Addresses and Statements


21 Apr 2024


Your Excellency, the Hon. Margaret Beazley AC KC, Governor of New South Wales; Hon. Justice Stephen Gageler AC, Chief Justice of Australia with other members of the Federal and State judiciaries; Dr Mark Schembri, Rector of St John’s College, with members of the College staff; Mr John Coorey, Chair of Council with Councillors; Professor Joanne Wright, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney with other officials of the University; students and friends of St John’s College, and members of the Walsh family:

‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ asked the second-century Carthaginian priest Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus. It was, of course, a rhetorical question and it was about rather more than geography. Tertullian’s less-quoted subsequent question makes his provocation clear: ‘What concord can there be between the Academy and the Church?’[1] For Tertullian, since Christians are instructed ‘from the porch of Solomon’, theirs must be the wisdom of a simple God-seeking heart,[2] informed by divinely revealed faith rather than human observation or philosophical speculation, by Jerusalem not Athens.

Tertullian clearly believed that Christian beliefs were superior to pagan ones: he claimed that this world’s wisdom was foolishness, satisfying itching ears and informing various heresies. He had a go at the Platonists, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Heraclitans. Worst of all, he thought, were the Aristotelians:

“Unhappy Aristotle! Who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh in its arguments, so productive of contentions, embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing!…  See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit… Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and Aristotelian composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no further inquiry after enjoying the Gospel!”

Tertullian would, I expect, have been very censorious of today’s hero, Mr Justice Sir Cyril Ambrose Walsh KBE PC, for graduating from this University and this College with first class honours and medals in English, Latin, Law and, worst of all, Philosophy! “Unhappy Cyril,” we can hear him saying, “with his mottled, intellectualised Christianity.”

Tertullian wasn’t just asserting the superiority of Christian doctrine over worldly wisdom: he thought there was a great chasm between faith and reason, such that the two operate in isolation from one another, that cross-contamination should be avoided, and that Christians should flee the corruption of the world and its thinking.[3] Yet we’d be wrong to think Tertullian was just a Bible-bashing fundamentalist or philistine irrationalist.[4] Like St Paul, who could also be rather harsh about worldly philosophy,[5] he readily drew upon it himself when it served. As well as a theologian, Tertullian was a skilled rhetorician and lawyer, and could debate, distinguish and philosophise with the best of them. So, too, that other great North African Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo two centuries later.[6] Some think he is the same Tertullian cited in Justinian’s Digest of Roman Law[7] —a discipline that Justice Walsh eventually taught in the University of Sydney law school.

Considering his high education and cerebral talents, Tertullian’s dismissal of pagan learning can be a bit of a head-scratcher. His contemporary, Origen, who hailed from the rival “university” of Alexandria, took a rather different view: instead of tension between classical culture and Christian faith, he thought faith and reason complemented each other. “A desire to know the truth of things has been implanted in our souls and is natural to human beings,” he said.[8] We are creatures hardwired for learning, not just catechism but arts and sciences and more. All serve alongside faith in our search for the meaning of God, the universe and ourselves. God can be found in every form of human inquiry, not just in scripture study. So much so, that Augustine says in his Confessions that platonic philosophy all pointed to the conclusion that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[9]

Augustine was, of course, quoting the opening lines of the Gospel written by the patron of this college. St John’s deeply lyrical and philosophically loaded prologue, together with St Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus of Athens,[10] are standard texts on the God of both reason and revelation. God is intelligibility itself, informing all truth, wisdom and understanding that govern the cosmos. This includes both human law, that seeks in some imperfect way to order social realities according to divine law, and human morality, that seeks in some equally imperfect way to instill dispositions of justice and mercy, and apply principles for the good life. St Thomas Aquinas, whose academic resume lines up with Tertullian’s and Origen’s, with Augustine’s and Sir Cyril’s, wrote that “the law of nature is nothing other than the light of the intellect instilled in us by God, through which we know what is to be done and what is to be avoided.”[11] Thomas believed all human laws build upon the natural law written on the human heart, by which rational creatures participate in the eternal law.[12]

What’s all this to do with Cyril Walsh and the library we are dedicating in his honour? Well, as we’ve just heard from Chief Justice Gageler, “Cerebral Cyril” was a man of wide learning and subtle intellect. He was an exceptional student—arguably the best the University of Sydney ever had—and I trust that such great minds will continue to emerge from this college for service to Church and society. To win accolades in a single academic discipline is impressive enough, but to do so across so many as Sir Cyril did indicates a rare brilliance and application. This was a man who loved worldly truth and justice.

Yet he was also a man of faith. A devout Catholic, he was convinced that faith and reason, science and theology, Jerusalem and Athens are—to use the language of St John Paul II—”like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”[13] Now, someone as gifted with faith and reason as Walsh could have excelled in many professions, including the Church, but law it was, and he served the law very well indeed, as the Chief Justice has detailed for us.

Though he chose law over churchmanship, Cyril Walsh also served his Church in many ways. Above all, by rising from humble beginnings to being a High Court justice, he demonstrated that Irish-Australian Catholics deserved trust and could advance—even in an Australia that still ran job advertisements with ‘Irish need not apply’. He was a foundation member of the St Thomas More Society for Catholic lawyers, twice its President (1955-58, 1962-64) and a regular participant in the Red Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral. He was a great participant in the life of St John’s College, as a student, student club leader, tutor, fellow and ultimately deputy chair of Council.

On a personal note: in 1981 I undertook an honours year in legal history here in the University of Sydney. My thesis was “On the Position of Women and Children in New South Wales Law in the 1870s and 1880s.” It was never a best seller! But the authority on the Married Women’s Property Act, which I treated in my thesis, was none other than Cyril Walsh, who had published a book on the subject in 1950. In subsequent years I lectured in legal history alongside Walsh’s biographers, the late Hon. John McLaughlin AM and Prof. J.M. Bennett. So Sir Cyril, celebrated by Sir Garfield Barwick not just for his legal intelligence but also for his humanity and justice, his courtesy and companionability, his fortitude and humour, was an example to me of what Catholics might do in the law, and what good thinking and cultivation of virtue might do in a man.

So, Sir Cyril Walsh, the gifted legal mind illuminated by the Logos and Law of God Himself, deserves the pride of this College and honour of this University. May the library named in his honour inspire future generations to seek truth and justice, and may St John’s College continue to be a place where mind and soul are enlarged and uplifted, to the benefit of all.

[1] Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum (Against Heresies), chap 7.

[2] Wis 1:1-2

[3] Bandan Barbee, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The Daily Runner 7 November 2021; Justo González, “Athens and Jerusalem revisited: Reason and authority in Tertullian,” Church History 43(1) (March 1974): 17-25.

[4] David Eastman, Early North African Christianity (Baker Academic, 2021); Matthew Levering, Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth (Baker Academic, 2016); Eric Osborn, Tertullian: First Theologian of the West (Cambridge UP, 1997); Todd Still (ed.), Tertullian and Paul (T&T Clark, 2019).

[5] E.g. 1Cor 1:20; 8:2; Col 2:4-8; 1Tim 6:20.

[6] Patristic sources for the life of Tertullian include: Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 3 vols. (Utrecht: Spectrum, 1950–1960), 2:246–48; See also Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiastica, 2.2, 2.25, 3.20, 3.33, 5.5. The standard biography can be found in Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Literary and Historical Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971); Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[7] Barnes discredits this, but Quasten thinks it possible for several reasons, see

[8] Origen, On First Principles, 2.11.4, quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the face of God (Yale University Press, 2003),165.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, translated by Thomas Williams (Hackett Publishing: Indianapolis, 2019), Book 7, 9.13;  Ronald Herzman, “Confessions 7:9: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Journal of Education 179(1) (1997): 49-60.

[10] Jn 1:1-18; Acts 17:22-23

[11] Thomas Aquinas, On the principles of nature, 24, 7-8, quoted in Stephen L. Brock, The Light that Binds: A Study in Thomas Aquinas’s Metaphysics (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2020), xi.

[12] See Raymond Bradley, ‘The Relation between Natural Law and Human Law in Thomas Aquinas’ The Catholic Lawyer, No.1 Vol 21, (Winter 1975): 42-55.

[13] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio