Thoughts on the Catholic intellectual tradition

Image of Pro Vice-Chancellor Assisting the Vice-Chancellor and President and Professor of Catholic Philosophy, Professor Hayden Ramsay.


A message from the Pro Vice-Chancellor Assisting the Vice-Chancellor and President and Professor of Catholic Philosophy, Professor Hayden Ramsay: My first contact with ACU was giving a guest lecture to nursing students at Ascot Vale shortly after arriving in Australia from Scotland in the mid-‘90s.

I knew ACU’s Victorian campuses well. After teaching philosophy at the University of Melbourne and then at La Trobe I joined the Catholic system, including Catholic Theological College Melbourne, John Paul II Institute, Catholic Institute of Sydney and most recently Notre Dame Sydney. I am absolutely delighted to be here now at ACU.

My role has three main responsibilities: first, to assist the Vice-Chancellor with a number of strategic initiatives; secondly, to contribute to the work of the PM Glynn Institute; and thirdly, to build on the efforts of others in promoting and communicating the Catholic intellectual tradition inside and outside ACU.

Vice-Chancellors are very busy people and I expect to be kept well occupied in that part of my role. P M Glynn has already made a fantastic start and I look forward to involvement in its development. The promotion of Catholic intellectual life begins with learning what is already happening at ACU and then adding what I can.

There is extraordinary potential in the intellectual tradition practised in the great Catholic universities. The tradition returns constantly to two fundamental ideas that have affected world history beyond their immediate relevance to faith: the Catholic understanding of God and of the human person. These ideas are intricately connected: where one advances the other tends to advance also.

Catholic universities build expertise around the human capacity for flourishing—for being deeply and lastingly happy. We flourish as people by developing in a handful of areas that are common to humanity—social life, bodily life, work life, spiritual life and so on. Key to remaining active in any of  these areas is excellent intellectual activity—the life of the mind—since thinking is at the bottom of every good thing that we do. We don’t live well un-thinkingly.

Catholicism takes the life of the mind seriously. As well as its superb contributions to social justice, the moral life, art and culture, civil life, health and education the Church also has a rich intellectual tradition to offer.

What if I am not a Catholic? You don’t have to have Catholic faith to find material you can learn from—and contribute towards—in Catholic traditions (whether intellectual, social, moral, cultural…). Australia’s Catholic system includes many staff from other traditions who generously show their respect for their institution’s Catholic faith and proudly share in this work and common life.

What material might people find interesting from the Catholic intellectual tradition? Ten quick thoughts.

  1. Catholicism proposes philosophy as essential to human society: where rival views are offered to pressing social questions philosophy will scrutinize these views, holding each one—including the Catholic view—up to rigorous critique. Truth is established by reason—not by fashion, popularity, convenience, or wishful thinking.
  2. Reason reveals the world to us: we learn by reading, thinking, talking, listening. Faith working with reason can reveal there is more to the world (and beyond it!) than we first believed.
  3. Being free is very satisfying—until you have to work out what to do with your freedom. People quickly realize they actually value things other than just their freedom.
  4. Someone who values the Iphone27 (or whatever they have now reached) values it because of the possibilities it opens up. Those possibilities matter more than the Iphone itself.
  5. Ultimately, these possibilities include learning more, staying healthy, caring for your family, enjoying your friends, making things or appreciating things, worshipping in your religious tradition….and not too much else.
  6. Real happiness comes from integrating these basic possibilities throughout your daily choices—and thinking well about the balance they hold in your life.
  7. The ‘common good’ consists in satisfying the genuine human needs of absolutely every human person, whoever they are, wherever, whatever their stage of development.
  8. Achieving the common good is a matter of justice. It is extremely hard to work for the genuine needs of some while having an eye to the needs of all. At its most perfect, labour for the common good is also an expression of love, particularly for those least able to help themselves.
  9. Loving people is literally seeing something of God in them as he is simply, sheerly lovable.
  10. People must come to their own decisions on God and religion. It is not a question anyone can avoid and every serious answer to the question deserves respect. After 2000 years and a truly global presence, Catholic faith and Catholic philosophy are vibrantly alive—in, for example, the forthcoming ACU-sponsored Catholic Youth Festival (taking place in early December).

My office is next door to my friend Fr Anthony, the Vice President, In North Sydney. I am always ready for a chat about topics in Catholic philosophical tradition and keen to have involvement in any area that invites me.


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