Serendipitously arriving in my mail box last Friday was a new book book from Garratt Publishing recounting another side of the influence of prominent layman, Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, on the Catholic landscape of Australia. This time the rural landscape of this nation and his attempts through the National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM) to build some kind of agrarian, small plot utopia in this land. In his essay commentary last week Dr Graham English mentioned, almost in passing, Santamaria's attempts to give life to a vision of almost peasant agriculture. It was one of Bob Santamaria's significant defeats and in this new book, Kevin Peoples, who was for a brief time enamoured of the vision, has gone to primary sources to document the history. As indicated in our recent concentration on the book of Dr Anne O'Brien, which also has a significant focus on the endeavours of Mr Santamaria and his various organisations, this is not just ancient history. Some of the bishops who were infatuated with the Santamaria vision and style now control the Catholic institutional agenda in this country and many are asking today to what sort of final destination they are leading the Church: to some resurgence or to a dénouement like the almost now forgotten Democratic Labor Party, or initiatives like the NCRM?
A book about two conflicting views of lay action in the world...
Let me emphasize at the outset that this is a preview of a book. I've not yet read all of it but only about six chapters: the introduction and opening four chapters, the key chapter about two thirds the way through the book where this little project of Mr Santamaria's seems to have come to a sticky end, and the closing couple of chapters. From what I've read so far I'm mighty keen to read the rest. My enthusiasm partly comes because this is also part of my history — my own family heritage from Western Australia included a large dose of the Santamaria vision; partly because what Kevin Peoples outlines in this book is the story of how a small minority seeks to control a much larger population; but lastly because it is beautifully written as I hope a couple of quotes I've chosen might demonstrate.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the book's dedication, which reads: "For the members of the National Catholic Rural Movement who deserved better". Kevin Peoples was for a time a fan, indeed a salesman for the Santamaria vision. As the dedication hints he became disillusioned. At right under the image of the book's cover you can read the Publisher's Blurb to promote the book. I think however Kevin Peoples' own words which I lift here from Chapter Four of the Book "Opposing Views of Catholic Action" take us to the nub of what this book is trying to explore: two opposing and ultimately incompatible views of what the Catholic endeavour is about.
One is the view that is labelled the Jocist vision of the Belgian priest and founder of the Young Catholic Workers movement, Monsignor Joseph Cardijn. The other is the very different vision of Mr Santamaria downunder in Australia. Here's how Kevin Peoples' outlines the contest:
One of the first things I learnt in the YCW was how the church had lost the working class in the previous century. The Catholic church in the nineteenth century was triumphal and certain, a divine institution led by the pope who was the vicar of Christ on earth. Wrapped in its own importance and certainties, it had become so self-interested, so fearful of liberalism and socialism, that it was incapable of taking the side of the workers in their struggles against a ruling class whose capitalist ideology was fed by an extreme form of economic liberalism.
Cardijn was a loyal son of the church but his approach to the 'worker question' was very different from the paternalism of the aristocratic Pope Leo XIII. Leo's solutions to the 'worker question' in Rerum Novarum (1891) were framed in a paradigm best suited to earlier centuries. Cardijn read how the workers in England had gained respect during the London Dockers' strike in 1899 and how their leaders were pioneering associations to defend their interests. Shortly after he was ordained a priest in 1906, Cardijn travelled to London during his summer leave and spoke with trade union leaders, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, about the problems facing workers. On his return, he said his discussions with Tillett and Mann did him 'more good than a retreat'. He learnt a lesson that he would never forget: 'workers must be the saviours of workers'. Cardijn would work with the workers, not for the workers.
In 1912 Cardijn became a curate in Laeken, a north-western suburb in Brussels. He stood outside the gates of factories, waiting to meet young workers, wanting to make contact with them and talk about their lives and their work. Rather than the usual questions expected from the clergy, such as 'Do you still go to Mass?', Cardijn offered them cigarettes, asked what work they did, how they got their job, what time they rose to start work and importantly, 'What was it like in there?' He was immediately suspect and accused of involving the church in politics and exposing it to criticism. His cardinal was disturbed by reports of a 'red-hot movement, dangerously open to socialism'.
Cardijn sought to bridge the gap between the world of work and religion. He refused to accept that life could be veneered with a 'shot of religion' on Sunday. His answer was to bring 'the whole of Christianity into the whole of life'. With his small group of young workers he so upset his fellow priests, his cardinal, the employers and pious Catholics, that they thought him a communist. 'I Eventually, because of his critics, he was forced to travel to Rome in 1925 and seek the direct support of Pius XI to continue his work.'
Because of Cardijn, the YCW developed a broad social, economic and political but not party political – apostolate. We called it a total apostolate embracing the whole of life. This broad apostolate in the world was exercised through its individual members and sometimes through its representatives at a national or state level. Campaigns, planned and organised for local groups at a national and or state level, focussed on issues critically important to young workers. Individuals may have performed the action and determined the local response, but it was frequently action carried out in a coordinated manner within the context of a particular issue. It was this approach that Pius XI (1857-1939) identified as 'a perfect example' of Catholic Action.
And now here is the nub of the book's argument...
One issue that will dominate much of this story is the nature of Catholic Action and especially how Bob Santamaria's view conflicted with the YCW's view and the official church's view. Despite the official teaching of the church and the obvious evidence to the contrary, Bob did not accept that the YCW had a total apostolate. It is an argument he will repeat throughout these pages – in particular at our confrontation with him in April 1961 at the NCRM special convention held at the La Verna monastery in Kew. Eventually, he would reach this same conclusion about Catholic Action itself. Throughout his career as a national leader of Catholic Action, first as assistant director of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action (ANSCA) in 1938, then as director after 1946, he defined the work of the YCW as narrowly religious – the work of individual acts of charity, confined to the local parish. As far as Bob was concerned, the aim of the YCW 'was to win back lost Catholic workers to the church'. He was wrong. According to the official teaching of the church, one of the aims of Catholic Action was 'to solve all problems of life, whether of public or of private life, of civil or of political life'. Pius XI, pope from 1922-1939, and the person responsible for defining the modern form of Catholic Action, insisted that the aim of Catholic Action was 'to Christianise the whole of society'. Contrary to Bob, Pius taught that the scope of Catholic Action was social in nature: "Catholic Action also justly names itself social action, for it aims at expanding the Kingdom of Christ, and to obtain thus for society the maximum good, and then, all the other benefits ... that belong to the good ordering of a nation, and are called 'political'."
We might well ask, as I have been doing regularly in our forum, if at the heart of the present crisis Catholicism is facing in the educated world (i.e. the exit out of the pews and the crisis in vocations) is a profound confusion over what the very objective is in "being a Catholic"?
This book is also a joy for its writing style...
I mentioned above that what I am finding most appealing in this book is Kevin Peoples' writing style. There is a certain gentleness to it despite the content of the book being about a very serious conflict over ideology. It perhaps reflects some of the Cardijn spirituality that Kevin is trying to describe in the paragraphs above.
In the early chapters of the book Kevin gives this warm outline of his own family circumstances in rural Victoria. What comes through is this deep affection for his own parents and indeed for almost all the folks in the country town where he was brought up. What also struck me was that he is describing an entire milieu or the paradigm that many older Australian Catholics would remember with a mix of both nostalgia and this sense "I'm glad we've moved on from that". I found myself wondering if part of the problem for many of us more senior Catholics today who have raised families through to adulthood is if we're trying to "bridge a divide" today that is virtually unbridgeable. Take for instance this poignant piece of writing which tells us much of the spiritual paradigm in which his mother lived which today would be almost utterly foreign for today's young Catholics in tears worried whether a dead prime minister of his country had lost his "immortal soul".
As for my mother's politics, I remember coming home from school for lunch in 1951 and finding her in tears. Ben Chifley had just died. My mother was distraught. It wasn't just that Chifley was dead but that he had died suddenly and he had married outside the church. Through her tears my mother said that Ben was a regular Sunday Mass-goer but could not receive the sacraments. His sudden death meant he had lost the chance to seek forgiveness through a final confession. While I have no doubt that my mother loved Ben Chifley for his politics, it was also the case that she was desperately sad at the possibility of him losing his immortal soul.
Many years later, during my time working at the Canberra Institute of Technology, I received a message from its director, Norm Fisher. The institute had just taken over the Hotel Kurrajong in Barton. 'I want to show you something', he said. The Kurrajong was to become an educational college for international students in tourism and hospitality under Norm's control. We walked up the stairs to the first floor past workers transforming the hotel to a college and stepped into a small bedroom. 'This is the room where Ben Chifley died', he said.
Norm is the CEO and my boss. I am the union man. We were born in the same year. We both studied at the University of Melbourne. We have similar backgrounds. When Norm died suddenly, the institute asked me to speak on behalf of all the staff at a special service held in his honour. At the Kurrajong we stand together with our own thoughts. I recall being conscious of the smallness of the room, its cold formality. Ben Chifley deserved a better place to die. I contrasted this drab anonymity with the excitement of the grand state ball celebrating the golden jubilee of the commonwealth to which Ben was invited on the night he died. He didn't attend and Prime Minister Menzies, having been told that Chifley had died, dried his tears and announced to the dignitaries assembled that 'a fine Australian' had just died. The music stopped and Chifley's friends quietly went home. And I remembered my mother, broom in hand in our kitchen in Terang, in tears at the thought of Chifley dead and, possibly, losing his immortal soul.
From what I have read so far I highly recommend this book. You can order it from Garratt Publishing via the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace HERE.
If any of our readers would like to write a review of this book for Catholica I will be happy to send you a copy of the book to keep in exchange for your review. [First in best dressed. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Brian Coyne, 23 April 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?