Cathblog - Mannix and the question of a Catholic university

Newman College, Melbourne University. Image: Google



In a recent CathNews blog, I wrote about the conference Daniel Mannix: His Legacy held in Melbourne at the State Library of Victoria to mark the centenary of Archbishop Daniel Mannix’s arrival in Australia.

I had been asked to speak about his role in the founding of Catholic residential colleges, namely Newman and St Mary’s Colleges at the University of Melbourne and Mannix College at Monash University, and these are indeed a fine legacy of his commitment to enhancing Catholics’ access to university education.

While Mannix recognised ‘the culture and learning and other advantages’ (The Advocate, 29 March 1913, 22) of a university education and actively involved the Church in improving Catholics’ access to higher education through the provision of residential colleges in secular universities, he did not support the establishment of an Australian Catholic university.

In contrast, his Sydney counterpart, Sir Norman Cardinal Gilroy, sought to found a Catholic university in 1949, an Australian Notre Dame, but, underestimating the complexity of the task, it did not eventuate at that time.

As I was researching my paper for the March conference, I was intrigued to uncover why Mannix, who had so actively fostered the participation of Catholics in secular universities, had not favoured a Catholic university.  His reasons were multifaceted:

Firstly, Mannix thought that it was desirable for Catholics to influence secular universities by their presence as students and, increasingly, staff.  He argued that the very success of a university for Catholics would undermine whatever Christian influence they might have on secular institutions.  He stated in 1951:

I am convinced, as I have always been, that we can give the best service to the Catholic Church and to the whole community and to the universities in Australia by holding our place in the existing universities … to Christianise the environment in the universities
(The Advocate, 11 January 1951, 3).

Secondly, investment in residential colleges seemed to be the most effective way to facilitate Catholics undertaking university studies – they lived on campus, those in need had access to bursaries, and students were supported ‘with all due and sufficient safeguards for their faith and the practice of their religion’ (The Advocate, 29 March 1913, 22).

Thirdly, for Catholics to have the societal influence that Mannix anticipated, they needed access to quality higher education.  With great demands on the Catholic community to support primary and secondary schools, the seminary and many other causes, it was unlikely that sufficient funds could have been raised in Australia to underpin a superior Catholic university.  Mannix argued that anything less than a first class university would impair Catholics’ social mobility.

Fourthly, prior to coming to Australia, with the establishment of the National University of Ireland, Mannix had advocated for common degrees awarded by the State university and common examinations.

Finally, Mannix highlighted that Catholic Ireland had failed to sustain the Catholic university founded by John Henry Cardinal Newman, whom he admired greatly, and he doubted that secular Australia would be able to assemble the resources for a credible Australian equivalent.  He stated in 1913:

Of course, Cardinal Newman’s ideal was a Catholic University, in which, side by side with the other sciences, theology would take its place, and an honoured place.  Unfortunately, we were not within sight of that ideal in Australia, and, therefore, [I think I] might venture to say that, if Cardinal Newman were to-day in Melbourne, he would urge Catholics to make the best of their opportunities, and to avail themselves of the University which was in their midst
(The Advocate, 9 August 1913, 20).

A century after Mannix’s arrival, Australia has two well-established Catholic universities which are now in their third decade, Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the University of Notre Dame Australia.  In concluding my conference presentation, I speculated on whether, in the Australian context of the early twenty-first century, this new apostolate of the Church in higher education would have had Mannix’s patronage.  I think that a good case can be made in the affirmative:

Firstly, the cost to the Catholic community of providing higher education is now alleviated by Government funding in the case of Australian Catholic University and partial funding for the University of Notre Dame Australia.  Further, the programs and graduates of these Catholic providers must meet accreditation and quality standards set for the whole Australian higher education sector.  Secondly, a Catholic university of the early twenty-first century is generally open to ‘staff and students of all beliefs and backgrounds’ and seeks to provide ‘equal access to education for all people’ (ACU website:  With its diverse community it is able to Christianise students, staff and the wider society is ways comparable to Mannix’s vision a century earlier for Catholics in a secular university.  Thirdly, given that over 25 per cent of the population is now Catholic, the majority of Catholic students still attend secular universities.  Australian Catholic University and the University of Notre Dame Australia, however, enhance the diversity of the higher education sector. Fourthly, Catholic demographics, including Catholics’ presence in (and influence on) the professions and public life which Mannix had sought to enhance, are now comparable to those of the community as a whole.  In this context, the presence of the Catholic universities extends the Church’s potential influence on Australian society. Finally, Mannix was forward-looking and would, I think, have recognised and responded to the changed circumstances and the signs of the times.  He promoted the role of the laity in the Church ahead of his time and, while unable to attend the Second Vatican Council, is said to have been the only Australian bishop to respond to one of its draft documents.  Significantly, Mannix stated at the 1951 Annual Catholic University Conference: ‘we all know the value and desirability of Catholic universities where circumstances permit’ (The Advocate, 11 January 1951, 3).

In contemporary Australia, circumstances permit Catholic universities and they are an enrichment of the Church and wider society.

Professor Gabrielle McMullen AM is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

Mass on Demand


From Parish of Our Lady of The Way, North Sydney & Lavender Bay. The first Mass of the day on YouTube

Mass Online


Live streamed from Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, Waitara


Daily Prayer

Daily Prayer

All your daily readings, reflections and prayers can be found here...