Dr Andrew Kania's overview of Catholicism in Australia published in The Tablet last week has generated much comment in response. There have been other articles in the media, written for audiences in other countries, seeking to give a brief over view of the Church in Australia. Dr Graham English felt that Dr Kania offered too static view of the Church in this country and seeks in this commentary to offer an alternative view to the one presented by Dr Kania.
Church: static or dynamic?
There are some things about Andrew Kania's recent article In The Tablet that I disagree with. The main one is his static view of church. The other things I disagree with spring from this.
I am a Catholic who left school before Vatican II began, who was trained in a strict novitiate where the old Church was presumed to be monolithic and eternal, and who then experienced the joy and frustrations of Vatican II and the time since. I have spent my life since, often confused, sometimes despondent, sometimes joyful about Catholicism. Now, to explain church to myself I find that the most helpful description of church is the one Jesus uses in Matthew 18:20, 'where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them'.
Jesus didn't mention the necessity for martyrs, or theologians, or even canonised saints as criteria for church. It was all about people gathered around a Eucharistic table in his name, and that has been going on here for a long time.
Australia was colonized by the British. That means many things like rule of law, democracy, cricket, and sadly an inbuilt anti-Catholicism that since the Reformation and Foxes' Book of Martyrs has been part of British life. Just as Australians have given as good as they've got in cricket and rugby especially when we are playing 'the old enemy' Catholics here have given as good as they got. We can be sectarian too, and have been. We can look after ourselves.
Many cultures, not many martyrs…
Now Australia has many cultures and the Catholic Church here was in on that early too. We are about 10% Italian, for example. We have Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans, Philippinos, Croatians, Poles. You name it, we have some. And we are part of the churches they came from as well as inculturating Catholicism here. My Irish ancestors were persecuted by my English ancestors and no doubt my English ancestors were persecuted right back. I have photos of John Henry Newman, Thomas Merton (he was half New Zealander) and Karl Rahner above my desk because I think they were all great men and each has influenced me. I am part of the same church they are part of.
Back to the canonised saints, martyrs and theologians; in Australia we are inclined to canonize sportsmen and race horses. We all know that is crass but it saves sectarian fighting. If you look at the British Church and that of the United States (overtly religious as they are) you will notice they don't have all that many recently canonised saints either. Canonization is an Italian, Polish, European thing.
Different sorts of "martyrs"…
I am glad we don't have many martyrs, in the sense of people being eaten by lions (here it would be crocodiles anyway), beheaded, or put up in front of firing squads. That is partly because we have managed to get killed fighting in European wars rather than killing each other over religion. Our martyrs have their names on war memorials. We began as a country at the height of the Enlightenment in a place where drought, floods, fires and the fauna are enough to contend with without religious warfare.
Besides, we have our martyrs to religion. There are young Irish nuns buried in wild, windswept towns like Coonamble and Coolgardie who died from overwork and inappropriate food and clothing; women who had too many children and rough husbands who were told it was what God wanted; lonely old priests who slowly drank themselves to death while living in tiny villages in the bush, the thoughtful and intelligent men and women who asked good questions and were told to keep quiet, sometimes by leaders more interested in establishing the institution than caring for their people, sometimes by good leaders but men caught up in a model of church they could not resist.
There were also a few whose careers were destroyed by bishops and clergy interfering in politics as well, often importing fights to Australia that would better have been left in Ireland. It might be a short history but to call it 'gentle' is not to know it very well.
Whether we have a plethora of outstanding theologians is debatable. If theology is faith seeking understanding, as St Anselm says, then there has been a long hard struggle among Catholics in Australia to understand what it means to have faith here.
Historians, feminists, novelists and poets…
Often the best work has been done by historians, feminists, novelists and poets; Morris West, Les Murray, Noel Rowe, Gerard Windsor, James McAuley, Bruce Dawe, Erin White, Francis Webb, Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Edmund Campion and Patrick O'Farrell spring quickly to mind. Not all of them are Catholics but we have a tradition here of finding the truth wherever it is tio be found.
We do not have the same intellectual tradition in religion as Britian does, it is true and regrettable, and that goes for the other Christians as well as us. That is partly because the universities chose not to have religion as an area of study, mainly to avoid the sectarian fights that Naomi Turner called 'sinews of sectarian warfare' that Governor Burke tried to stop in the 1830s.
It is also because for the first hundred and fifty years of white settlement we had enough to do to survive. We do of course read Newman, Congar, Chadwick, Ratzinger, Anselm, and the whole European tradition of which we claim to be a vital part. With the influx of Asian Christians in the last thirty years we are now part of that too and maybe we are the place where east and west will meet. Also since John Paul II's public recognition of Aboriginal religion in his 1986 visit here we might have something to add to the worldwide church when all of us understand and live it ourselves.
There are other things to contest but I will leave them to others. One that I have to address though is the claim that Catholicism in Australia is the religion of the upper class. First I am not sure what that means; and I accept that the present prime minister and some of the High Court judges and one of our most outstanding governors general and many lawyers, doctors, academics, military leaders and the rest went to Catholic schools or are Catholics. The Jesuits and Loreto Sisters run schools that wealthier Catholics send their children to, but those same orders also work in poorer areas and contribute to education generally. Wherever you find the poor and downtrodden in Australia you will find Catholics.
A country of migrants…
But social betterment is part of the pattern in Australia. We are a country of migrants. Migrants come here from Britain, Ireland, Greece, Vietnam, Italy, Cambodia, Nepal, Sudan, the Middle East; you name it and we have some of them here. Usually for the first generation they have lowly jobs but like migrants everywhere, if they can they seek education and identity. Those who are able, through education or sport, or good luck often become secure. In Australia it was the British migrants first who did this, then the Irish (and yes Catholic schools contributed a lot to that), then it was the Greeks and Italians (and a lot of the Greeks go to Catholic schools); now it is the Vietnamese, the Croatians, the Pacific Islanders, the East Timorese, people from Iraq and Lebanon and others. Catholic schools in Sydney have a strong Sudanese group who will eventually be part of the mix that is the Australian Catholic Church.
Incidentally there are quite a few Moslems in Catholic schools and some at Australian Catholic University. When some Moslems in Sydney thought of setting up their own schools in the 1980s they approached the Catholic Education Office for advice. During World Youth Day one Moslem school is hosting Catholic pilgrims.
I have claimed elsewhere that Catholic schools are the hope of the Church here, especially our teachers who pound for pound are the best educated in Catholicism of all Catholics here.
With all the migration over the years Australia is a little over a quarter Catholic and there are Catholics in every part of Australian society. About 14% of Australian Catholics attend Mass more than once a month and that is way below the 60% who it is claimed did so in the 1950s when the Catholic sub-culture was at its strongest. The 1950s figure was high partly because there was anti-Catholicism about and partly because some bishops and clergy were as sectarian back.
Then most of us were at least partly of Irish descent but we didn't think of ourselves as Irish. For example most of us knew no Irish history, no Irish geography, very few Irish saints even. Much of our devotional life was French inspired but we certainly did not think ourselves French. We were just Catholics. We were migrants or the children or grandchildren of migrants and we worked to become part of the mainstream; and we did. We were relatively united as Catholics but it was as Australian Catholics. We were and still are just another way of being church, and in a place that is always changing we are an ever changing way of being church.
What are your thoughts on Dr English's commentary?
©2008 Dr Graham English