• Our mission is at the heart of everything we do at ACU. It guides our approach to learning and teaching, our commitment to building a better community.
  • Our mission is borne out of the Catholic intellectual tradition and brings a distinct perspective to higher education.
  • Our mission comes to life through the values that we’ve chosen to sit at the heart of the University and our community.
  • Truth, academic excellence and service are our core values, but these are complemented by a further set of values: equity, empathy, diversity, accessibility, wellbeing and sustainability.

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Mission and the CST principles Human Dignity Further Explored Community Engagement Papal encyclical - Laudato si' Case Studies

ACU’s Mission and CST principles

As a Catholic university, we are guided by our mission, a strong sense of identity and firm set of values. All three influence the decisions we make as an institute of higher education and guide our staff and students in their day-to-day lives. The Mission acknowledges truth, academic excellence and service are our core values. The Mission is complemented by a set of values that guide our daily operations: equity, diversity, accessibility, wellbeing and sustainability. In sum, ACU believes in celebrating life, enriching experiences and solving complex problems by giving back to those in need. As part of ACUs mission we are committed to ensuring that all ACU students and staff have the opportunity to make a contribution to their community that is feasible and meaningful to them, and that meets community needs in a valuable and respectful way.

The following summary (adapted from Tohill, 2004), highlights the nine Catholic Social Thought (CST) principles used at ACU. These principles are distinctive of the Catholic tradition and have common traits and characteristics to other religious traditions, humanist approaches of moral and ethical behaviour, and human development.

Dignity of the human person Innate personal value or rights which demands respect for all people, regardless of race, social class, wealth...
Common Good Sacrificing self interest to provide for the basic human needs of everyone makes the whole community flourish.
Preferential Option of the Poor When decisions are made by first considering the needs of the poor.
Subsidiarity When all those affected by a decision are involved in making it.
Universal Purpose of Goods The earth's resources serve every person's needs regardless of who 'owns' them.
Stewardship of Creation Duty to care for the earth as a (God-given) gift is a personal responsibility for the common good.
Promotion of Peace Everyone has the duty to respect and collaborate in personal relationships and at national and global levels.
Participation Everyone has the right and the duty to take part in the life of a society (economic, political, cultural, religious...).
Global solidarity A recognition that we are all interconnected, part of one human family.

Source: Adapted from Tohill (2004)

Human dignity further explored

In his model (see below), Kirchhoffer (2013) suggests human dignity can be understood as something which we both already have, and something which we can acquire (or which can be diminished). From this multidimensional perspective, human dignity is something that encompasses our whole life and something to which we aspire as a human person. It has an individual and a collective component.

Kirchhoffer (2013) states:

"The fullness of human dignity is always more than what any one person can say about it, greater than any one definition of it, and beyond what even the most exemplary human life reveals it to be. (p.283)"

 Kirchhoffer model explaining the multidimensional perspective on human dignity
1A Inherent

Dignity that humans always already have (inherent) by being a member of the human species: Humans have inherent worth simply because they are human.

  • Many religious arguments fall into this category, particularly those claiming that humans have been created by God in God’s own image.
  • Non-religious proponents of this view might say that it is natural to favour the survival of one’s own species over others, and hence that one’s own species has a special worth over against any instrumental or even intrinsic value that other species may have.
1B Inherent

Dignity that humans always already have (inherent) based on possession of one or more human capacities: Humans have inherent worth because they are distinctive and special.

  • Human reason (the capacity to think rationally, rationality) is the special capacity to which we are most frequently referred in terms of distinctiveness. Other capacities might include autonomy, freedom, morality, conscience, or even the capacity to love.
  • Some people argue against this position because they claim that particular species of animals have similar capacities, so that humans are not unique.
2A Acquire/Diminish

Dignity that humans can acquire (or be diminished) through a sense of self-worth: I have dignity when I believe in my own worth. This has a direct bearing on empathy and consideration of our fellow citizens.

  • In this quadrant human dignity is seen as something akin to a sense of pride in oneself or a conscious sense of one’s own worth as a human being living a meaningful life, worthy of the respect of others.
  • For some, being in a compromised or humiliating position is a threat to their dignity (although others might continue to assert their dignity in spite of being in such a position).
2B Acquire/Diminish

Dignity that humans can acquire (or be diminished) through moral (or immoral) behaviour: Humans acquire dignity when they behave well in society but can also lose it when they behave badly.

  • This quadrant focuses not so much on one’s own sense of self-worth, but on the way in which one is judged to have human dignity through one’s behaviour.
  • Particular people may be seen as examples of human dignity here because of the selfless lives they have lived in pursuit of high ideals and exemplary conduct, for example: Aung San Suu Kyi, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa.
  • Other people (for example, violent criminals) might be judged to have their human dignity diminished and so deemed not worthy of participation in society.

Looking at human dignity from only one perspective can be problematic, as it does not take into account the other dimensions of dignity. By looking at human dignity from all four perspectives, as something we both already have and also something that we are called to realise in our lives, we can come to a richer understanding of the human person, who is a highly complex creature. As such, the notion here is that the human person (and how we look at human dignity) is multidimensional.

Looking at human dignity and the human person in a multidimensional way ensures we don’t diminish the human person in all their fullness. Therefore, a properly considered understanding of human dignity and of the person takes into account this multidimensionality — it is not either/or, but both/and.

In sum, this model recognises that human dignity is both something we have and something we strive to acquire (or which can be diminished), and that we need to take into account multiple bases for thinking about humans and human dignity.

ACU's Community Engagement

ACU’s community engagement is key to advancing its mission in serving the common good and enhancing the dignity and wellbeing of people and communities. It is integral to our teaching, learning and research.

ACU defines community engagement as activities that build capacity and affirm human dignity through sustainable and reciprocal collaborations with communities who experience disadvantage or marginalisation.

Community engagement isn’t just about helping others in the short term. It’s about working with and listening to communities to forge long-term relationships and develop meaningful solutions to complex problems. Community engagement at ACU builds collaboration between university and community to support the dignity and well-being of people in a manner that is sustainable and builds capacity on an individual and an organisational level. In line with the principles of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, ACU places a particular focus on working with communities who have experienced disadvantage or marginalisation.

Community engagement at ACU is guided by five principles. These principles are founded upon the CST principles, moral, and ethical behaviour, human development and social justice, all of which encompasses empathy toward other people:

  • Affirming dignity
  • Pursuing justice
  • Acting with humility
  • Building connections
  • Developing understanding

This recognises the inherent and equal moral worth and rights of all human beings who are made in the image and likeness of God. Honouring the dignity of community members means working to ensure the protection and provision of fundamental human rights. It also means ensuring the development of people’s capacities so that they can fully realise a sense of meaning, purpose and self-worth. Such a commitment to dignity translates into a fundamental orientation towards the support of those most marginalised or disadvantaged by the structures and attitudes of contemporary society.

ACU works for social justice, which is also a prime focus in the achievement of the CST principles. Through developing understanding, affirming human dignity, acting with humility, and building genuine connections, our community engagement works to stand in solidarity with those most in need, wherever they may be, and to advance the common good of our societies. This means working for the good of all, and for just and fair opportunities for participation in all aspects of society. In ACU's community engagement, there exists a fundamental orientation towards prioritising the needs of those who experience the most disadvantage or marginalisation.

Community engagement develops capacity and sustainability in the community through the virtue of humility. Humility is about true understanding of ourselves in connection with others, it is the basis for right relationships. Humility allows us to look ‘outward’ with a sense of equality (not superiority or inferiority) and to work collaboratively with community instead of ‘on’ or ‘for’ community. Humility can help to minimise the power differentials inherent to some aspects of community work. Humility is a necessary precondition for genuine understanding and respect for human dignity. Such a humble, non-judgmental, and non-moralistic approach honours the autonomy, and therefore the dignity, of all involved, so that together we form our consciences and work in ways that facilitate personal responsibility and, with it, human flourishing and empathy toward others.

Community engagement builds on connections with community organisations and the broader community. It is through our being-in-relationship that we are able to develop empathic understanding, to realise the fullness of our dignity, and to flourish as human beings. Through the development of respectful relationships and mutually beneficial partnerships, university and community can experience positive individual and institutional growth.

Empathic understanding involves listening and reflecting with one’s heart and with one’s intellect in order to come to a deep emotional and intellectual comprehension of the beliefs, dispositions, needs, desires, and hopes of the people we work with, and of how these are shaped by experiences and environment. Based on such empathic understanding we can respond in a considered, compassionate, and respectful manner to develop meaningful outcomes with community, as community.

Papal encyclical Laudato si'

Pope Francis challenges us to extend our thinking across new ways in which the relationship between self, community and how it can be realised. Pope Francis calls for a renewed emphasis on the dignity of the human person as the basis of all action, advocacy and global solidarity and care and consideration for our fellow human beings.

This encyclical is important as he notes that “nothing in this world is indifferent to us”, and we must be “united by the same concern for our common home which includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change”.

Here is a summary of 10 key points from Laudato si':

  1. The spiritual perspective is now part of the discussion on the environment
  2. The poor are disproportionately affected by the climate change.
  3. Less is more
  4. Catholic social teaching (thought) includes teaching on the environment.
  5. Everything is connected - including the economy.
  6. Scientific research on the environment is to be praised and used.
  7. Widespread indifference and selfishness worsen environment problems.
  8. Global dialogue and solidarity are needed
  9. A change of heart is required

Laudato si' has relevance to ACU’s Mission, the CST principles, and especially our understanding of empathy. In it, Pope Francis emphasises the importance of human dignity “human beings are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So, we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.”

He goes on “I urgently appeal, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affects us all.” (sec.14), and “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home." (sec.13). The Pope’s words highlight the importance of applying principles such as the Common Good, Stewardship of Creation, Global Solidarity, and the Universal Purpose of Goods.

Case Studies of Empathy, Community Engagement, and CST principles in action

ACU has, since 2003, been involved in providing tertiary education for young refugees who have fled persecution in Burma to end up in refugee camps in Thailand (McLaren, 2010).

The program has been successful because ACU and its partners, both other universities and local partners and staff, have been committed to it in terms of finance, staff, and determination. Perhaps its most profound value lies in illustrating that tertiary education, which in the past has been regarded by UNHCR and NGOs as a luxury for refugees in temporary situations, is now recognised in fact as a right for those caught particularly in protracted situations and that it can have wide ramifications for individual refugees, the refugee community, and the common good.

In a limited but important way, ACU’s tertiary education program contributes not only to education and human rights, but to the dignity of an entire marginalised community.

The Sacred Heart Homework Club offers weekly after-school homework support to local primary school students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and refugee backgrounds through one-on-one peer mentoring.

Based in Fitzroy, the program began in 2002 with 18 students and has grown to supporting more than 100 students each year. ACU students work as dedicated one-on-one tutors to enhance school-based learning and encourage the development of literacy and numeracy skills through a variety of learning activities.

Students enrolled in community engagement units within early childhood, primary and secondary education courses and ACU staff in Melbourne are welcome to volunteer to support this program.

The Read To Learn Program (RTL) supports primary school children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and refugee backgrounds, who have also been identified as requiring additional support to develop their reading and literacy skills.

This program targets primary school children, from years two to six and each student is matched with an ACU volunteer for a course of weekly one-on-one tutoring. Using specific diagnostic tools and literacy-based activities, tutors are able to provide specialised and individualised attention to the children to promote success in education.

This program is delivered in partnership by Campus Ministry, Clemente Australia, Multicultural Australia and the ACU Faculty of Health Sciences.

Whether it is overcoming past or continuing injustices, adapting and resettling into a new and vastly different country and culture, or persevering despite physical barriers, they bring valuable attributes that can only enhance us as a nation. Despite this, their voices are often left out of the discussions and decision-making processes that impact further on their lives. In response, we acknowledge the importance of building public understanding and cultural awareness of the hopes participants hold for their futures in Australia.

Narratives of Hope is underpinned by ACU’s commitment to projects that focus both on enhancing the dignity and wellbeing of the vulnerable in the community, as well as broadening our staff and students’ world views, and building their capacity for meaningful engagement. Narratives of Hope provides a unique opportunity for participants to be mentored by ACU staff and students to tell their stories either through speaking publicly, art, photography, music, or digital mediums. Each year these stories are presented at a community celebration at ACU.

In 2014, Dr Jann Carroll, lecturer in Education at ACU’s Canberra campus, was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Community Engagement for a project she established with her husband Simon, a pharmacist, both of whom were born in Africa.

Global School Partners (GSP) is a not-for-profit organisation that began in 2010 which aims to partner schools in Australia with schools in impoverished communities in Kenya and Zimbabwe. The aim is to work collaboratively with community groups (schools) and individuals to achieve mutually agreed goals that build capacity to both alleviate poverty in practical ways and raise awareness of how education can overcome poverty based on the principles of Human Flourishing.

At the time, Carroll (2014) stated, “Our aim is to work collaboratively with community groups (schools) and individuals, to achieve mutually agreed goals that build capacity to both alleviate poverty in practical ways and raise awareness of how education can overcome poverty. Our philosophy is based on the principles of Human Flourishing. The principle of the Dignity of the Human Person, recognising the value of and respect for each individual to enable achievement of their full potential; contribution to the Common Good through building lasting, positive relationships based on Ubuntu – ‘I am who I am because of who we all are’; Subsidiarity, which facilitates decisions being made by those who will be most affected; Participation and Preferential Option for the Poor drive our endeavours” (Massaro, 2000).

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provided a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future, and affects all humans on the planet. The 17 SDGs seek to realise the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

Of the 17 SDGs, the following are of particular relevance to ACU, its Mission and empathy:

  • Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justices for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  • Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  • Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

Other resources

Australian Catholic University. (2021). Community engagement. Retrieved from https://www.acu.edu.au/about-acu/community-engagement/what-is-community-engagement

Baillie, L. (2009). Patient dignity in an acute hospital setting: a case study. International journal of nursing studies, 46(1), 23-37.

Byron, W. J. (1999). Framing the principles of Catholic social thought. Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, 3(1), 7-14.

Clark, C., & Zalewski, D. A. (2015). Rethinking Finance in Light of Catholic Social Thought. Journal of Catholic Social Thought, 12(1), 19-44.

Cunningham, D. S. (Ed.). (2015). At this time and in this place: Vocation and higher education. Oxford University Press.

Davies, J., MacLaren, D., Needham, L., & Steel, A. (2010). Principles of engagement on international development through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching. Retrieved from https://www.caritas.org.au/media/lqzfe32y/our-values-catholic-social-teaching.pdf

Duff, J., & Manguerra, H. (2016). Dignity of the Human Person Is Central to UN Sustainable Goals. Health Progress, 97(5), 7-12.

Dunlop, T. (2013). Education is a common good: There should be no losers. The Education Digest, 79(1), 18.

Francis I. (2015). Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si: On Care for our Common, (24 May 2015). Retrieved from https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html#_ftn1

Grace, G. (2013). Catholic social teaching should permeate the Catholic secondary school curriculum: An agenda for reform. International Studies in Catholic Education, 5(1), 99-109.

Grabowski, D. C., Gruber, J., & Angelelli, J. J. (2008). Nursing home quality as a common good. The review of economics and statistics, 90(4), 754-764.

IACE (2010). Matters of the Heart – A Spirituality of Community Engagement.

Kirchhoffer, D. (2013). Human Dignity in Contemporary Ethics. London, Teneo.

MacLaren, D. (2010). Tertiary education for refugees: A case study from the Thai-Burma border. Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees, 27(2), 103-110.

Massaro, T. (2000). Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in action. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland.

Somerville, M. (2009). Defining human dignity. The Montreal Gazette, 22.

Tawil, S, & Locatelli, R. (2015). Towards a global common good? UNESCO Education Research and Foresight. Retrieved from https://www.norrag.org/rethinking-education-towards-a-global-common-good/

Tohill, A. (2004). Passion for Justice: A Social Justice Teaching Resource. James Goold House Publications, Melbourne.

Wagner, W. J. (2005). Universal Human Rights, the United Nations, and the Telos of Human Dignity. Ave Maria L. Rev., 3, 197.
Page last updated on 15/12/2022

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