The Dawson Centre at Ten
Promoting the Catholic intellectual tradition
It all started in mid-2013 when the archbishop-elect of Hobart, Julian Porteous, asked me if I would help him “raise the profile of the Catholic intellectual tradition” in his new diocese. The cynic might say that raising the profile of something that was below the radar of public awareness wasn’t a big ask, but the undertaking did present formidable challenges. Not the least is that in this hypersensitive PC age, any attempt to speak up for traditional values or a conservative view of history will inevitably attract charges of racism, imperialism, chauvinism, and plain old-fashioned arrogance. I need hardly say that for many thinking people in modern Australia the Catholic intellectual tradition is about as preposterous an oxymoron as it is possible to imagine. But we pressed on, put our heads together and came up with the idea of a Centre. Not a geographical centre, really, but a sort of abstract one, like so many other academic centres. And His Grace had a special request: let it be named after Christopher Dawson!
So here we are, ten years later, with over a thousand supporters, a website, an ambitious sequence of annual colloquia behind us, and several books on the market. We have hosted a number of distinguished guest speakers in Hobart, which we now regularly video and upload to our YouTube channel. Say what you like about the internet, but it allows a small organization in Ultima Thule to speak to the whole world: 75% of our readers and followers live interstate or overseas. Another of our achievements is to run a series of summer schools here in Hobart. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to take these online, but we are hoping to do so.
The Archbishop of Hobart is our Patron, though he always insisted that the Centre should be “at arms’ length” from the Church. We have sought to welcome not only other Christians but all sorts of people of good will to our functions. Being at arms’ length has nothing to do with the Church disowning us or vice versa but is a generous gesture towards academic independence that makes it easier for non-Catholics to relate to the sort of work we do. I am proud to say that we have several Orthodox and Protestants among our supporters, as well as not a few unbelievers who admire and trust the Western Tradition. There are also Catholics who mistrust us or even radically disagree with us. God bless them all!
I’m reasonably satisfied that we’ve met some worthwhile targets during our decade, but this is no time to rest on our laurels. We live in a Western world in which hostility to all forms of religion, but particularly Christianity, seems to be on the increase. In Tasmania we also have MONA to contend with; they are not openly inimical to us, but their intellectual underpinning is atheistic relativism and for that reason they are extraordinarily and inevitably attractive to almost everybody nurtured in today’s cultural environment, including (sadly) many who would consider themselves Christian. We have our work cut out for us.
There’s a saying: you can’t see the wood for the trees. We talk sometimes about crises in education, but the real crisis is almost too big to be visible. It’s not about class sizes, or funding, or lack of physical resources. The real crisis is specialization, too much and too soon. It’s the loss of the common, shared culture. It’s the failure to ground students deeply in history and language, ethics, reasoning skills, and faith. We’re producing generations of people who are spiritually blind and historically tone-deaf.
The result is moral and intellectual atrophy; people who have no sense of history can have no sense of direction, no formed or mature sense of where they’re heading. Belief in God, which should be the most natural thing in the world, has been side-lined so effectively that it now appears perverse and crazy to people who put their trust in crystals, and astrology, and reincarnation, and silly pseudo-scientific notions of multiple universes.
To many now in this dysfunctional and disordered world, whales are more important than babies, endangered possums more precious than old people in nursing homes, smoking a more grievous sin than infidelity. The way back, if by God’s good grace it’s not too late, will be hard to win. Perhaps you can’t teach wisdom, but you can certainly cultivate and nourish the seedbed in which wisdom can grow.
I tend to quote Edmund Burke, even (some might say) ad nauseam: “No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” But it’s true. Our vital purpose is to put the axe to the roots of the crisis, not merely the symptoms, with all the power we can muster, modest though it be.
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