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Culture and conspiracy: In conversation with Fr Gerald Arbuckle

  • 09 June 2023
  Theologian and cultural anthropologist Fr Gerald A. Arbuckle, SM, was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Australian Catholic University. At 89 years of age, Dr Arbuckle is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed works delving into a range of issues, including most recently Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad; Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World; Abuse and Cover-Up: Refounding the Catholic Church in Trauma; and The Pandemic and the People of God: Cultural Impacts and Pastoral Responses. He is currently working on his next project, Conspiracy Thinking: Analysis and Responses, and is the Co-Director of the Refounding and Pastoral Development Unit in Sydney.   In this interview with Eureka Street’s Michael McVeigh, Fr Gerald Arbuckle speaks about his career in cultural anthropology, and what insights the field might offer to the issues our society faces today.

Michael: Congratulations on your recent honorary doctorate from ACU. Over your career you've written and researched in a number of areas — health care, bullying, religious life, the Church, and most recently the conspiracy theories in the wake of Covid. What would you say are the things that have driven you in your work over the years?

Fr Gerald Arbuckle: I'd say the first influence was that of my parents. My father was a Scots-Irishman, deeply concerned about social justice. And my mother was a nurse. During the Second World War in New Zealand, she volunteered to be a nurse in a village quite remote from the hospital system. When a blackout was on, she would ride a bike in the dark to people who needed help. As a little boy I asked her one day, ‘Why are you interested in this?’ She answered, ‘Oh, the Good Samaritan story. That's why I do this.’ So my background was rich in social justice and compassion.

As a seminarian in 1958, I was asked by my provincial superior to go to Cambridge. When I asked why, he said, ‘Well, we need to understand the world in which we live, and my hunch is that perhaps Cambridge could help you.’ So off I went.

I wasn't too sure what I should study, so I started with economics. Cambridge had a very good economics program at that time. Later it occurred to me that perhaps there was something else I needed in order to understand this big wide world [laughs]. So I looked up the directory and saw the word ‘culture’. And that's