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Is another Catholic school shutdown on the horizon?


Anthony Fisher, Archbishop of Sydney, in a recent speech on religious freedom to the Sydney Catholic Business Network, provocatively claimed that, ‘Some have suggested we should “do another Goulburn” and close our ministries in protest against cultural, legal and governmental interference’. It is not clear exactly who has made such a suggestion. The speech was entitled ‘Religious Freedom in a Secular World: Doomed or Doable?’ As such it was a pointed contribution to the church’s campaign for the freedom of religion legislation promised by the Albanese government after the failures of the Morrison government in this regard, but currently stalled in the thickets of Australian federal politics.

Fisher is not just any Catholic figure, but the leading conservative in the Australian church. Sometime deputy president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), he is head of the Bishops Commission on Education, giving him episcopal responsibility for the National Catholic Education Commission.

The Goulburn reference is to what has become known as the ‘Goulburn school strike’ in 1962, in which Auxiliary Bishop John Cullinane of Canberra-Goulburn briefly closed the seven Catholic schools in protest against insufficient government financial support and intrusive government regulation, particularly regarding the standard of the toilet block at St Brigid’s Primary School in Goulburn. The 2,000 Catholic students presented themselves at Goulburn’s six state schools, but only 640 could be accommodated. Mayhem naturally followed, but, having made the point, order was restored after a few days.

Fisher raises some serious questions even if his speech was just a bit of stirring.

Of course, the archbishop raises ‘doing another Goulburn’ only as a future option. He admits it would be politically risky. But on the same day as this speech, Fisher told The Australian, ‘the closure of Catholic schools should be considered “if we were told we were not allowed to take religion into account in who we employ, or in the ethos of our schools, which is quite a push at the moment”’. He also suggests hospitals might consider similar action if they were forced to perform ethically problematic procedures like abortion.

Put to one side whether ‘the Goulburn strike’ was effective at the time. Catholic historian, Gerard Henderson, doubts that it was. He sees it as largely a symbolic gesture. How different are circumstances more than 60 years later?

The 1962 intervention was more narrowly about finance and funding and pre- the State Aid revolution brought about by Sir Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam, an odd couple, with help from the Democratic Labor Party and the National Civic Council. Though bigger issues about Catholic identity may have been implicit they were background issues. Most Catholics nevertheless would have cheered when they heard the news from Goulburn. The tribe was still intact.


'If ‘we’ do a Goulburn, who exactly is ‘we’? Who speaks for the church in 2024? Who can shut down church ministries? Can any bishop still shut down schools, hospitals and other ministries within their diocese without demur from religious and lay Catholics?'


In contrast, the 2024 episode is explicitly about broader values and the church’s place in Australian society. Fisher’s speech highlights more than a dozen, mostly well-known, examples from just over the past couple of years of what he sees as threats to religious liberty at the state and federal level in Australia. 

He sees threats occurring in the worlds of sport, schools, hospitals and federal agencies such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Productivity Commission, and the Australian Law Reform Commission. The threats he cites in his speech include the Folau and Thorburn cases, Pride jerseys, the government takeover of Calvary hospital in Canberra, new taxes on church schools, and various state government bills and actions.

Some Catholics may cheer on Fisher’s salvo, though many more would just be disinterested or bemused. The tribe is now much more divided.

1962 was the world of the DLP and a much more confident church even though the Catholic community, even the privileged parts of it, still thought of itself as outside the mainstream. Identification with the breakaway DLP added to that perspective. It was also still an old-fashioned hierarchical church. Laity, largely men, were involved in activism and lobbying at the time, including in Goulburn, but the bishop was still the predominant figure. It was a pre-Vatican II world.

2024 is the world of the Greens and the Teals, of institutional child sexual abuse, and of declining church attendance. It is also, within the church, a world of plenary councils, synods, and synodality, and calls for church reform and co-responsibility.

I wonder whether there has there been any official or unofficial discussion within the church and/or the ACBC of a ‘Goulburn option’. Fisher is far from a lone ranger, but his episcopal and lay supporters would probably still be in a minority.

Merely by raising this possibility, other questions follow.

If ‘we’ do a Goulburn, who exactly is ‘we’? Who speaks for the church in 2024? Who can shut down church ministries? Can any bishop still shut down schools, hospitals and other ministries within their diocese without demur from religious and lay Catholics? Surely this would be a synodal decision discussed by a diocesan pastoral council, at the very least. As the Canberra Calvary hospital case showed last year there are many with claims to speak for the church, not just the archbishop, and they are not all on the same page.

Surely, too, there should be wider discussion within the church. Would there be internal pushback? Some other church leaders, not sharing Fisher's views, must think it is a bad idea. What do school principals and boards and religious institutes, for instance, think of this suggestion about what their schools should consider doing? What would the many non-Catholic parents and students think of such a move?

All these questions say a lot about the church in Australia today. That a very senior archbishop would raise this possibility should provoke wider discussion. 2024 is a far cry from 1962.




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Canberra Times front page, July 17, 1962. 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Church, Golbourn, Schools Strike, Religious Freedom



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Existing comments

It can be enlightening reading, during the same morning, the Bible and “The Australian” newspaper. A large headline shouted from said newspaper ‘We’re fast losing faith, PM’. The article is about the long-promised religious discrimination bill and the status of the reforms (amongst other things). A subset to the article then stated ‘Leader clear-eyed on threat of Muslim political group’. My reading of the Bible this morning concerned some verses towards the conclusion of Mark 1(v.37,38) which suggest Jesus’ decision to put the emphasis of his ministry on preaching rather than on ‘miracles’. It is good to have diversity in our reading habits.

Pam | 04 July 2024  

As a result of the various Australian State Education Acts of 1870s & 1880 government education was legislated to be "free, secular & compulsory". 

Uncle Pat | 04 July 2024  

John, he is rattling the Parliamentary cage and alluding to a litany of threats against freedom of religion. Why? Bignote productions from the hired hand.

I personally think in the wake of the abuse crisis, all religious schools should be nationalized. When you look at the past conduct of the Catholic education orders in Aust and NZ, why any sane parent would continue to commit their children to a religious same sex school is a mystery.

Professor Ian Coyle says the real figure of children sexually abused in Australia is over 600,000. The problem is that the average time for a victim to come forward is 32 years after the abuse.

Schools should all be state run. Standard syllabus. Religion should be a private choice. Not institutionalized brainwashing of children. The advancement of religion is a smokescreen for a multitude of evils.

Francis Armstrong | 05 July 2024  

Warhurst is a considered, self-disciplined, astute observer of the Canberra scene. Almost certainly a man of his background and reputation would not have penned such a thought-provoking piece without smelling a partisan rat on the loose.

Australian Catholic education, whatever its leadership, is troubled and its current situation under threat, both in terms of its overall governance and its funding, in the main from Commonwealth sources, and as recently outlined in this e-journal by Chris Curtis.

In refusing to open up its overall funding position to public examination and comment in a day and age in which old certainties have long vanished but instead through pursuing an elderly policy of playing-off whatever party is in power against the other - a morally questionable tactic at all times and especially, as Warhurst infers, in a day and age of wedge politics - that's playing with fire.

Moreover, he is right to question the scope of influence and authority exercisable by a bishop at a synodal time when the Australian Church still grapples with loosening the reins of clerical power still held by one or two bishops. It further alarms that His Grace of Melbourne also appears to inhabit that self-same cosmos.

Michael Furtado | 05 July 2024  

A Red Mass is the vehicle used, primarily in British politics, for a leading archbishop to publicly address a legal issue relating to his concern. The congregation, consisting of Catholic and allied 'silks', is thereby invited within the context of an inner sanctum that includes the celebration of the Eucharist - a highpoint, as always, for Catholics - to focus on issues not readily debatable in other forums, and which emphasise the authorities that a Catholic archbishop exercises within the broader context of a politics and society that may be considered hostile or indifferent to Catholic-specific political concerns.

The Red Mass, a medieval institution invoking the blessing of the Holy Spirit on the judiciary, is now almost exclusively an Anglo-American practice, revived at a time when Catholics were under severe discriminatory censure for the practice of our faith.

In recent times, when the English-speaking Church is seen to side with conservative political forces in society to oppose the spread of liberal ideas and practices, it has earned the support of right-wing jurists and politicians and the attendant censure of liberals on the bench.

In my view, no Catholic celebration of the Mass should be used to promote a political agenda.

Michael Furtado | 10 July 2024  

Uncle Pat. The State Education Acts certainly determined the future of Catholic education in this country as well as the government systems. You may recall the Precepts of the Catholic Church in this country, now largely unknown after the destructive efforts a Vatican II. One of these Precepts declared the obligation to send Catholic children to Catholic schools. This was born out of the fairmindedness of the anti-Catholic protestant Colonial Secretary, Henry Parkes of Tenterfield, who held his Public Schools Act aloft and declared to the assembled democratic, parliamentary Protestants of the colony of New South Wales,
"In my hand I hold the death knell of the [Irish] Catholic Church in this country".
Being the crooked, uneducated and socially inferior beggars that they were, the Catholics built the biggest and most successful private education system in the country - there was never any intent in those British dominated days to allow the Catholic children to be educated in their religion - all education of children was to be "free, secular and compulsory", a deliberate attempt by Henry Parkes and his ilk to destroy Catholicism in the most British of the crowns colonies. Mind you, however, in today's world the Catholic Church and its schools seem to be doing a pretty good job of bringing Henry Parkes' desires to fruition.

John Frawley | 17 July 2024  

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