Peter Cosgrove: From College Chancellor to Australia’s Governor General

The former general in the Australian Army was named Queen Elizabeth’s representative to the country Jan. 28.

Peter Cosgrove, the new governor general of the Commonwealth of Australia
Peter Cosgrove, the new governor general of the Commonwealth of Australia (photo: 2009 Mike Flokis/Getty Images)

Gen. Peter Cosgrove has been appointed the governor general of Australia, representing Queen Elizabeth II as the country’s head of state.

A practicing Catholic, Cosgrove was chief of the Australian Defense Force during the beginning of the Iraq War. Prior to that, he served as a soldier in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery during an assault on enemy positions and led peacekeeping forces in East Timor in 1999. In 2001, he was named Australian of the Year. 

Since 2010, he has served as chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, one of the largest Catholic universities in the English-speaking world, with 23,000 students. Earlier this month, on a visit to Rome, Cosgrove sat down with the Register to discuss the university and share how his faith has affected him as a soldier.


What has been the secret of the success of the Australian Catholic University? Has it been faithfulness to the magisterium?

We have a mission, identity and a set of values that anyone would embrace. They are Catholic values, but they are shown to the world as being ones that anyone would feel comfortable [holding] in this environment. This does not stop people within our university from having the most deeply Catholic practices, doctrines and value sets, so there is no attempt to confine or shape the span of attitudes.

What we do is we encourage our staff and students to know our values, and they must behave within the confines of our values, but they don’t have to say these are my exact values. So, from time to time, we have people who would challenge us on right-to-life issues. Equally, we have people whose attitudes would be so deeply conservative so as to challenge other more radical views. We don’t mind that. We ask our dons [teachers], when they speak on issues, to speak privately, not to say these are the views of the Australian Catholic University. We also have tremendous help and support from the bishops.

The cardinal [George Pell] is the leader of the company, and if we didn’t have the council of bishops’ support, we wouldn’t operate. They are our watchdogs on mission and identity.


Turning to your career as a soldier, how has your faith influenced your service?

My faith has had to grow stronger, in the sense that I was a little urchin schoolboy in a nuns’ school and then a brothers’ school. After school, I went off to a military college. Your first years in service tend to be overtly secular. In my case, I was at war; I was in Vietnam. You pray to God privately to keep you safe and to keep your people safe and to give you a grounding in the midst of the unnatural human act of war. I say unnatural, in that a natural act is one to embrace, but we’re inclined to find reasons to have wars. So you’re doing that, and you say your religion is somewhat private.

But then, as you get older and become a) a father and b) a senior commander, you suddenly understand the awesome responsibility of trying to be a role model. It turns you back to your instinctive or inherited values: family, school, church; and you find yourself counseling and acting as a father to a whole raft of people, many of whom will have some faith and many of them none at all. And you must be the sort of person they turn to for comfort and direction.


Do you think the faith also gives you a sort of innate heroism or a willingness to self-sacrifice in the darkest moments of war? Does your faith inspire you to go that extra mile?

I think it provides you with great solace in what I call the “quiet moments,” when your frailty descends on you. When you are in the midst of battle, you are what you are. You enter that moment with an armory of training, of being seized by the needs of the moment, and then the innate you. Now, what is the innate you?

If the innate person is prepared and thinks, “I may die,” you sense from your youngest days to that moment that there is another place. I think somebody who says there is another place is in better shape than someone who thinks there’s now and then there’s nothingness. So I believe you’re prepared for the moment, but it’s a very long experience, or sometimes a revelatory experience, for people who have only come to belief in God. But in the quiet moments, when you’re in context, when you’re in an operation, when you’re possibly confronting a very dangerous moment, tomorrow or in an hour, that’s when you need to fortify yourself and when you are fortified.

Now, I think for a soldier the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes” is very trite, but that doesn’t make it untrue. It’s only trite because it’s been said so many times, but it is of great comfort. Catholics and people who believe in God are as frightened as the next man in war. It’s a moot point — I’ve never been in the other place; I’ve never disbelieved, so I don’t know. But I just would never go there, because, to me, my faith is a comfort. It is an embrace.


Do you have problems reconciling your faith with the horrors of war and having to kill people? Has that been a struggle for you?

No, not at all. And maybe that’s an advantage or a flaw in my character. There are challenges to values which cannot be endured without losing one’s sense of self, and I will not allow those challenges to overcome me — or, more particularly, the people that have been trained and sent to me to protect.

I’ve been trained and sent to preserve a state of being, whether it’s a political state or the safety of the community, and those people behind me don’t have what I’ve been equipped to do. I have been equipped to do that, and I will do it. Now, there are strict limits. One must not maltreat people, foe or not. One might kill them [in the line of duty], but one must not abuse their dignity as a human creation. They’re one of God’s creatures, so torture, No; maiming, No; oppressing the helpless, No — for example, an enemy soldier who’s now disarmed and under control. In fact, you must give that person succor. All of those sorts of things are axiomatic.

I’ll give you an example, as a solider: I was disgusted and horrified when I was chief of the Defense Force in Australia and we learned of the events at Abu Ghraib. To me, that was just intolerable; and not only were we politically tremendously concerned, because we were part of that coalition and wanted to know: How could this be? — Are we involved in any way? Is any person involved? — but we were morally repulsed. And there’s no mealy-mouthing in that sentiment.

I like to think that any person of faith or person who says they’re not a person of faith who believes in a higher being but says they’re a moral person would have been repulsed.


Has it been hard to act against your conscience as a soldier?

Well, one needs to ask: What is your conscience? Let’s take a hypothetical situation: I’m a young soldier in East Timor. The militia, they are basically East Timorese people preying on their fellow East Timorese with military rifles, homemade guns, machetes. They’re chopping them up and burning them. I come around the corner of the scene; I’m securing, and I’m going to shoot somebody who’s doing that. I’m not repulsed. I have no crisis of conscience at all.


That’s just, in the sense you’re protecting people unable to defend themselves?

Yes, if I can bring that back to doing a difficult job but for good reasons, then I’m fine. Now, if you want to talk about invading countries and all the rest, well, that comes down to a particular dilemma. If you believe that it must be unjust, if you believe that, what’s your option but to resign? If you say it is likely to be just, then you carry on.


Have you always found them to be just wars, just causes?

Yes, I believe there were WMDs [Weapons of Mass Destruction] in Iraq. I believe that Saddam had been complicit with terrorists. I believe the fact he’d used chemical weapons against the Iranians, against the Kurds, was evidence he would either use them or provide them for other people to use. I suppose, in the end, many believed, and many in my country believed, that he had stockpiles of these things, and they should be found and removed. And I believe he was in defiance of the U.N. inspection regime and the [U.N.] Security Council resolution. And the fact that in the final hours before the final ultimatum expired, the U.N. inspectors were saying, “We’re not sure; we’re not sure,” well, they’d been saying he was in defiance of where we believed he’d still had them for months, months and months; and suddenly they changed their minds. They didn’t want to be the cause of war, you see, and I understand that. But perhaps if they had been saying earlier on that “we’re very satisfied with the inspection regime, and we conclude it’s unlikely that he’s got anything” ... but they wanted it both ways.


Who is the ultimate authority for you in war? Is it Christ or the state?

The ultimate authority of any person is themselves. What am I? I’m a bag of flesh and bones holding it up. I have a brain which functions as my human control system, and beyond that, I have a spirit. Embracing that spirit is faith, so, in the end, the ultimate authority to me is the spirit, which exudes or imbibes a faith.


So one’s formed conscience?

Absolutely; so, in the end, the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and to be one of Christ’s children is an act of faith. Now, it might be to perform a whole series of trained or inherent behaviors, but the will to get out of bed and to say, “Today I’ll be a better person” leans on faith.

Some agnostic might say: “Well, I do that anyway.” Yeah mate, but what’s your value system? Tell us all about it. And when they tell you, you say to that agnostic or atheist: It sounds very Christian without Christ.


In East Timor, you experienced how the people’s faith shone through after having suffered through great horrors of war. Could you tell us more about that?

Yes, I was told there was to be a Mass of thanksgiving in Dili Cathedral on a particular Sunday. Bishop Belo [of East Timor] was back in the diocese. As a commanding general who happened to be a Catholic, I just sort of said to my personal staff, “I’m going to duck down to the cathedral for the Mass of thanksgiving. If any of you want to come, that’s fine, but don’t feel obliged.”

A few of them put up their hands and said they’d love to go down for that, and so we put a number of people into a Land Rover. … I went in with my [staff], and we found there was a throng of thousands; but we found part of a pew right at the very back where we could sit.

The military police dispersed up to the choir loft so they could keep an eye out and make sure I wasn’t abducted. Somebody passed the word to Bishop Belo, who was in the sacristy, that the general’s arrived. Well, the bishop comes pounding out of the sacristy, down through the aisle to the back of the church, grabs me by the hand and takes me with my several staff up to the very front pew. So there we are, and the Mass starts.

The church is full, and every square inch of ground surrounding the cathedral is full. They’ve got loudspeakers outside, and the whole liturgy is conducted in Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor. I didn’t understand a word of it, but you could tell what the theme of the service was. It was an invocation of prayer and towards INTERFET, which was the name of my force [International Force for East Timor].

The first hymn they sang sent a thrill down my spine. I said to myself, “I don’t see a choir.” I needn’t have bothered. The hundreds and hundreds of people and every person outside sang in the most beautiful and full-throated harmony. The sound was overpowering. It was haunting, it was tuneful, and it was, of course, in Tetum-Portuguese. And you just thought: "No wonder these people survived."

From their sort of spirit, strength and prayerful devotion in their voices, you’d say they were indomitable. It was their communal sense of religion, their devotion to their Maker that meant that, no matter what unwelcome administration would be imposed on them, they were not going to be beaten. I just looked at my staff during the singing of hymns, and they were similarly moved. They weren’t all Catholic; some of the boys there were Anglicans or whatever, but it didn’t really matter.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.