Here and there – Injecting religion into the political stew


The German philosopher Immanuel Kant understood that of the conflicts deriving from religion, the conflict between believers in different faiths was far less toxic than the conflict between different sects in the one faith.  The first, let’s face it, just comes from the luck of the draw; but the second savours more of conscious choice, and of betrayal.  It’s one thing to be called an infidel; it’s another thing to be branded as a heretic.  People got burnt alive for heresy; infidels were usually just sent to the back of the bus, or over the border.  If a community finds sectarian hatred combining with ethnic differences and political factions, it has to deal with a very dangerous cancer deriving from three nasty sources.  It has happened at least twice in Australia, and one man, from a foreign land and subject to a foreign power, was deeply involved in each case.

Two of the most unpopular people in the history of Australia were Daniel Mannix and Bob Santamaria.  They were unpopular for at least two reasons.  They sought to inject their religious views into Australian political life, and they used their own special gifts for that purpose – and in the case of one of them, he did so with imported venom.  In the result, the Catholic and Protestant divide became almost as ugly here as it was in Ireland, and the party of the workers was split and rendered useless – so disenfranchising, in effect, a whole generation.  The divisions in our community festered like tumours, and caused serious damage to the standing of both Catholics and those of Irish stock in Australia.

In my view, the damage went further, and these two men made substantial contributions to the decline of religion here.  And I fear that I see the same happening again, and it is again being driven by the same faction within Christianity, in areas of public life where public opinion has shifted very considerably from the old dogmatisms embraced by the embittered and threatened faithful.  When the backlash comes, as it surely will, a lot people will recall the strife wrought upon us here by Daniel Mannix and Bob Santamaria.

All those thoughts came to me as I read Brenda Niall’s Mannix (2015) which struck me as a very fair, balanced, and sensible book.

Mannix was nearly fifty when he got to Melbourne.  His life had been sheltered – cloistered – in a teaching environment where his aloof sense of superiority was relatively harmless.  The teaching then was not conducive to allowing men consigned to loneliness to deal with the world as it is – a world of which half are women.  At the Seminary, Lectures in Pastoral Theology warned the young men about being seen in company with women – even their mother or sister.  ‘It is contrary to taste in clerical behaviour to walk with a lady in the street, no matter how near.  The laity do not like it.  It seems to them incongruous and it is so.’  The author comments:

The reasoning behind this is not just that female company means moral danger.  The priest must be a man apart from human ties.  That was clericalism, destructive then and ever since.

Just how destructive these attitudes have been is now agonisingly clear to the entire world.  The holy man known as Our Lord consorted with prostitutes.  Where in the life or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is there any support for this exclusionary but poisonous ‘taste in clerical behaviour’?

The future Archbishop of Melbourne found his political feet quickly.  ‘To reason with the average politician unless you vote against him also, is about as useful as throwing confetti at a rhinoceros.’  The author says this was not tactful, but ‘Mannix could never resist a pithy phrase.’

In truth, God did not do Mannix a favour in sending him to Australia in 1913.  The young nation was about to heed England’s call to war at the very time when five centuries of England’s racist contempt for the Irish would finally come home to poison people on both sides of the Irish Sea.  The Irish attitude to the English and the war was the opposite of ours.  It became hopelessly toxic after the English shot those involved in the Easter uprising.  Any chance of Mannix reflecting any part of the Sermon on the Mount when it came to the English went clean out the window.  And yet the English Crown was and is our Head of State.  How was this conflict to be resolved?  What mattered more to Mannix – God or Ireland?

The book has good anecdotes about the principal opponent of Mannix – another foreign born Hell raiser, the Welsh Protestant, Billy Hughes.  At Versailles, Woodrow Wilson told Hughes he only spoke for five million people.  ‘I speak for sixty thousand dead.  For how many do you speak for, Mr President?’

It was on conscription and state aid for Catholic schools that Mannix nailed his theses to the door.  The first issue poisoned Australian public life during the First World War, although it did not stop a government fifty years later from imposing a viciously unjust conscription is an unjust and losing war, while the second issue continues to infect our whole policy on education.

These two public controversies created Mannix as leader.  Being seen in single combat with the prime minister gave him a status that no other churchman attained.  If there had been no war in Europe, and if Home Rule had come quietly to Ireland, would Mannix have been a hero to his people?  A priest who had known him at Maynooth thought not.  Mannix was not loved until he was reviled, said Father Morley Coyne.  Out of the hatred roused in the war years came a strong bond with the people.  An unlikely alliance between the austere intellectual and the working class Catholics was formed in 1916.  That was one element in the Newman College campaign.  It also brought the university closer to the aspirations of working class Catholic parents.  A Catholic college might open the door to privilege.  ‘My son the lawyer’, ‘my son the doctor’….these were better dreams than ‘my son at the front.’

Mannix ‘was not loved until he was reviled’ may be the key to the whole book.  Is a relation founded on revulsion sound for a man of God?  What about a chip on your shoulder about the Protestant Ascendancy?  The English Crown – our Crown – does have to be not just a Protestant, but a communicant Anglican.  How big a problem was this for this profoundly Irish man?

When Mannix went to England, they blocked his entry to Ireland.  He could not see his mother.  Lloyd George offered to allow her to visit her son in London.

She would have accepted Lloyd George’s offer if her son had allowed it.  She felt that his isolation in England was leading him astray; he simply did not know how it was in Ireland.  He made his choice, with what degree of pain or regret no one can ever know.  He put politics ahead of the family tie, and his mother never saw him again.

A man who puts an idea ahead of a person is flirting with Perdition.

There were some pluses.  Mannix became reconciled with Hughes in circumstances that are movingly recorded in the book.  The long serving prison chaplain Father Brosnan said that he learned confidence from Mannix and not to be concerned ‘with who people were.’  If properly fashioned, that is a very useful lesson.  But from time to time, Mannix was rebuked from Rome for his politics.  On one occasion, he was directed to refrain from ‘any statement whatever of a political character.’  Like throwing confetti at a rhinoceros.

This was at a time when Rome sent an envoy to Australia whose task was to dilute the Irish bias among Australian prelates.  The man chosen was Giovanni Pannico, whose English was far inferior to his Latin and who charged like a wounded bull for officiating at church functions.  Pannico was ruthless.  He despatched a man called Lonergan to Port Augusta.  The move killed him.

What the author called the Vatican chess game was lost by Mannix, but he did get his red hat at a time when a new ethnic front was opening up.  Italian migrants were landing in numbers, but ‘the Irish-Australian Catholic majority, rapidly rising in the world, kept its distance from this new underclass.’  It was ever thus.  I have heard Greeks complain of the Irish conspiracy to lock them out of the heights of the professions.

The relationship between Mannix and Santamaria was close and strong.  The ‘split’ came from the ‘Movement.’

The Movement, which owed its existence to Mannix and Santamaria, was an informal Catholic organisation.  Nameless and secret, it came to the rescue of the beleaguered trade unionists.  Santamaria saw the possibilities of the parish structure, and Mannix, who controlled the diocese, gave him the power to use them.  Every Catholic belonged to a parish.

This might remind some of the Freemasons.  What they got was ‘a straggling mass of spiritual infantry’, more militant than the Salvos, and feared and loathed by a large part of the nation.

They showed that almost helpless affinity with the Right that troubles so many Australians.  Most Australian Catholics sided with Franco who was a murderous dictator and an ally of Hitler – with whom the Pope had done a deal.  ‘They saw General Franco as the saviour of European civilisation which Spain embodied.’  The most polite term for that mindset from most Australians would be ‘warped’, but here again religion was driving some Australians into manic positions on another foreign quarrel.  The notion that Mannix expressed political views as a private person was risible.

And Mannix kept expressing views about foreign affairs.  He deplored the bombing of German civilian targets as well as Coventry, and he said that the use of the atomic bomb in Japan was ‘indefensible and immoral.’  If so, Truman and Churchill were war criminals.  Was this man of the cloth really so lethal?  Was he aware that Truman was advised that an invasion of Japan could well cost America one million of its men?  What did an Irish prelate know about ‘unconditional surrender’?

The part dealing with Mannix and Evatt is especially sad.  An authentic Australian stirrer meets an authentic Australian tragedy.  The dealings about funding schools do not make good reading.  The author says Santamaria was shocked by Evatt’s opportunism.  He said Evatt was ‘a man without a soul’.  (How many successful Australian politicians are remembered for their ‘soul’?)  But as the 1954 election drew near, Mannix was very much for Evatt.  He had been tempted by Evatt’s promises of almost unlimited sums for Catholic schools.  Then along came Petrov, and Labor lost.

In November 1954, he [Evatt] made his bid for survival as leader by denouncing Movement members and supporters for disloyalty, and by indirectly exposing the still unknown Santamaria’s role in undermining Labor Party independence.  Another Labor Split – the third in Mannix’s time in Australia – brought back much of the sectarian bitterness of the conscription period.

It’s almost too painful to read.  A generation – mine – was denied two party politics, and the broad sunlit uplands were overshadowed by religious hate.  The hatred was awful.  As one Caucus meeting became a melee, one leader jumped on a chair and screamed ‘Take their names’, and Evatt descended into a long night of madness.  One sane but bemused ALP MP said: ‘I no more like Australia receiving instructions from Rome than from Moscow.’

All that has gone now, but with it, most of the religion has gone too.  In driving to and from Ballarat the other day, by different routes, I passed about twenty churches.  Nearly all of them now are little more than relics.  It’s very sad.  Only God knows how much that decline owes to the misused talents of two clever zealots.

Brenda Niall’s book looks very sound to me, but it is not a pretty or happy story.  These are dark pages of a tawdry history that our children have been happy to put behind us.

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