Paul Collins, Catholic writer


Max Charlesworth (30 December 1925 – 2 June 2014)

10 June 2014
Paul Collins

Max Charlesworth

Without a doubt Max Charlesworth was probably the most influential and important Catholic layman in the history of twentieth century Australian Catholicism. His contributions to Catholic intellectual life are without parallel. But he also did much to strengthen and deepen the role of the laity in the church, both before and after the Second Vatican Council. His emphasis on the primacy of conscience and the active role of lay people in Catholicism was far ahead of his time. He and his wife Stephanie brought the lay-led Teams of Our Lady (Équipes Notre Dame) from Belgium to Australia in the early-1960s and these groups have had much influence on married Catholics and are still very active.

On Monday 9 June 2014 an overflow congregation joined Max’s wife Stephanie and their large family in the Chapel of Newman College at the University of Melbourne to farewell Max who had died peacefully at home on 2 June 2014. The celebrant of the Requiem Mass was Father Bill Uren, SJ, the rector of Newman College and a former student of Max.

Max was born in December 1925 in Numurkah, in northern Victoria and he graduated with an MA in philosophy from Melbourne University in 1948. In 1950 he married Stephanie Armstrong in Newman College Chapel. Just four weeks before the marriage he was diagnosed with TB and spent the first two years of his marriage in Gresswell Sanatorium. Stephanie said that during that period they only met once a week, but that they kept their relationship strong with letters. Despite the TB Max won the Archbishop Mannix Travelling Scholarship and instead of following the majority of his contemporaries to Oxford or Cambridge, he chose to study at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. There he was awarded a PhD (avec la plus grande distinction) in 1955. From 1956 to 1958 he taught at

Auckland University and then returned to Melbourne in 1959, where he began teaching in the Philosophy Department of Melbourne University. He remained there until 1975.

He brought back with him from Louvain an interest in continental philosophy which was then significantly lacking in university philosophy in Australia. From 1948 to 1965 he played a major role in the Catholic Worker publication, a progressive, lay-led weekly which increasingly took a stand against the right wing influence of Bob Santamaria and the so-called ‘Movement’ in both politics and especially in the church. In 1963 he participated in the foundation of the periodical Sophia: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion.

Visiting academic appointments included a Nuffield Fellowship (1963-4), a Visiting Professorship at the University of Notre Dame, USA (1968-9), and a Visiting Professorship at his alma mater the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. In 1970 he was appointed a lay member of the Secretariat for Non-Believers in the Vatican. From 1974-5 he was Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

In 1975 he became the Founding Dean of Humanities at Deakin University. In 1980 he was a Visiting Professor at La Maison des Sciences de L’Homme in Paris. From 1987 to 1990 he was the Chairperson of the Advisory Committee at the Centre for Human Bioethics. From 1992 to 1994 he was Director of the National Institute for Law, Ethics and Public Affairs at Griffith University. In 2006 he again visited his alma mater, the Catholic University at Leuven in Belgium. He was awarded the Order of Australia in 1991. Max had a great ability to communicate his ideas and in 1989 he delivered the Boyer Lectures on ABC Radio entitled Life, Death, Genes and Ethics. His last work was an essay entitled A Democratic Church: Reforming the Values and Institutions of the Catholic Church (2008). The essay was indicative of his continuing and deep concern for the church and for the need for reform along the lines laid out by Vatican II.

Max’s primary interests were increasingly in practical philosophy and ethics and he was well known as a bio-ethicist. But he was also deeply interested in the philosophy of religion, in Aboriginal religion and cosmology, and in the relationship of church and state. He was the author of twenty books that ranged across all his philosophical interests. When asked what was the most important social change that had occurred in his lifetime Max replied, ‘The change in the role of women.’ He was particularly supportive of the active role of women within the church.

He was a man of deep but critical Catholic faith and he remained loyal to Catholicism throughout his long life. Despite ignorant and often unfounded criticism from some of the lesser lights among the hierarchy, clergy and laity, Max maintained a gentleness, humanity and humility towards all. He was always interested in other people’s points of view and he always listened quietly and attentively to others. He was a wonderful husband and father, beloved of his family. He was widely respected throughout both the academic and general communities. After his wife, family and Catholicism, Max’s other great love was ‘The Blues’, the Carlton Football Club. For this some of us will have to forgive him!

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