Fostering a pluralist and tolerant society
I have invariably found ‘Gerard Henderson’ to be a very useful name. The combination of the essentially Catholic ‘Gerard’ with the predominantly Scottish/Protestant ‘Henderson’ reflected the fact that my maternal grandparents came from Irish Catholic stock while my paternal grandfather came from Protestant Scottish stock. The marriage between Lennox Henderson and Margaret Nugent was a union between a Protestant and a Catholic—which was once called a mixed marriage.
Lennox was cremated in 1934 at the Melbourne Crematorium in Fawkner; Margaret was buried in 1956 in the Catholic section of Boroondara General Cemetery in Kew. Before the Second Vatican Council in early 1950s, the Catholic Church prohibited cremation because it was associated with Freemasonry. So Lennox and Margaret were united in life, but not in death.
‘Gerard Henderson’ works for me as an appellation since there are extremely few so-named individuals around. My parents’ choice of the Christian name Gerard (yes, once upon a time Australians of my generation had ‘Christian’ not ‘first’ names) came from the Italian religious brother Gerard Majella, who died circa 1755. Majella was the patron saint of what Catholics called ‘mothers in distress’. At irreverent moments, I have described Saint Gerard Majella’s spiritual coverage as applying to ‘neurotic Catholic mothers’.
I rarely use the term these days, since it is so easy to give offence. A decade or so ago I left a message with Gerard Noonan, then the editor of the Australian Financial Review. When I spelt out my name to Noonan’s personal assistant, I referred to our common first name as pertaining to ‘the patron saint of neurotic Catholic mothers’. Obviously, the message was passed on—in full. Your man Noonan returned my call, after lunch, and stated aggressively that he was grossly offended on behalf of his mother. Really. The conversation ended there. Mr Noonan now heads an industry superannuation fund. Fortunately I have no idea who—if anyone—has been designated by the Holy See as the patron saint of trade union super.
As a baptised Catholic who was aware of the Protestant side of my family, I developed an early interest in the social aspect of religion. I recall a priest’s sermon when I was seven, at our parish church, Our Lady of Good Counsel in the Melbourne suburb of Deepdene—we lived up the road in Balwyn. It was around the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
In pre-television Australia, the pictures we saw of this glittering occasion came in newspapers or in the black and white Cinesound newsreels at hourly shows in designated cinemas. Needless to say, the coronation on 2 June 1953 of the glamourous young Elizabeth created both interest and a sense of happiness. However, our priest that Sunday was not amused.
During the sermon, he reminded the assembled ‘dearly beloved brethren’ that it was all very well to be joyous at this time. But the reverend father made the point that we should also reflect that Westminster Abbey, the site of the coronation, was once a Catholic church—before the English Reformation and all that. In short, Westminster Abbey was stolen from our lot by the Protestants. Even as a young boy, I reflected that this was a reasonable point. After all, Henry VIII had split with the Pope circa 1534 and his daughter Elizabeth I presided over the rise of Protestantism in England—a mere four centuries ago. It was just too soon to forget or forgive.
My first religious experiences were of the tribal genre. Balwyn in those days was essentially what was termed middle class. The Catholic Church in Australia was stronger in the working-class suburbs, since most Catholics came from a lower socioeconomic grouping. There were some, not that many, well-off Catholics who lived in the wealthier suburbs. And there were the churches in rural and regional Australia.
The Catholic Church taught that attendance at Mass on Sundays or Saturday evenings was compulsory—failure to turn up for Mass without a valid reason was a sin. However, most if not all Catholics went to Mass because they wanted to. It was here that the Catholic tribe—primarily of Irish background—assembled once a week. Friendships were made or renewed and both religious and secular beliefs reinforced.
In the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, Australians of Irish Catholic background were Australia’s largest and most significant ethnic minority. Apart from the interaction from 1788 between perhaps the most technologically advanced society in the world (namely Britain) and perhaps one of the least developed people in the world (namely, the Indigenous inhabitants of what became Australia)—the European settlement had gone well.
The test is simple. After 1788 the Australian colonies—and from 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia—experienced little ethnically motivated violence. Moreover, there was neither a civil war nor a war of independence. Similar societies had experienced a civil war (England, the United States of America, Ireland) or a war of independence (the United States, Ireland) somewhere between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries.
Yet sectarianism, of the anti-Catholic kind, was present in Australia. From the first steps to self-government in the mid nineteenth century, what came to be called the Protestant Ascendancy prevailed. And Catholics were expected to know their place—to be, as some Catholics put it, mere ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’.
At the time, the Catholic composition in Australia was around 25 per cent in the larger populated colonies/states (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland) and about 20 per cent in the smaller states (South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania). A minority, to be sure. But one that gathered together each Sunday to thank God for his grace, to reflect about discrimination in education, employment and the like experienced by many Catholics and to rail against the perceived influence of Masons, most of whom were profoundly anti-Catholic.
Because Irish Australians were primarily working class or middle class, many belonged to the trade union movement—including my father, who joined the Clerks’ Union. The formation of a nascent Labor Party in the late nineteenth century saw Catholics moving into politics. From the early twentieth century the Labor Party comprised primarily members of the Protestant working class plus Catholics. Those Protestants went to a variety of churches—Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Baptist and the like. However, the adherents of what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ went to a parish of the one, holy, apostolic, Catholic Church. Such as Our Lady
of Good Counsel.
At a young age, I learnt that Catholics were different. Sort of. A study of the life and youngish times of a John Howard (born 1939) and a Paul Keating (born 1944) tells the story. Both men had a father who ran a small business and a stay-at-home mother. Howard and his siblings were the first in their family to go to university. Likewise with the Keatings—except that Paul left school at 14 and missed out on a tertiary education, unlike his siblings. But there the similarity ends.
John Howard was initially a ‘King and Country’ kind of guy—and, after 1952, a ‘Queen and Country’ person. Of Methodist stock, Howard, his parents and siblings looked up to king or queen in Buckingham Palace. Many Protestant Australians of this and earlier generations regarded Britain as ‘home’. Indeed, Britain was frequently referred to as the ‘mother country’—even by men and women who were born in Australia and destined to live their entire lives in the Antipodes.
Paul Keating was different. Like Catholics of his generation, the young Keating focused on the pope in Rome rather than the monarch in London. Moreover, many of his heroes were not lords and baronesses of recent memory but doctors of the Church along with the saints and the martyrs. And the various popes, cardinals, archbishops along with other clergy. What’s more, Keating and his tribe did not regard Britain as a ‘mother country’ since their ancestors had not come from there. And the Catholics who emigrated from Ireland had no intention of returning to the land of their birth. For Irish Catholics, as for most non-British immigrants, Australia was home—there was no other home front.
In the early 1950s I commenced grade three at Burke Hall in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. Run by the Society of Jesus in Australia, it was one of Xavier College’s two primary schools. The other, Kostka Hall, was in the Melbourne south-east suburb of Brighton. At Burke Hall, and later at Xavier College, we were encouraged to admire the English Jesuits who had died for their faith in Elizabethan times. Men such as the Oxford scholar Edmund Campion (1540–1581) and the priest/poet Robert Southwell (1561–1595), who is thought to have had an influence on William Shakespeare.
Reading Gerard Kilroy’s Edmund Campion: A Scholarly Life (Ashgate, 2015) confirmed my schoolboy admiration of an unfashionable man who confronted the state in proclaiming the rights of English Catholics to religious freedom and who—in his declarations when imprisoned and
tortured at the Tower of London, when on trial at Westminster Hall or when on the scaffold at Tyburn to be hung, drawn and quartered—was calm and composed, oblivious to verbal abuse and physical oppression and always consistent in his world view.
Both Jesuits were brave Englishmen who died as martyrs but who were not recognised as saints of the Catholic Church until 1970, when Pope Paul VI canonised what came to be known as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. The group included three women—Margaret Clitherow, Anne Line and Margaret Ward. This served as a reminder that the tribal song we sang at school, ‘Faith of our Fathers living still / in spite of dungeon, fire and sword’, should have referred to ‘our Mothers’ as well.
Whenever I’m in London I pay my respects to St John Southworth (1592–1654), who was executed during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate and whose remains lie in state in Westminster’s Catholic Cathedral. Alas, there are no remains of Edmund Campion or Robert Southwell.
Like most Australians, our family enjoyed the enormously successful royal tour of early 1954, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia with her husband Prince Phillip. The Queen was the most significant celebrity to visit Australia and, at night, Melbourne lit up for the occasion. Yet it wasn’t quite our family. In 1954 the Queen, after all, was head of the Church of England. Pius XII, on the other hand, was the successor of Saint Peter—and it was upon this rock that the Christ had built his Church. Or so we believed.
It was the tribal nature of Catholics between the passing in 1865 by the British Parliament of the Colonial Laws Validity Act and the advent of the Second Vatican Council almost a century later that gave the Catholic minority in Australia a significant voice in matters of state. This was particularly the case following the arrival in Australia of the Irishman Daniel Mannix. He was appointed the Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne in 1912, arrived in Australia in 1913 and took over as Archbishop of Melbourne, following the death of Archbishop Thomas Carr, in 1917. Mannix was not the first Catholic prelate to involve the Church in politics. As Patrick Morgan documented in Melbourne before Mannix Catholics in Public Life 1880–1920 (Connorcourt, 2012), Catholics, with the support of Carr, were active in Victorian politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Meanwhile in New South Wales, Patrick Francis Moran, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, involved himself in the debate over Federation as a supporter of the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Yet Daniel Mannix was different. Soon after his arrival in Australia, Mannix willingly became a tribal leader of his essentially Irish Catholic clan. The New Zealand–born Catholic Patrick O’Farrell (1933–2003) argued that ‘between 1915 and 1921 the Irish in Australia brought about a turning point in Australian history, perhaps the turning point’. He added: ‘The Irish determination not to be put down at the time decided the future for a liberal Australia, an open society. The balance was at last tipped in favour of a plural society and against an exclusive and homogenous one.’
From around 1913, with the encouragement of Mannix, many Catholics in Australia spoke out in support of government financial assistance for the Catholic school system—a cause that was achieved half a century later due primarily to the influence of the Democratic Labor Party. From 1916 Catholics also expressed opposition to conscription for overseas military service during the First World War. They were all but alone with respect to the first cause but not the second.
In a sense it was all about defiance of the Protestant Ascendancy. My uncle Alan Dargavel voluntarily enlisted in the 1st AIF and died during the Third Battle of Ypres in November 1917. Yet, according to family lore, the Dargavels voted ‘No’ in the 1916 and 1917 conscription plebiscites. Put simply, they were not prepared to be lectured by the Protestant Ascendancy or by prime minister Billy Hughes, who left the Labor Party over its opposition to conscription in 1916 and joined the political conservatives. Many Australian Catholics of Irish background had objected to the death sentences passed by British military officers at Dublin Castle on 16 of the men—led by Patrick Pearse—who had taken part in the Easter Rising of 1916. For some Catholics, opposition to conscription was an act of defiance to the Protestants who ran Britain and prevailed over the Empire.
Needless to say, the Protestants responded in kind. In the early 1920s, there was a campaign to have the turbulent cleric Mannix deported. Around this time the Loyalist League of Victoria published an anti-Catholic sectarian rant titled The Menace of Mannix and Co. It contained an address by the Rev T.E. Ruth, an English-born Baptist minister who happened to be a Freemason.
Australian Catholics fought back against the intolerance and discrimination that many experienced. Australia elected its first Catholic prime minister in 1929—Labor’s James Scullin. In January 1931, against the wishes of the Palace, Scullin appointed Sir Isaac Isaacs, a Jewish Australian, as governor-general.
Scullin was followed two years later as prime minister by the Tasmanian Joseph Lyons, who quit the Labor Party over its inadequate response to the Great Depression and became the leader of the mainstream conservative political movement, the United Australia Party. During the First World War Lyons, like the Dargavels, had supported Australia’s military involvement but opposed conscription. In 1931 Lyons led the UAP to one of the greatest electoral victories in Australian history. The first Catholic to become president of the United States was John F. Kennedy a generation later, following the November 1960 election. Britain has never had a Catholic in 10 Downing Street (Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after he stepped down as prime minister).
The political success of the likes of T.J. Ryan in Queensland, Scullin and Lyons demonstrated that Australia had become a genuinely pluralist society by early in the twentieth century. Mannix was the first to demonstrate what Australian pluralism was all about. During the First World War he argued that Australians should place Australia—not Britain—first. And he indicated his pluralism in deed as well as in word.
Despite being a Catholic archbishop in the years before the ecumenical effects of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), Mannix supported the right of the Lutheran Church to run its schools at a time when the British Empire was at war with Imperial Germany. Mannix also enjoyed friendly relations with Jewish religious leaders at a time when Jewish Australians were barred from joining such bastions of the Protestant Ascendancy as the Melbourne Club. Catholics drove the ideal of pluralism in a democratic society by not only insisting on their rights but also by supporting the rights of other minorities such as German Australians and Australians of Jewish faith.
It was Mannix who encouraged B.A. Santamaria, the first child of Italian-born parents, in his work—initially Catholic Action in the late 1930s and, soon after, the anti-communist Catholic Social Studies Movement (frequently termed The Movement), which in 1957 became the National Civic Council. The Movement was an Australian-born creation—it was not modelled on, or derived from, any overseas institution.
In his My Italian Notebook (2002), former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam wrote that B.A. Santamaria was the most famous Italian name in Australian history. I met Santamaria in 1965 and—as documented in my book Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man (MUP, 2015)—was associated with him for a decade. Yet, in that period, I am not conscious of thinking of Bob Santamaria as an Italian. To me, and my friends and associates, he was Australian. Just Australian. After all, we regarded Pope Pius XII and Pope John XXIII as Catholics, not Italians.
In short, I grew up with many non-British reference points. In my time the pope was invariably Italian. Archbishop Mannix and many of the priests of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne were born in Ireland. My first two years of schooling were at Genazzano Convent in Kew. It was run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus, founded by the French woman Marie Madeleine de Bonnault d’Hoüet.
On moving to Burke Hall, I learnt about the Society of Jesus—or Jesuits—founded by the Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola. His colleague Francis Xavier was also from Spain. And then there were the martyrs and the saints—very few of whom were Anglo-Saxon. Put simply, the Catholic Church in Australia was multicultural before the term was developed later to explain a secular democratic society.
Despite anti-Catholic sectarianism, which lingered until the mid 1960s, Catholics proved that they could run efficient governments. Initially at state level: T.J. Ryan was a successful Queensland premier between 1915 and 1919. And then at the Commonwealth level.
As Anne Henderson documented in Joseph Lyons: The People’s Prime Minister (UNSW Press, 2011), Australia’s recovery from the Great Depression under Lyons’ leadership was on a par with that achieved by the national government in Britain under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin. Both nations recovered more quickly than the United States during the presidency of F.D. Roosevelt, which experienced another depression in 1937.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Labor rarely held office in Victoria. New South Wales was different—due to the industrial structure of the state, running from Newcastle to Sydney and on to Wollongong, which ensured a large working-class vote. As John Douglas Pringle wrote in Australian Accent (1958), at one point in the early 1950s some 80 per cent of members of the Labor Cabinet in New South Wales were Catholics. Yet the NSW Government was not significantly different from that of Victoria in the late 1950s when Protestants dominated the Cabinet. Australians came to understand that Catholic politicians understood what pertained to Caesar and what pertained to God. Even so, anti-Catholic sectarianism remained a fact of life.
This became evident in the 1940s and 1950s when it was primarily Catholics, of Irish background, who stepped up to defend Australian democracy against an attack from communist totalitarianism. It is now documented that in the 1940s and 1950s the Communist Party of Australia was financed by Joe Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. As David Horner has documented in The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949–1963 (Allen & Unwin, 2014), the Soviet Union penetrated the Australian Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs). Mark Aarons, the son of leading CPA functionary Laurie Aarons, has written in The Family File how some members of the CPA were agents of the Soviet Union. Moreover in What’s Left (1993) Eric Aarons (Laurie’s brother) acknowledged that if the CPA had been in power in the mid 1950s it ‘could have executed’ not only its political enemies (such as Santamaria) but also others—including social democrats—who were ‘helping our enemies’. In short, communist rule in Australia would not have been much different from that in East Germany.
The CPA was never strong in itself. But it had significant power in the trade union movement and, through it, the Australian Labor Party. The Movement, under Santamaria’s leadership, provided many of the rank and file trade unionists who joined the Industrial Groups to take on the communists in the trade union movement and the Labor Party. Many of the key figures in the Industrial Groups, such as Laurie Short of the Ironworkers Union, were not Catholic. But most of the rank and file Groupers were.
The Groupers wound back communist influence in the trade union movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s. However, the CPA’s influence did not go away. As late as 1964, Labor leader Arthur Calwell, a bitter opponent of Santamaria, approached ASIO and said that he had ignored the CPA’s penetration of the ALP for too long but could do so no longer. Calwell met with ASIO director-general Charles Spry and asked about the level of infiltration of the Labor Party and its affiliated trade unions. This is documented in John Blaxland’s The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963–1975 (Allen & Unwin, 2015).
In the event, communist power in Australia had diminished substantially by the time of the Labor Split in 1955. The following year, the split between the Soviet Union and China divided the international communist movement, in Australia and elsewhere. Soviet communism, even among its loyal supporters within the left intelligentsia, was discredited following the USSR’s suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and its crushing of dissent in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
By the end of the 1960s the Communist Party was no longer a threat to Australian democracy. But it had been. And, when it was, many of the foot soldiers who defended Australian democracy were of Irish Catholic background who had been recruited from the Catholic Church’s parish structure. By the 1970s Catholics were beginning to move into senior positions in business and in the Liberal and National parties. Anti-Catholic sectarianism has not gone away completely. These days, though, it tends to be directed at those deemed to be conservative Catholics such as former prime minister Tony Abbott and Cardinal George Pell. Yet it did not prevent Abbott from becoming Australia’s twenty-eighth prime minister—as it had not dented Joseph Lyons’ popularity in the 1930s.
Certainly Australian democracy was not the creation of Irish Catholics. What’s more, democracy was a product of Westminster, not the Holy See. Yet Catholics of Irish background played a significant role in developing—and defending—democracy Australian style. That’s why, through most of the twentieth century, Australian democracy was different.
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