled civil life. Christianity insisted, however, that some things be rendered unto Caesar and some to God, as Jesus put it, or that there is a city of God and a city of man, as Augustine put it, even if the two interpenetrate and we bring the one Christian conscience to both. It was upon these ancient and medieval reconciliations of the transcendent and secular that liberal democracies were ultimately built. But that ancient compact had already begun to unravel, on Taylor’s account, in the Renaissance and Reformation. Here were opened the gates for a godless humanism which disembeds individuals from society, society from the cosmos, and the cosmos from God and which has spread from elites to whole populations.

Thus while there remain many fragments of the old enchanted order with its sense of divine grace, providence, mystery and hierarchies, there is a new epistemic order in which individuals acquire knowledge empirically with the aid of “disengaged reason” and a “modern moral order” in which each self is subject only to itself and collaborates with others only when mutually beneficial. Contemporary humanity is marked by “expressive individualism” but there is a feeling of malaise, loss, meaninglessness. As a result of certain key influencers of the past two centuries, the materialist view is now regarded as adult, the spiritual as childish; following reason, sustaining life, and maximising production and consumption are all that matter now, however unsatisfying that is. In this world there are no more angels and saints, martyrs or heroes; bibles and popes have no magisterium; there is mimesis no longer of the Christian story in art, architecture, literature and music; and if the old social and cosmic imaginaries have been displaced, the new ones “fail to touch the bottom of anywhere”.

Here in Australia we have certainly experienced the social and cultural shifts identified by Taylor and others. Added to continuing secularisation, the child sexual abuse crisis helped magnify disillusionment with institutional religion and accelerate disaffiliation and disconnection. Various ideologies and interests now coincide to marginalise Christians: we might consider the recent New South Wales government decision to exclude faith providers from cemeteries and “nationalise” the Catholic Cemeteries Trust; or the Bill before the Queensland parliament requiring Catholic facilities to allow others to provide euthanasia on their premises! For all its talk of tolerance, post-liberal secularism is all-encompassing, and ultimately intolerant of both religion and liberalism also. Its influence upon the unsuspecting has left many in a kind of spiritual desert with no moral compass and no one to accompany them through their struggles.

The corrosive effects of secularisation upon the Catholic DNA are evident in our institutions: many RE teachers no longer practise the religion themselves and are unacquainted or out of sorts with substantial parts of the doctrine and morals they are charged with teaching; an increasing proportion of students and their families are not even nominally Catholic or Christian but “nones”; others, though officially “Catholic”, have so little connection with Church outside school that when we draw them to Mass they are in unfamiliar territory, unsure of how to comport themselves, respond, or participate in treasured prayers and hymns.

Nonetheless, Christianity is remarkably resilient and secularisation has not moved uniformly in the direction of the diminishment of religion. Here Taylor joins Peter Berger and Rodney Stark in rejecting “secularisation theory”—the thesis that as individuals and communities modernise religion automatically declines. Nonetheless, an individualism that equates to doing your own thing, being non-judgmental, and being “spiritual” rather than religious, has been deeply corrosive to the Catholic DNA. Institutions (such as religious charities) can look big and strong but be mere shells of their former selves, having lost their founding inspiration and sense of mission; spiritual practices (such as rites of passage, meditation and pilgrimage) can likewise survive for a time as penumbra of the old religion. But religious institutions and practices can also be renewed: Taylor points to examples of Christians adapting to modernity, responding to and even rivalling unbelief. We are “just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee”.

Response: Cultivating sacred memory and imagination

Reflecting on the slide in American culture, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once predicted that he would die in bed, his successor as archbishop die in prison, and his successor die a martyr in the public square. (Since Cardinal Clancy died in bed, and Cardinal Pell went wrongly to jail, I can only presume a grisly end is in store for me!) But often missed is the fourth part of George’s prophecy: that the bishop who follows after these three will pick up the shards of a ruined society and help slowly rebuild civilisation, as the Church has often done before.

In the last section of his very rich work, Charles Taylor proposes a moral space with a horizontal dimension that gives full scope to human rights and flourishing, and a vertical dimension that aspires to wholeness and transcendence, responds with love and forgiveness, and resigns itself to trust, self-sacrifice and death in hope of the beyond. In such a space people of faith may yet survive, even thrive. Taylor concludes that “Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief … The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured.” Recent spiritual conversions or “epiphanic” experiences of some Catholic artists and writers signpost the path of beauty to God and to a moral-spiritual life amidst the “secular wasteland”.

How, then, might schools resist kinds of secularisation that are corrosive to Catholic identity and mission, while pursuing other proper goals? How might they pick up the shards of our past and contribute to spiritual and civilisational rebuilding? Instead of addressing the politics of inclusion or exclusion of faith in the public square, or intellectual arguments for and against particular secularities, I will focus on an aspect of secularisation to which Pope Benedict XVI drew particular attention: its eviscerating effect on memory, imagination and will, and its tendency to immunise people against the spiritual, often by injecting them with weak doses of a dead spirituality, “Christianity lite”. Our Catholic faith is, however, incarnational, sensual, sacramental, liturgical, “full-cream Christianity”. It is more tangible than doctrines and curriculum, and more spiritual than social justice and service—sacred as all these are.

Hoc facite in meam commemorationem: do this in memory of me.52 In many ways our world has amnesia. Ask people to put Martin Luther King, Aristotle, Martin Luther and Aristotle Onassis in chronological order and many would have no idea. A woman once asked if I could instruct her for reception into the Catholic Church: her reason was that she needed a tradition, history or genealogy she could rely on, be part of, be at home in. Some people think memories and history are a constraint on creativity but, as she appreciated, memory as much as present perceptions feeds imagination. Those without a sense of history are not only doomed to repeat the worst of the past: they live in the present rootless and with no well-founded identity. People with amnesia are not freer, they are more constrained! Those with a good memory—of history and geography, arts and sciences, music and poetry, philosophy and theology, leisure and travel—as well as a good imagination, have the best minds, for they can draw on what was, and is, and is to come, for being and doing here and now.

One of the great challenges for maintaining a Catholic culture in our schools is the recovery of sacred memory. The hermeneutic of rupture, with its lazy talk of pre- and post-Vatican II, gives the impression that people lived in darkness until the invention of goodness in the 1960s. Now I, for one, was invented in the 1960s and I count the Council and its popes great graces to our Church. But they did not simply happen, like a big bang. They were part of a long Catholic tradition which is in continuity with the Church and the teaching of the apostles and the “faith of our mothers” passed on to every generation, for living and loving, developing and communicating. If the idea of traditioning —passing the baton on in the faith relay race—is at the heart of the Catholic conception of revelation and education, then we must recover for our schools a sense of sacred history and ecclesial tradition to feed the young memory and imagination.

That is more difficult in an Australia that has turned its back on the humanities, both at a tertiary level and more recently in schools. It is intellectually and culturally impoverishing. But it is also highly problematic for Catholics because so much of our faith is carried not by creeds and catechisms so much as by art, music, literature and the rest. Where secularisation occasions an intellectual and spiritual narrowing, the liberal arts challenge us and convey us beyond ourselves and our limited experience, enriching the present and offering hope for the future.

Anyone who thinks things couldn’t be worse or that no one could get through this dark time the better for it, lacks imagination or a good library. The liberal arts as imagination food allow us to piggy-back on other people’s memories and imaginations, inspiration and civilisation.

Through art, poetry or music we can experience a sort of transport, shock or thrill that intimates something greater, deeper, sublime. This sense of more enlarges the soul. Some artistic expressions, Pope Benedict said, are true roads to God, the Supreme Beauty, and help us to grow in our relationship with Him in prayer. Back in 2002 he gave a philosophical reflection upon beauty in Plato, Augustine and von Balthasar, among others. He went on to say:

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and … opens our eyes … For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other and spontaneously said together: “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.”

When asked what to do about personal suffering and non-clinical depression, that most commonsensical of theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, suggests having a good cry, getting lots of sleep, keeping company with sympathetic friends, having a warm bath, reading something true or contemplating something beautiful, or any other form of licit fun. Contemplating the true and beautiful helps. G.K. Chesterton once mischievously pointed out that people have been converted by almost everything that happens in Church—the sound of bells, smell of incense, rustle of vestments, devotion of the people—but never by the sermon! While this may not do justice to preachers, Chesterton’s point was that there are things more deeply affecting than words. We might consider in the school context the crucial place of a sacred visual and musical culture, of various experiences of encounter with Christ such as eucharistic adoration, pilgrimages, retreats, immersions and festivals, of rhythmic prayers like the Rosary and Angelus, each whetting the spiritual appetite, communicating the ineffable, and persuading the rationalistically resistant.

None of which is to condone a sentimentalist or uncritical faith. Without rational thought and spoken discourse, even the most beautiful art can be little more that titillation. Likewise mystical or highly emotional experiences demand interrogation and articulation as we sift and inform our faith. Even as we emphasise the via pulchritudinis in some contexts, we should never underestimate the power of words and thoughts imaginatively employed (the via veritatis) which, when combined with lived witness and divine grace, are like magnets to Christ.

Catholic schools have achieved a great deal for children in spiritual formation (how to pray and worship) and in catechetical information (about what the Church teaches). We could give many examples of the “value adding” of the Catholic school in terms of appreciation and exploration of the spiritual dimension of life, pastoral care, moral values, youth ministry and more. But do we really appreciate the unique opportunity of having over a million students in our Catholic pre-schools, schools and tertiary institutions? Does anyone imagine we’ve exhausted the potential of the Catholic school in Australia in evangelisation, catechesis and religious education? Have we integrated faith into the non-RE disciplines or is it all put into the RE layer of icing on an otherwise secular academic cake, which people take or leave? Are we feeding our students’ imaginations and memories with faith-imbued liberal arts and sciences, to underpin their faith and nourish their souls in the years ahead? Have we done all we can to ensure that they emerge as well-formed and informed people of faith, saints for our times, each in their own way?


Long after our founding fathers and mothers made Catholic schooling the Church’s principal response to Australian secularity, St John Paul II said that “the educational sector occupies a place of honour” in the new evangelisation. His successor agreed that Catholic schools are “an essential resource for the new evangelisation” when they maintain “their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel”. Providing young people with a sound faith education was in Benedict’s view the most urgent internal challenge faced by the Church today. Pope Francis has echoed this, saying education is “key, key, key” to evangelisation. Sounding like Archbishop Vaughan in his insistence upon the integration of Christian doctrine and secular knowledge, the Holy Father said:

Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture, even in those countries where hostile situations challenge us to greater creativity in our search for suitable methods.

Contemporary secular culture is in some ways as inhospitable to Catholic faith as communist or Muslim-majority cultures, and thus every bit as much in need of evangelical creativity. We must counteract secularity’s immunisation of our children against faith, awakening in them an appetite for God, and helping them find answers to their deepest longings. This may require even greater intentionality than it did in 1821, and the conscious reworking of strategies, pedagogy and curriculums.

Christ came that we might have life, life to the full (John 10:10). My school motto was “Quantum potes, tantum aude” —as much as you can do, that much dare to do—a pretty good aspiration, and not just because it comes from Aquinas. We want every young person to dare to do. We seek to extend them intellectually, never accepting that they are doomed to mediocrity, never gaming the system for ATAR over excellence, never focusing merely on “job readiness”. We seek to stretch them spiritually, feeding their minds, hearts and souls with the richness of our Catholic tradition, hopefully giving them the wherewithal for human and spiritual flourishing in the decades beyond school. What an exciting challenge!

Archbishop Anthony Fisher has been the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney since 2014.



References and further reading:


Linda Monks, “Philip Conolly (1786-1839),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1 (Melbourne University Press, 1966).

John Eddy, “John Joseph Therry (1790-1864),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2 (Melbourne University Press, 1967); Eris O’Brien, Life and Letters of Archpriest John Joseph Therry, 2 vols (Sydney, 1922); John McSweeney, A Meddling Priest: John Joseph Therry (Sydney: St Pauls Publications, 2000/2020).

On the early history of the Catholic Church in Australia see: Patrick Cardinal Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Sydney: Frank, Coffee & Co, 1895); Eris O’Brien, The Dawn of Catholicism in Australia, 2 vols (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1928); John Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1959); Patrick O’Farrell, The Catholic Church and Community: An Australian History (University of NSW Press, 1977/1985/1992); John Molony, The Roman Mould of the Australian Catholic Church (Melbourne University Press, 1969).

It was already operational by January 1821, with 31 pupils and Mr George Morley (or Marley) their teacher. On the history of Catholic education in Australia see: Australian Catholic Bishops, 200 Years Young: A Letter of the Bishops of Australia to the Leaders, Staff, Students and Families of Catholic Education in Australia (2020); Anne Benjamin and Seamus O’Grady (eds), Not Forgotten: Australian Catholic Educators 1820 to 2020, 1 (Coventry Press, 2020); Jennifer Buckingham, The Rise of Religious Schools in Australia (Centre for Independent Studies, 2010); Brian Sweeney, Bishop Matthew Quinn and the Development of Catholic Education in New South Wales 1865-1885 (Catholic Diocese of Bathurst, 2016);

Bede Nairn, ‘John Bede Polding (1794-1877),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2 (Melbourne University Press, 1967). Until large numbers of religious arrived, lay people staffed these Catholic parish schools, often in a single room, with boys and girls or different levels separated by a curtain. Every Friday afternoon the hall would be then be cleared for Sunday Mass if there were not a separate church. When people today say that for many young people “school is church”, we might recall that that used literally to be the case for many! Eventually certified teachers in registered Catholic schools were paid modest salaries by the government, and crown land provided for some church schools.

See Sweeney, Quinn, pp. 143-53.

On the Anglican privilege in the early settlement see: Catherine Byrne, “Free, compulsory and (not) secular: The Failed idea in Australian education,” Journal of Religious History 37(1) (2012), 20-38, at pp. 25-27. On the history of education (including secular education) in Australia see: A.G. Austin, Australian Education 1788-1900 (Melbourne: Pitman, 1961); Alan Barcan, A Short History of Education in New South Wales (Sydney: Martindale Press, 1965); Ronald Fogarty, Catholic Education in Australia 1806-1950, 2 vols (Melbourne University Press, 1959); J. S. Gregory, Church and State (Melbourne: Cassell, 1973); Damon Mayrl, “Administering secularization: Religious education in New South Wales since 1960,” European Journal of Sociology 52(1) 111-142; Thomas O’Donoghue, Upholding the Faith: The Process of Education in Catholic Schools in Australia 1922-1965 (Peter Lang, 2001); Wendy Relton, “The failure of the dual system of education in New South Wales,” Australian Journal of Education 6(2) (June 1962)133-42 and “The defeat of denominationalism in NSW state education,” Australian Journal of Education 7(2) (June 1963) 122-29.

Hazel King, “Sir Richard Bourke (1777-1855),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1 (Melbourne University Press, 1966);

Byrne, “Free, compulsory and (not) secular,” pp. 25-26.

Lucy Turnbull, “Henry Parkes,” Dictionary of Sydney (2008)

Thus from 1848 there was a dual system of ‘public’ schools under the Board of National Education, and ‘private’ (mostly Catholic) schools under the Denominational School Board: Byrne, “Free, compulsory and (not) secular,” p. 26.

See the examples in Sweeney, Quinn, 139-61.

Stephen Dando-Collins, Sir Henry Parkes, the Australian Colossus (Sydney: Knopf, 2013); A. W. Martin, “Sir Henry Parkes (1815-96),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 5 (Melbourne University Press, 1974) and Henry Parkes: A Biography (Melbourne University Press, 1980); Robert Travers, The Grand Old Man of Australian Politics: The Life and Times of Sir Henry Parkes (Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1992).

On Parkes’ positions see: Byrne, “Free, compulsory and (not) secular,” 27-35; D. Grundy, ‘Secular, Compulsory and Free’: The Education Act of 1972: Second Century in Australian Education (Melbourne University Press, 1972).

Byrne, “Free, compulsory and (not) secular,” p. 31; Relton, “The failure of the dual system of education” and “The defeat of denominationalism”.

Christopher Dawson, “The challenge of secularism,” Catholic World (1956) of-secularism.html: “Where the whole educational system has been dominated by a consciously anti-religious ideology, as in the Communist countries, the plight of Christianity is desperate… Here however the totalitarian state is only completing the work that the liberal state began, for already in the nineteenth century the secularization of education and the exclusion of positive Christian teaching from the school formed an essential part of the program of almost all the progressive, liberal and socialist parties everywhere. Unfortunately, while universal secular education is an infallible instrument for the secularization of culture, the existence of a free system of religious primary education is not sufficient to produce a Christian culture. We know only too well how little effect the Catholic school has on modern secular culture and how easily the latter can assimilate and absorb the products of our educational system. The modern Leviathan is such a formidable monster that he can swallow religious schools whole without suffering from indigestion.” See also Adam Schwartz, “Confronting the ‘Totalitarian Anti-Christ’: Christopher Dawson and totalitarianism,” Catholic Historical Review 89(3) (July 2003), 464-88.

The University of Sydney was founded in 1850, granted a royal charter in 1858, operated first out of what is now Sydney Grammar School, and started building in Camperdown from 1859. It was determined that there would be no religious test on admission; no theology department; not even an aisle down the middle of the Great Hall lest it look too much like a church! See Kenneth Cable, Clifford Turney & Ursula Bygott, Australia’s First: A Pictorial History of the University of Sydney 1859-1990 (University of Sydney, 1990); G.L. Fischer, The University of Sydney 1850-1975 (University of Sydney, 1975); Julia Horne, ‘Political machinations and sectarian intrigue in the making of Sydney university,” Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 36 (2015) 4-15; David Lawton and Jeremy Steele, Futurity’s Folly: The Great Hall of the University of Sydney (University of Sydney, 1981); “Founding of Sydney University,” National Museum Australia university#:~:text=The%20University%20of%20Sydney%20was,the%20world%20to%20do%20so

Nairn, “Polding”; Francis O’Donoghue, The Bishop of Botany Bay: The Life of John Bede Polding, Australia’s First Catholic Archbishop (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1982); H.N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, 2 vols (London, 1911).

History of St John’s College within the University of Sydney

Birt, Benedictine Pioneers; E. Cahill, “Roger William Bede Vaughan (1834-1883),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 6 (Melbourne University Press, 1976).

Byrne, “Free, compulsory and (not) secular,” pp. 31-34.

Pastoral Letter on Catholic Education of the Archbishop and Bishops exercising jurisdiction in New South Wales (Sydney, 1879), reprinted in Roger Bede Vaughan, Pastorals and Speeches on Education (Sydney: Edward Flanagan, 1880), p. 13.

Vaughan, Pastorals, pp. 3,4,8.

Vaughan, On Education, 3,16-17.

Archbishop Vaughan, Catholic Education No. I: Pastoral Letter to the Clergy and Laity of the Archdiocese of Sydney (Sydney, 1879), reprinted in Vaughan,

Pastorals, p. 5.

Archbishop Vaughan, Catholic Education No. V: Pastoral Letter to the Clergy and Laity of the Archdiocese of Sydney (Sydney, 1879), reprinted in Vaughan,

Pastorals, p. 12.

12,500 of Sydney’s 15,200 known Catholic children.

John Cullinane was a Sydney priest appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn in 1959, and then an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1967 where he served until 1974.

On the Goulburn strike: Henry Albinski, The Australian Labor Party and the Aid to Parochial Schools Controversy (Pennsylvania State University, 1966); Edmund Campion, “Achieving state aid: Arthur Rolfe,” Madonna, Jan-Feb 2012; Michael Hogan, The Catholic Campaign for State Aid: A Study of a Pressure Group Campaign in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory 1950-1972 (Sydney: Catholic Theological Faculty, 1978) and Public versus Private Schools: Funding and Directions in Australia (Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 1984); Emma Macdonald, “The genesis of state aid,” Canberra Times 14 July 2012; John Warhurst, “Fifty years since the Goulburn Strike: Catholics and education politics,” Eureka Street 9 July 2012.

So in the two centuries since the beginning of Catholic education in Australia, it has grown to the point that it now educates thousands of pre-schoolers in Church- sponsored early learning centres; 770,000 primary and secondary school students, in more than 1750 schools, with nearly 100,000 staff; 200,000 state school children offered SRE in those schools or parishes by 6,000 catechists; around 50,000 post-schoolers enrolled in our two Catholic universities with their several campuses and our other tertiary colleges; as well as students at state universities assisted by the Catholic chaplaincies or residential colleges. Altogether we serve over a million students at any one time from womb to tomb – or at least from ‘P to T’, pre-school to tertiary. That is an extraordinary achievement by world standards, but especially in a society that has often been so self-consciously ‘secular’.

Attorney-General of Victoria; ex rel. Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2, (1981) 146 CLR 559.

Jordan Baker, “Things have changed since the government last cut funding to Catholic schools,” Sydney Morning Herald 3 August 2018; John Ferguson, “Simon Birmingham is copping flak over funding for Catholic schools” The weekend Australian, 14 July 2018; Samantha Maiden, “How the Catholic schools sector outplayed the Coalition,” The Guardian 6 November 2018 etc.

See James Arthur, “Secularisation, secularism and Catholic education: understanding the challenges,” International Studies in Catholic Education 1(2) (2009) 228- 239.

Byrne, “Free, compulsory and (not) secular,” pp. 21-25.

Charles Taylor, The Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), Introduction. Beyond Taylor there is a whole literature on secularity and secularism: e.g. Hunter Baker, The End of Secularism (Crossway, 2009); Joseph Baker and Buster Smith, American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (NYU Press, 2015); Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan Van Antwerpen (eds), Rethinking Secularism (OUP, 2011); Andrew Copson, Secularism: Politics, Religion and Freedom (OUP Very Short Introductions, 2017); Terence Cuneo (ed), Religion in the Liberal Polity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005); Michael Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2008); Collin Hansen, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor (Gospel Coalition, 2017); Thomas Howard, Chance of Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism (2nd edn., Ignatius, 2018); Peter Kurti, The Tyranny of Tolerance: Threats to Religious Liberty in Australia (Connor Court, 2017); Pierre Manent and Ralph Hancock, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge (St Augustine’s Press, 2016); David Martin, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Ashgate, 2005); Graeme Smith, A Short History of Secularism (London: Tauris, 2008); James Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans, 2014); and Michael Warner and Jonathan Van Antwerpen (eds), Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Mt 22:21; St Augustine, The City of God.

In The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life (Prometheus Books, 2008) Austin Dacey, a self-confessed secularist, laments the marginalisation of religion in contemporary social discourse because of its crucial role in underpinning the secular liberal tradition as well as being its foil. Unbelievers like himself, he argues, benefit from encountering beliefs different from their own and are inspired by the Christian determination to secure a rationally informed and compassionate conscience.

Taylor, The Secular Age, Part I.

Taylor, The Secular Age, pp. 13908, 152, p. 294; see also his Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1989).

Taylor, The Secular Age, Part III.

Taylor, The Secular Age, p. 325.

Pallavi Singhal, “Religion in decline in Australian schools,” Sydney Morning Herald 12 August 2018 australian-schools-20180806-p4zvtb.html

Taylor, The Secular Age, Part IV.

See Peter Berger, “Secularization falsified”, First Things February 2008 and Rodney Stark, “Secularization R.I.P.”, in William Swatos & Daniel Olson (eds.), The Secularization Debate (Rowan & Littlefield, 2000), pp. 41-66. Stark has written on this matter for over 50 years, including in The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever (ISI Books, 2015).

Taylor, The Secular Age, p. 492 etc.

Taylor, The Secular Age, p. 535.

Tim Drake, “Cardinal George: The myth and reality of ‘I’ll die in my bed’” National Catholic Register blog 24 October 2012 drake/the-myth-and-the-reality-of-ill-die-in-my-bed

Taylor, The Secular Age, Part V, at pp. 640-708.

Taylor, The Secular Age, 727.

See, for example, Matthew Ramage, “Pope Benedict XVI’s theology of beauty and the new evangelization,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, 29 January 2015. He cites Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 129-30; Feast of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 124; Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 373; The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco; Ignatius Press, 2000), 147-48; The Feeling of Things and, the Contemplation of Beauty, 24 August 2002; Truth and Tolerance (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 226; Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone (6 August 2008), Address to a Meeting with Artists, 21 November 2009; Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 13 November 2010.

1Cor 11:23-26 and the Roman canon.

On which see my “Catholic moral tradition,” in Renée Köhler-Ryan (ed.), Living the Catholic Tradition: Philosophical and Theological Considerations (Steubenville: Franciscan University Press, 2019), 109-41.

Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience 31 August 2011

Joseph Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 37. Cited in Anna Krestyn, “The via puchritudinis,” Aleteia 3 May 2013 and in Christopher collins, The Word Made Love: The Dialogical Theology of Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI (Liturgical Press, 2013), p. 4. So, too, Pope Francis, who suggested that: “The arts give expression to the beauty of the faith and proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation. When we admire a work of art or a marvel of nature, we discover how everything speaks to us of Him and of His love. Artists of our time, through their creativity, may help us discover the beauty of creation.” (“Pope Francis’s prayer intentions for August: ‘for artists’”, Vatican Radio, 4 August 2017

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae Ia IIæ q. 38.

Pontifical Council for Culture, The Via Puchritudinis: Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue (2009).

St John Paul II, Ecclesia in America (1999), 71, and elsewhere.

Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the U.S. Bishops (Regions X-XIII) on their Ad Limina, 5 May 2012.

Antonio Spadaro, “Wake Up the World! Conversation with Pope Francis about the religious life,” La Civilta Cattolica,, Quaderno 3925 (Vol. I, January 2014, 3-17.

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 134.

From the hymn of St Thomas Aquinas, Lauda Sion Salvatorem.

Patrick Reilly, “Teach, Witness and Advocate: Catholic Education’s Response to Secularism”, Cardinal Newman Society 16 October 2015

Anthony Fisher is the ninth Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. This is an edited version of the inaugural Kathleen Burrow Research Institute Lecture for Catholic Schools in New South Wales, which he gave at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, in May 2021


11 thoughts on “The Proliferation of Secularism and the Corrosion of Education

  • chumboss says:

    This is a very interesting article and suggests that secularism is not simply an attack on “religious” education in general, but an attack on the Catholic Church in particular. What caught my attention was the focus on the tradition of the Catholic Church, yet in the Dioceses in Australasia there is little encouragement of the Latin Mass and the disciplines of traditional Catholicism from many Bishops. There is a rising interest in Catholicism, notably among younger people who seem to value the Roman Rite, yet the schools seem content to teach “Catholicism Lite” the terrible consequences of a failure of the Church to hold to its traditions and dogma is visible for all to see. Ut Fidem.

  • Harry Lee says:

    This is a very useful exposition of the history of these highly important matters.
    Now, to secure the future of Australians worthy of Australian citizenship:
    1. Will the Church now direct the use of its assets and capabilities, in the most effective ways, to ensure that the ordinary people are equipped to communicate directly with God and learn and embody His Will for their lives?
    2. What can be done by members of the Church, and all others who value the Australia founded by the British, and pioneered and developed by British and other Europeans, and defended by the many volunteers in the Great Wars of first-half C20, and since, to secure Australia-
    -an Australia that is a viable, strong member of the Western Alliance in which ordinary productive people can live flourishing lives.
    Note well:
    Australia now has within its borders many enemies of Western Civ, and these enemies now dominate all of the major decision processes pertaining to the defence of the British-founded Australia that once had a promising future.
    And please understand:
    The ALP and the Greens, the ABC and the education systems, and much of the rest of the public services, even the legal system, are controlled by enemies of our form of Western Civ.

  • whitelaughter says:

    “they had barely arrived, 200 years ago….”

    Yes, *exactly* 200 years ago. The first RC chaplains didn’t arrive until 1821, despite the efforts of the British govt to get them as soon as possible. Until then the only RC clergy were themselves convicts, and left the moment their sentences were up.

    Australia has a public education system because the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches creates hundreds of schools and then handed them over, lock stock and barrel, to the state govts. (On reflection, a mistake).

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    I’m not convinced that secularism per se is the cause of our current education malaise, but rather the particular variety of secularism which is now in vogue. After all we had a mixed secular-religious education system for a very long time now which offered parents choice and, up until the turn of the century, worked well and ranked highly internationally. It is the current fad for neo-Marxism and its obsession over race and sexuality which correlates with our ongoing slide into ignorance and stupidity. The churches are to be commended in resisting this trend, but they are not the only ones, as evidenced by publications such as Quadrant and organisations such as the IPA. Together they seem to be our only hope at present.

  • Dubitat says:

    Stephen Chavura has published an interesting book that traces the evolution of the word “secular”, as understood at various times. It started as “neutral” and has now morphed into “anti-religious”. So called secular education now fills the religious void with the modern religions of race, climate and gender.

  • Harry Lee says:

    Our only hope at present is if a couple million proper Australians self-organise and take over the Libs and Nats and reform those parties. The Libs and Nats have had to slide Left-Green because that is where voters have been sliding. And now, some sectors of the Libs and Nats been captured by agents of the ALP and the Greens (Turnbull was/is not the only example), and by agents of the CCP.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Harry, it seems as if something like this might be happening in South Australia. It only made the news because the SA Libs refused membership to about 150 Pentecostals, which rather supports your contention about the leftwing of the Libs. The decision was hastily reversed when it hit the news, but about 500 new members have signed up to the Liberal Party in SA this year. The membership of the party is roughly 5,000 people, which means those 500 new members present a significant threat to the ruling moderates.
    As for the Nats, they’re under threat from both the Shooters and Fishers and from One Nation which is staging a comeback now that Mark Latham is onboard. In any case, of all the parties, I would have thought that the Nats would have the largest religious membership.

  • Harry Lee says:

    Ian MacKenzie -good points you make.

  • padmmdpat says:

    Quote: ‘We seek to stretch them spiritually, feeding their minds, hearts and souls with the richness of our Catholic tradition, hopefully giving them the wherewithal for human and spiritual flourishing in the decades beyond school. What an exciting challenge!’ With all due respect, what planet in Archbishop Fisher on? When was the last time he want into a Catholic school and experienced what passes for Catholic religious education? I recently attended a primary school liturgy – no doubt devised by the ladies in the Staff Room ( Heh, I have a good idea!) and apart from the Sign of the Cross at the beginning and the end there was nothing in that Liturgy that was distinctively Catholic. Needless to say it was an exercise in ‘social justice’. And needless to say, no priest presided – and the school is right next to a cathedral. There is another Catholic secondary school nearby and one of the Cathedral clergy is supposedly the school chaplain. I asked him if he goes into the classroom. No. Does he attend RE faculty meetings? “I suggested it but was told that my presence at those meetings would be intimidating.” I taught for two years in a Catholic secondary school. Every Monday I would ask my Year 11 class, “Who went to Mass yesterday?” In two years not one hand went up. I would ask Year 7, 8, 9, 10 students, “Have you made your First Holy Communion?” Answers were uniformly the same – “Is that the bread thing?” “I think I have.” On the Staff Retreat day we were dished up prayers that could have been said to a tree frog and then given ‘reflections’ on how oppressive the Church was persecuting ‘prophets’ like Fr Fox – now I believe and ex Dominican and, last time I heard, chaplain to a community of lesbian witches in California. My advice to Archbishop Fisher and every bishop in Australia is to tell every Catholic school in Australia – ‘You have two years to get your house in order – otherwise you can withdraw from the Catholic education system, lease the buildings you are in from us, and take the name Catholic off your signs. And you can be independent school , but not Catholic one. You are wasting our time and resources.’

  • Robert REYNOLDS says:

    As a lifelong avowed atheist, I only wish that the threat, not only to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, was at least half as dire as the theists would have us believe.
    Reading this article and some of the responses to it reminds me of the old joke that I used to crack that the brain-washing and indoctrination techniques used by the Catholic Church make the North Koreans look like amateurs. Now I think, “many a true word said in jest”.

    As a democratic socialist and an atheist I guess that I must be the bête noire of most around here. To me, religion, per se. is one or the three greatest scourges that humanity inflicts upon itself. The other two being (in no particular order) nationalism and capitalism.

    Anyway, having said all that, I will say in closing that throughout my life I have had many Catholic friends, most of whom have been absolutely lovely people.

  • Michael Waugh says:

    It’s heartening to see Robert Reynolds that at least you’re reading high quality journals. I suspect that, as a devout atheist and social democrat, you crave a moral life, in conformity with your conscience and soul.

    Archbishop Fisher, you mention the fact that the Church and religion has been in retreat from the public square for centuries, or arguably so. One of the hardest things for Catholic lay persons like me to bear has been the lack of fight shown by the Church hierarchy in the so-called child sex abuse crises, a problem of the ages and one that has infected society as a whole, but a problem used to unfairly target the Church in a vicious sectarian manner. By the hierarchy, I exempt Cardinal Pell. I appreciate that it was a supreme irony that the one person who took compassionate steps to attempt to address the victims was the one lynched. Of course, another irony is the attack on the one institution that took steps to compensate victims decades before any other. But these facts and many others should have been shouted from the roof tops. Why wasn’t a more muscular approach taken by Church leaders ?

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