Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Once were Ignatians

Twenty years ago I attended Xavier College, which back then was thought of as the elite Catholic school in Melbourne.

I have a lot of positive recollections of the school. You couldn't help but have a sense of the tradition of the place and there was a strongly masculine ethos fostered amongst the boys (it was thought weak even to flinch, so you can imagine how bewildered I was when I later arrived at uni to find the ideal of the crying "snag" male being promoted).

Xavier didn't, though, do Catholicism very well. We did attend mass occasionally and we had a few Jesuit teachers. But this was just everyone going through the motions. We were taught according to the principles of a secular liberalism, rather than Catholicism.

I don't think much has changed. In the latest edition of the Xavier News there is a column by the school captain praising families who have contributed money to develop school facilities.

The captain begins by noting that students:

have been provided with an environment so conducive to learning and the cultivation of young men that it is surely exceptional. The education philosophy within the school may have been adapted and enhanced to incorporate modern concepts and philosophies, but it is always underpinned by the principles of Ignatius' values and ideals.

Here we have the claim that the school is still essentially Catholic in upholding the principles of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order. The school captain, though, draws out this claim as follows:

Xavier has empowered me and so many other young men. It has instilled in us the belief that we can be whoever and whatever we want to be ... I know that we cannot but achieve, we cannot but fulfil our potential. We not only have an obligation to ourselves, but to society and humanity, to leave an impression on the world that is as indelible as the one that Xavier has left upon us.

This is a very un-Catholic and anti-Ignatian secular liberalism. I don't mean to pick on the school captain in noting this, as he is a young man who is reflecting back to us what he has been taught. The problem lies with the religious direction of the school.

The ideal of being "whoever and whatever we want to be" is straight out of the liberal textbook. It is liberalism which believes that our humanity is contingent: that we only become human when we determine our own nature.

This liberal principle has radical consequences. It encourages liberals to view people as atomised individuals and as blank slates, as this leaves people with the least impediments to defining themselves in any direction.

It means too that liberals will often reject the deeper aspects of our nature, as this nature is something important to us which is given rather than self-defined. A liberal, for instance, might regard it as a "liberation" for a man to act against his masculine nature.

So you do not "cultivate young men" with the liberal principle that we should "be whoever or whatever we want to be". This principle logically requires us to reject the most important aspects of character and culture, as these are most likely to be embedded within a given tradition or within our given nature.

How does the Catholic view differ from the liberal one? First, the Catholic view doesn't begin with the idea that our humanity is contingent. Instead, there is a belief that we are made in God's image and invested with a human soul. So we don't need to chase a radical autonomy in order to secure our status as humans.

The church is therefore free to assert that man does have a given nature, which does help to define who we are and how we should rightly act, and that we find our freedom within this nature rather than in an "emancipation" from it. Here is Pope Benedict on this theme in words taken from a homily delivered in December 2005:

We live in the right way if we live in accordance with the truth of our being, and that is, in accordance with God's will. For God's will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence, a free creature.

This is a long way from the liberal idea that we are "empowered" by defining our own being.

Finally, there is also the problem of the school captain writing on the one hand of upholding Ignatian values and on the other hand describing our obligations as being to ourselves, to humanity and to society.

St Ignatius himself would have mentioned an obligation to God. He gave to the Jesuits the motto Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, which means "for the greater glory of God" and Pope Benedict described Ignatius earlier this year as being:

above all a man of God, who gave the first place of his life to God, to his greater glory and his greater service.

Let me repeat that I am not suggesting that Xavier has no positive attributes as a school. I just don't think that it stands seriously within the Catholic or Ignatian tradition, as it still claims to do.


  1. Perhaps you have failed to realise that the School Captain's writings are always bullshit platitudes and mean nothing, nor reflect anything.

  2. Anonymous, the same "bullshit platitudes" are used to market most independent "Christian" schools in Melbourne.

    I disagree that they don't mean or reflect anything. Don't you think it a mighty coincidence that the prevailing secular orthodoxy should be heard loud and clear in such utterances?

    And why isn't there anything else in the Xavier News (or in the life of the school as I experienced it) to act as a Catholic counterweight to such platitudes?

  3. Mark - It's because conservative values (by their nature) tend to ‘negate’ other choices. The liberal culture wants us all to be one big happy family (with many grey areas & no firm beliefs), thus we have a cultural intolerance for any black&white views (such as conservatism, traditionalism or chauvanism).

    A belief in religion pre-supposes a 'course'. If one believes in God, then it tends to assume that one choice does in fact negate other choices. This is too limiting to feminists who want to be free to do whatever they want, and NOT be held to any principle.

    As Camille Paglia once said, “Manhood coerced into sensitivity is no manhood at all.”


  4. I liked this post, Mark, well done. Ii's a great pity that a school like Xavier, named after such a great missionary of the Church, whose greatest concern was to do the will of God, should have succumbed to more worldly views.

    But this is always a temptation for Christians.