CathBlog - Catholic commitment to Australia's ecumenical university


I have been following with interest the establishment in 2012 of Australia’s first University of Specialisation, MCD University of Divinity.

“University of Specialisation” is a new category of higher education institute introduced recently by the Federal Government and defined as follows: “High quality higher education institutions meeting the same requirements as other universities, with the exception of breadth of fields of study. They will be required to offer courses including research masters and doctorates, and undertake research activity, in one or two fields of study only”. 

Some might be surprised that, in this increasingly secular age, the first specialist university has theology as its major field of study. But when one reflects on the distinguished and unique history of its predecessor, the Melbourne College of Divinity (MCD), the pioneer status of MCD University of Divinity is less surprising. 

Established by an Act of the Victorian State Parliament in 1910, the predecessor MCD was the sixth oldest self-accrediting higher education provider in Australia. 

The quality of its programs had been established through external audits, including ranking of its research in 2010 by the Australian Government as at world standard. Following a rigorous process of assessment and accreditation conducted through the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, the MCD was granted specialist university status and the new entity commenced on 1 January 2012 with Professor Peter Sherlock as the inaugural Vice-Chancellor.

MCD University of Divinity is one of the oldest ecumenical institutions in the world. Rather than conventional faculties, it is comprised of eleven Colleges located in Melbourne as well as Adelaide and Sydney, and representing the Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Churches of Christ, Coptic Orthodox, Lutheran, Salvation Army and Uniting Church traditions. 

The Catholic members are Catholic Theological College, Jesuit Theological College as part of a consortium titled the United Faculty of Theology, and Yarra Theological Union. The University of Divinity also includes the Sentir Graduate School of Spiritual Formation and a number of small research centres. 

Other than a lean central administration, all staff are engaged by their respective college and students enrolled through their college. MCD University of Divinity is committed to ecumenical cooperation in theological education and, in this capacity, makes a major contribution not only to Australian higher education but also to the social capital of the wider community, as its purposes presented below indicate. 

At its first graduation ceremony as a specialist university on 3 May 2012, the occasional speaker, Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, challenged MCD University of Divinity to “model unity in difference” to the world around it as a “prophetic institution”. Further, it should “remind the University sector of the intellectual resources of the Christian tradition” (

The MCD Act of the Victorian Parliament lists the objects of the University of Divinity, which include:

offering to scholars and students the opportunity to anchor faith in understanding, and in a spirit of dialogue to engage with society; responding to the academic needs of the churches, and promoting their integrity; addressing issues from a sound and reasoned theological viewpoint and offering society opportunities for dialogue with traditions and values that have been refined over centuries; aiding, by research and other appropriate means, the advancement and development of knowledge and its practical application to the churches, wider academic and community life, and public policy.

It is in its realisation of these purposes that MCD University of Divinity promotes not only ecumenical dialogue but also dialogue with culture, enriching its own members and scholarship and building social capital.

The Vatican’s 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, in “promoting increasing communion with other Christians” encourages “a particular contribution that can be made to this by those members of the People of God who are engaged in formation—such as heads and staffs of colleges of higher and specialised education” (§ 55). 

Thus, the Catholic Church’s commitment to MCD University of Divinity (and other ecumenical consortia such as the Sydney College of Divinity) is of particular importance, even though it conducts its own universities, namely Australian Catholic University and the University of Notre Dame Australia.

In emphasising the ongoing need for ecumenical education, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the 1964 promulgation of the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, noted a growing commitment amongst the Churches to “spiritual ecumenism – conversion of mind and heart to Christ”. 

The ecumenical context of MCD University of Divinity’s theological education has led to collaborative initiatives in teaching, research and formation between the Churches and, in the Australian context, fosters this “conversion of mind and heart to Christ”.

Gabrielle McMullenProfessor 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.

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