In search of the authentic Catholic mind…
What I am introducing today could be described as returning to complete an "unfinished symphony". This is a long-term project that has a genesis that actually stretches back to when I was attempting to get a television series off the ground called "The 1984 Project". One of my collaborators on that endeavour was the Catholic psychologist and writer, Ronald Conway. In my musings with Ron at the time I used to say "I'd just love to get a television camera inside the heads of, say, the ten leading Catholics in the world and find out what they are really thinking". Yes, the emphasis was on the "really". Not just leaders, but all of us. operate out of a complexity of agendas whenever we open our mouths in public. We're trying to curry favour with the person we are speaking to. If we happen to be the spokesperson for some agency in the Church, or a bishop, we carry this complex agenda of seeking to do a pr job for whatever it is that we are representing.
What I was suggesting to Ron Conway — and being a psychologist, he was a good person to be talking to about this stuff — was that I wanted to try and understand what some of the best, or leading (not necessarily the same thing), Catholic minds might think when they weren't engaged in the "public relations" game we all play. What do they think when they are "alone with God" so to speak — perhaps lying in bed at night just before they drop off to sleep, or on their knees saying their night-time prayer: what do these people really think when their only audience is God?
Of course the endeavour is a utopian dream. Firstly we don't have the technology to get a camera inside the most private part of anyone's brain — and their emotions. I doubt humankind will ever have technology capable of doing that in the sense of what I am seeking to find out. Secondly, at the practical level here and now, the fact is that we all "do have agendas" and it is impossible to completely write those out of any conversation we have with anyone.
An interview with the man who built a new Catholic university from scratch…
Nevertheless, about three years ago I finally set about trying to give some sort of form to this dream that I had carried with me since the 1980s. The first person who agreed to be a "guinea pig" in my bold experiment was Dr Peter Tannock, Vice Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame. The editor at the time of the magazine OnLine Catholics agreed to publish the interview but at that point the entire project got derailed as, unbeknown to me, she was operating out of another agenda. The way that interview was presented in OnLine Catholics was seriously injurious to me and to what I was attempting to do (and what I had explained to the editor I was attempting to do). Funnily enough I actually agree with part of her agenda. My disagreement was that it was unethical to drag this interview into that other agenda she was pursuing which was to do with disagreements with the policy agenda the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney was pursuing.
The real guts of this interview has not yet been published as I "pulled the pin" after the first part of the interview appeared. This first part is interesting but it basically covers historical material concerning Catholic Education policy in this country and material concerning some of the controversy, history and enormous difficulties Dr Tannock faced in the proposal to establish a second, and fully private, Catholic university in this country.
Today, I am republishing the first part of that interview. The OnLine Catholics archives have now disappeared from the web and while this interview still exists on my own website — and continues to receive many visits each year — I thought it might be valuable to now host it on the far higher profile Catholica website. I think what Dr Tannock has to say in this interview is an important part of our history and needs to remain "on the public record" in cyberspace somewhere.
An interview with a leading Catholic thinker…
Also today, to begin this series, I am republishing a conversation my wife, Amanda McKenna, and I had with Fr Diarmuid O'Murchu when he was visiting Australia back in January this year. I'm honestly not sure how successful we were in that interview in endeavouring to get Diarmuid to "open up" but nevertheless I think it is an insightful interview and is in line with the end objective of what this series of interviews is endeavouring to do.
So, what are we endeavouring to achieve here?
For those who are regular readers of what I write you have probably worked out that one of the foundation premises to everything I write is an assessment that the modern Church is in a fairly deep schism. That's what basically explains why 85% of the baptised faithful in the educated, Western world, "give up" sacramental participation in the life of the Church in adulthood. The institutional Church no longer speaks in a language that communicates with the vast majority of people — even the vast majority of its own "faithful". This has never happened before in history. Why should it be happening now?
I believe, rightly or wrongly, that a large part of this schism can be explained by some sort of disjunction between what we say publicly in the Church and what we are thinking privately.
The interview with Dr Tannock was particularly instructive in this. Let me explain…
I honestly do have enormous admiration for Peter Tannock. I have never worked directly with him but I've been close enough to many people who have. From my own experience endeavouring over a lifetime to get various large scale projects off the ground, some of which have been successful and some have failed, I'm personally intrigued as to how he has been able to pull off the miracle that he has pulled off in the creation of a Catholic university from scratch in the most "isolated capital city" in the Western world. I honestly do not believe there is a single other leader in the whole of this nation who would have had the vision, the political skill, and the persuasive abilities to achieve what he has achieved. None of the other leaders I have come across over the years working in the Church come anywhere close to Peter Tannock's political and organisational talents. None of the others I have observed come even remotely close to Peter Tannock in their "breadth of vision" and ability to think on the largest of canvases. Half-jokingly I have suggested in a couple of articles that one day Peter Tannock is going to be beatified at least for what he has achieved at the level of infrastructure for the Church in Australia. The "miracle" is only all the greater when it is appreciated that after the plans were set in motion to establish a new Catholic unviersity it was found that his chief sponsor, the Archdiocese of Perth, was next to bankrupt. (There's another story to be told there at some stage in the talents of Archbishop Barry Hickey, together with a couple of astute accountants — whose participation was partly facilitated by Dr Tannock, pulled that Archdiocese back to the very healthy financial position it is in today.)
Interestingly though when I got to the part of the interview where I asked Peter "what do you think of all this faith business when you're lying in bed at night, or on your knees in private prayer?" he didn't want to go there and he asked to be excused from "opening up" at that level. I respect his position and did not pursue that line of discussion further. At this point I'm still tossing up whether I'll transcribe the second part of the interview which I still have on tape. In one sense I pick up the feeling that at present Dr Tannock is engaged in a "political pirrouette" that is even more audatious than the one he was engaged in with the founding of the university. Whatever criticisms one might have in the immediate term my personal inclination is to "reserve judgment" until this doctor has completed his operation. It is then we will be able to judge more truly and honestly what sort of a pudding he has produced.
For the moment then I am reserving judgment as to whether it is worth the considerable time involved for me to transcribe the second part of this interview or whether I should wait a couple more years to do a fresh follow-up.
An "occasional" series…
In the meantime I am introducing this "occasional series" as an on-going feature of what we do here at Catholica. Over time I hope to build a significant portfolio of interviews that I, or other journalists, are able to conduct with leaders and thinkers in the Church which not so much act as some "pr" spin for their achievements but which seek to "dig deeper" to give us some insight into the connection between their achievements and that very private process we all endeavour to go through when we ask God for guidance and inspiration in what we are doing in our lives. In these interviews we are not endeavouring to put anyone "on the spot" but my hope is that in some way that might be either insightful, or even at times inspirational, in giving us insights into how the leaders and thinkers who so much help set the agenda for all of our lives do their thinking.
*The 1984 Project was a proposed series to commemorate the "coming of age" of George Orwell's novel "1984". Beside Ronald Conway, some of the other people who acted as creative consultants to the project included Morris West, Dr Paddy O'Brien, Jim Harris, Lachlan Chipman, David Kemp. The project did not make it into production but many of the ideas that were the genesis of that project continue to drive my endeavours including what we are doing here with Catholica Australia.
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©2004-11Brian M Coyne