Catholic Action History in Australia

Catholic Action History in Australia

This is a slightly summarised version of a talk given by historian Edmund Campion. It is a presentation of a chapter from his book 'Australian Catholics' (Viking 1987). We thank him for permission to include it here.

In the life of a city, institution, or church, there come moments when a bystander can read what is really happening in these places. Such a moment, for example, was the 1928 Eucharistic Congress Procession in Sydney. It drew the biggest crowd seen since the Federation March of 1901. 18,000 people marched, and many, many more watched. Many of the watchers were women, for the Legion of Mary were the only women who actually marched. A group of Maoris from NZ took part, but there were no aborigines among the marchers. You can read what is happening in a church in an event such as this.

Another such event was the Catholic Life Exhibition held in Melbourne in 1955. Its purpose, said the organisers, was 'to show that the Catholic Church is unique in the complexity and extent of its activities.' Denys Jackson called it a 'Spiritual Industries Fair'. The 200,000 visitors wandered between stands staffed by nuns and priests eager to talk about their particular religious order. The Catholic Education Office gave evidence of the growth of Catholic schools in Victoria - from 41 pupils in 1841 to 88,000 in 1955. There were stands for the Victorian Catholic Lawn Tennis Association, the Legion of Mary, the Holy Name Society, the Catholic Scouts, the Catholic Evidence Guild, and even one for the Catholic Walking Club.

Also represented at the exhibition were lay movements founded some 15 years earlier: the National Catholic Rural Movement (120 parish groups. 4.000 members), the Young Christian Workers (17 dioceses, 5.000 members) and the Young Catholic Students (240 schools in 23 dioceses. 6,000 members). These movements shared a common approach learned from European Catholic Action. While other church bodies sought converts or existed to protect members from moral contagion. Catholic Action groups aimed to change society. Their role was to form men and women in the Gospel and in christian social principles so that they could transform the world in which they lived and worked, making it more human and hence more christian. Where other movements were auxiliaries to the clergy — the Legion of Mary, for instance, helped conduct the parish census - Catholic Action movements concentrated on the specific vocations of the laity in the world. This development of lay spirituality has been one of the highlights of the 20th Century Catholicism. Catholic action brought it home to Australian Parishes. In small groups everyday Catholics examined critically the contradictions of society, assessed them in the light of christian principles, and searched for ways to change the world. They hereby discovered a lay vocation with revolutionary potential.

The Beginnings of Catholic Action in Australia

In looking at the origins of Catholic Action Australia, we must remember Kevin T. Kelly, who corresponded with Cardijn and in 1939 published a pamphlet on the YCW (Jocists) that sold 15,000 copies in 6 months In the same year, Paul McGuire and English priest John Fitzsimons published a book.'Restoring All Things' - the first major English language publication on Jocism.

When Kevin Kellv went away to the war. the initiative for starting YCW in Australia passed to a young priest, Francis Lombard, who had begun a Jocist group for boys in Northcote Parish in 1939. By 1941 the YCW had supplanted the Catholic Boys League (CBL), which, until then, had dominated the Melbourne Catholic youth scene.

Lombard had flair. Throughout the 1940s he held annual youth rallies at Xavier College with the YCW prominent in them. They rivalled the annual Eucharistic festivals at Sunbury and the St. Patrick's Day parades. An activist himself, Lombard was able to call on the intellectual power of other priests, such as John F. Kelly, who edited The Chaplain.

While keeping the small leaders' groups characteristic of Jocism, they ensured that the YCW became a mass movement through its sporting teams. Thus in October 1943 when there were 47 leaders' groups, there were 4.000 general members. 51 teams in the YCW football competition and 38 teams playing cricket.

The year 1943 also saw the appointment of Frank McCann as first full-time organiser and national secretary of the YCW Outside Melbourne there were already leaders' groups in Newcastle(N.S.W.), Brisbane. Mackay (Qld.). Wagga Wagga (N.S.W.). Toowoomba (Qld.) and Ballarat (Vic.)

McCann was to work from the offices of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action (ANSCA) in Melbourne. Established in 1937 by the bishops. ANSCA's role was to develop specialised movements on the Jocist model. The Sydney archdiocese soon rejected this model and opted for a clericalist approach to the lay apostolate.

Catholic Action and Class Structures

ANSCA's founders were two Campion Society men. F. K. Maher and B.A. Santamaria. Maher, who taught Santamaria at school, was the senior of the two. He began to produce booklets on the theoretical basis of Catholic Action which came to be regarded as the most comprehensive literature available in English. Jocist-style Catholic Action followed the class structures of modern society. Accordingly Maher put his energies into developing movements for adult and young workers. He drew on the critique of industrial society developed in Catholic circles during the 1930s. This opposed the agglomeration and giantism of modern industry and called for worker participation in management.

Thus the first Australian bishops' Social Justice statement in 1940 pointed to the disparity between 1.5 million Australian workers on a weekly wage of less than five pounds and the 1,000 taxpayers who averaged 170 pounds per week. The statement called for changes in the wage system, especially through industry control by occupational groups. Social Justice statements, drafted for the bishops principally by Santamaria. became an annual feature of Catholic life until the mid-1950s. In 1940 Santamaria was able to write, 'the grave problems with which the war will confront the workers arc already being tackled by Catholic workers themselves.'

The National Catholic Rural Movement

Santamaria's primary task in ANSCA was to develop a farmers' movement. In February 1940 farmers from Victoria and the Riverina met at Xavier College and founded the National Catholic Rural Movement(NCR MI Although he was a city intellectual, as NCRM secretary Santamaria could inspire rural workers with the national dimensions of their vocation. In turn their actual farming experience kept the young secretary's feet on the ground.

The NCRM set itself to reverse the flight to the cities by stimulating a rural revival Catholic agricultural colleges at Abergowrie (Qld 4. Woodlawn (N.S.W.) and Tardun (W.A.) were already making a contribution. Among intellectuals there was a strain of back-to-the-land romanticism, as evidenced in the rural commune, Whitlands. which tried to create a new Christian synthesis of cultivation, culture and religion at a sort of lay monastery in the hills north of Melbourne. In 1950 the NCRM inspired a model farming Maryknoll, near Nar Nar Goon in Gippsland (Vic.) which mixed urban and rural living, fanning two-acre Mocks, members could also work in local or nearby industries. In 1957 a similar model opened at San Isidore outside Wagga Wagga (N.S.W.).

The Difficult Question about Politics

Such ventures demonstrated that Catholic Action movements were out to change the social, political and economic structures of Australia. The NCRM manifesto claimed that the organisation was 'completely outside the political sphere'. Another ANSCA publication, This is Catholic Action' was equally definite:

Leaders of Catholic Action may not be leaders in any political movement. Politics may not be discussed at Catholic Action meetings.

Yet what was politics? What was a 'political movement' ? If you were going to change the world, how could you steer clear of politics? And indeed the view that Catholic Action aimed to change the world was authoritatively proposed by the bishops in their 1947 statement 'Catholic Action in Australia' where they proposed aims for the future of the Snowy River scheme.

Nevertheless, the bishops strongly rebutted the idea that Catholic Action was 'a political force designed to place Catholics in positions of office and influence in the political world'. Catholic Action, they maintained, was 'expressly forbidden to intervene in the realm of party polities'. Yet patently there was a tension between the desire to 'make history' in the Murrumbidgee and Murray Valleys and the injunction to stay out of 'party polities'. This tension was to become unbearable because of events on the rim of the national secretariat.

The Fight against Communism

Early in the 1940's friends in the labor movement convinced B. A. Santamaria of a growing danger that the Communist Party would soon control major sections of the trade union movement. They asked him to invigorate Catholics to resist the communist march to power. At the same time, in Sydney, P. J. Ryan MSC had perceived a similar danger and brought together a loose alignment of anti-communist unionists. By the end of 1943 Santamaria was able to report that emergency action had disrupted communist tactics for amalgamating and hence controlling several unions, particularly in heavy industry. Not only had anti-communist unionists been alerted on the shop floor, but radio broadcasts: pamphlets and a weekly newspaper Freedom (from 1946 News Weekly) publicised communist tactics.

Santamaria proposed establishing an anti- communist force, 'a disciplined national organisation which will be modelled completely on the Communist Party and which will work on the same principles of organisation'. Through a Jesuit in Perth, Harold Lalor, Santamaria's 1943 report to interested bishops came into the hands of the security police, who tried to infiltrate the new group, apparently without success. By 1945 Santamaria had a national body of 3,000 members 'ready to do any active organised work required of them'. Its full title was the Catholic Social Studies Movement but it was commonly known as 'The Movement'.

Accepting formal responsibility for the Movement, the bishops pledged funds of 10,000 pounds annually and determined that 'the Movement be controlled, both in policy and finance, by a special Committee of Bishops'.

Orientation of 'The Movement'

The Movement was made up of small groups in the parishes with an interlocking network of groups in trade unions and factories. Meetings were similar to regular Catholic Action meetings, with Gospel discussion, educational items and concern about local problems. There were, however, some important differences. Each Movement member took a pledge of secrecy and an atmosphere of crisis pervaded meetings — in 1951 Santamaria wrote of 'the probability, which humanly speaking amounts almost to a certainty, that Australia will be destroyed as a nation within less than 20 years'.

The main thrust of the organisation was clearly the winning of power in the unions and politics. Groups were to carry out unquestioningly the directives of national headquarters. Dissidents were told to accept central authority, which spoke with the authority of the bishops, or get out. Members had to gather intelligence about their workmates and fellow parishioners. This information went into headquarters, where it was collated. In this way a powerful anti-communist task force was organised within the church. Its front organisations became the Labor Party's Industrial Group movement, which relied heavily on the dedication and self-sacrifice of Santamaria's men and women. Before long considerable success was being recorded.

A Move towards Taking Power

This success brought its own problems. Because of the constitution of the Australian labor movement, victory in union elections gave Movement members a voice in the affairs of the Australian Labor Party. The possibilities of this began to intrigue Santamaria. He saw that what had started as an emergency strike force to halt communists could become an enduring political apparatus. By the early 1950's he had taken the decisions which would turn the Movement into such a political machine. National headquarters in Swanston Street. Melbourne, now had nearly 30 fulltime staff, including three priests.

For his part Santamaria was able to write to Archbishop Mannix in December 1952 that within a few years his Movement would have taken over the labor movement and there would be Movement members in state and federal parliaments. Thus, wrote Santamaria. for the first time in the Anglo-Saxon world since the Reformation, Australian governments would soon be implementing Catholic social programmes. These included state aid for Catholic schools and the settling of Catholic migrants on small farms.

Criticism from within the Church

The emergence of the Santamaria political machine was not without its critics within the church. Sydney churchmen had thought of the Movement as a temporary expedient: they did not want it to go on forever, once communist power was checked. As well, they disliked Santamaria's authoritarian style of leadership Gerard Henderson has described him as a 'quasi-bishop'. As much as any prelate, he expected deference to his opinions.

In YCW circles there was considerable agitation that the Movement was getting the lion's share of church money available for lay movements. The YCW critics, allied to university Catholics, argued that Santamaria's machine made improper use of church authority. They pointed to ambiguities in his own position: he was at one and the same lime director of the Catholic Action secretariat, secretary of the NCRM and leader of 'The Movement'. Yet Catholic Action, by its charter, was supposed to keep out of party politics.

In reply Santamaria denied that he was engaged in party politics: rather, he said, he was attempting the 'permeation' of all political processes. In recent years, however, he has accepted his critics' point of view, writing that what he was trying to do was to run a faction inside the Labor Party.

In October 1953 fourteen chaplains of national Catholic Action movements asked the bishops to make a clear distinction between ANSCA and the Movement. They wanted separate buildings, chaplains and administrative officers. If the church was running a political machine it should be distinct from Catholic Action.

Early in 1954 the Movement moved into new headquarters and Santamaria was asked by the bishops to choose between ANSCA and the Movement. He chose the Movement — and his position remained vacant at ANSCA until the secretariat was closed later in the year.

The Split in the Labor Party

The Movement's Catholic critics continued to argue against the propriety of church sponsorship of a political machine. Then in October 1954 the ALP leader H.V. Evatt, himself under attack for his inept reaction to the Petrov defection, publicly denounced the Movement's activities. Santamaria believed he had the numbers to defeat Evatt within the Labor Party; but the Sydney bishops counseled local Movement members not to adhere to the Santamaria line and he was defeated. Within the church controversy exploded. The Sydney point of view was that as a church body the Movement's political decisions were subject to the authority of the local bishop Santamaria's view was that this not only infringed on the legitimate autonomy of the laity but also rendered impossible the concept of a disciplined national political force. He began to move away from church control and when Rome adjudicated in favour of the Sydney line, he and his followers set up the National Civic Council (N.C.C.) in December 1957. It was designed,'he wrote later,' as a purely civic body with no connection whatsoever with the Church, completely independent of the Bishops, making its own decisions on its own responsibility.' In substance the only change was in its name: its members were mainly Catholic males; they met on church premises; there were chaplains, prayers and pledges of secrecy. As the Perth organiser wrote in 1958, 'we are still fighting the same fight in exactly the same way.'This continuity between the two bodies, once embarrassing, is today admitted.

The Direction taken by the N.C.C.

There was, however, one significant change. Although it received the open support of many churchpeople, the N.C.C. did not speak with the authority of the church. It could not compel consciences as the Movement had once done. The N.C.C. and its political expression, the Democratic Labor Party, became a powerful anti-Labor force enabling Catholics who had moved away from their Labor origins to transfer their votes to the non-Labor parties. Successive conservative Prime Ministers from R. G. Menzies to J. M. Fraser, acknowledged their gratitude

While retaining much Catholic support. Santamaría was able to move into other fields with great profit. In 1982 the N.C.C.'s annual income was $1.2 million. Much of this went on public awareness campaigns ranging from family matters to foreign policy and in support of right wing union candidates. In recent years old associates have found their way back into the Labor Party. But Santamaría, who in 1953 wrote that every major institution of modern life was founded on one or other of the seven deadly sins, remained unreconciled to the modern world.

Consequences in the Lay Apostolate

The consequences of The Movement episode in Australian Catholic history, and particularly in Australian lay Catholic history, are:

1. In post war years, the Catholic population was moving up the socio-economic ladder into the middle and upper middle class. The setting up of the DLP enabled those Catholics to transfer their votes to another party, that included the word 'Labor' — and when the DLP vanished, to transfer them to the conservative parties.

2. Catholic Action movements grew out of a systematic critique of Western capitalist society. That critique had been developing since the 19th century. It was a religious and social and holistic critique. This critique came to an end. The Church had burned its fingers in what it had done and the ideas were abandoned.

3. Loss of confidence in episcopal leadership in the Australian Church can be dated from this time. In 1950 Catholics trusted and liked their bishops, and went to hear them speak. Movement people did what they did basically because they thought that this is what the bishops were asking of them. They now feel that this trust was somehow misplaced. This has extended to become a loss of acceptance by Catholics of what the Church has to say about secular matters.

4. The Lay Apostolate in Australia lost heart

  • it gave up the hope of changing the world — it gave up addressing the big problems that confront Australian society

  • it gave up the chance of speaking in the name of Christ to the world of Work. This has taken a long time to get over. I would like to say that 1 feel that we are seeing, in this seminar here, one of the earliest sentences in a new chapter of the history of the Lay Apostolate in Australia — and that this is why I am truly delighted to be here today.

Edmund Campion