INTRODUCTION: I was invited by the editor of Catholica to review Anne O'Brien's Blazing a Trail: Catholic Education in Victoria 1963-1980. It is a relatively old book having been published by David Lovell in 1999 but I agreed because it is a fine piece of work that anyone seriously interested in the history of Catholic education in Australia especially since World War II needs to have read. Anyone doing research in the area will also need to take seriously what O'Brien recounts and what she thinks it all means. It is about Victoria but what happened there affected what happened everywhere else in Australia. Much of the history of the Church in Australia since the 1960s had its beginnings in the splits, the politics, the power plays and the machinations of the people who were managing, encouraging or resisting change in the immediate post Vatican II Church in Victoria. So I am writing a review essay rather than just a review. The years since it came out mean that I can comment with a wider perspective and I can ask if time has thrown a different light on some of her conclusions. I can also see it as part of a wider theme, something she hints at all through the book but which was not her thesis at the time and so remains a sub-text. …Dr Graham English
Catholic Education from 1963 to 1980, blazing a trail or a march into folly?
What the book says...
Blazing a Trail recounts the story of the fight for block funding for Catholic schools. Block funding, money passed on by the government to the system as a whole means that the Catholic school system distributes the money according to need so that poorer areas are not deprived of good schools and that all schools as far as possible can offer sound education in good facilities. This is what happens in Catholic systemic schools now and it has for a long time thanks to Father Frank Martin, Archbishop James Carroll and the people who aided and supported them. The present Gonski Report has more to say on this but that is not the point of this book or this review.
In the early 1960s Catholic schools were in dire straits. There were too many children, too few teachers, poor facilities and society and the Church were in a state of rapid unpredictable change. In Melbourne Daniel Mannix had been Archbishop for nearly fifty years, he was almost 100 years old and he allowed B. A. Santamaria and a small group of Jesuits to make policy. They were anti the Labor Party and they were ideologues committed to a conservative cause.
Years after these events when he was launching AD2000 in 1988 Santamaria claimed his mission was to defend orthodoxy. He had no theological or religious education qualifications. Yet he claimed his task was 'to distinguish what is true from what is false, what is faithful from unfaithful, what are the essential doctrines and teachings and what are the outer parameters of those essential beliefs, beyond which one may quite conceivably achieve sanctity, but cannot claim to be a Christian'. (In fact his interest was not in Christianity but in Catholicism only. He presumed that 'Christian' and 'Catholic' were synonymous.) His arrogance still amazes me after all this time. He displays this same tendency in his earlier actions and writing. He believes that he has the right to decide what is best for all other Catholics even in areas in which he is not qualified to speak. O'Brien's book establishes this very well.
In 1963 some schools, as O'Brien points out, were owned by parishes and others by religious orders. This was the same all over Australia. The bishops stood back from the order run schools and the orders trained their members as teachers and conducted their schools and supplied sisters and brothers for parish schools as well. This model had worked more or less for about seventy years but it was in trouble. Orders were aware they were in trouble. For example the Christian Brothers considered the idea of withdrawing from half the schools they staffed and moving the Brothers to the ones they owned. Thus they thought they could go on as before. In hindsight this would have been a mistake. Since the mid-1970s the Brothers have had almost no novices and they now have almost no Brothers even in their own schools. Nothing was going to be the same but the extent of the changes was not clear to anyone then, even the doomsayers.
Also at this time the political scene was changing and Labor looked a prospect of governing again after twenty three years of conservative governments. The Church authorities knew they needed to be open to different possibilities. Fortunately there were several very able people available to negotiate with governments and opposition politicians. The leaders in this were Father Frank Martin and Archbishop James Carroll [Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney 1954-1984, under Cardinals Norman Gilroy (1940-71); James Freeman (1971-83); Edward Clancy (1983-2001), Auxiliary Archbishop from 1965.] . Their openness persuaded even people like Joan Kirner, then a staunch defender of government schools and later the first woman to be a state premier in Australia, that Catholics wanted a sound education for all and that they were not partisan or narrowly self-serving.
Not all Catholics were of the same mind as Martin and Carroll, however. A small clique intent on maintaining Liberal Party government and promoting elite schools tried to undermine the work of Martin and Carroll. At this time there were also substantial changes in religious education in Catholic schools, in many ordinary Catholics' ways of thinking about ethics particularly contraception, and in the changing role the laity saw for themselves in the Church. The same people who resisted Martin and Carroll were resisting any change in the Church. They wanted the power to stay where it was, in their hands or in those of their allies. As I have claimed above with the quote from AD2000, these people claimed for themselves the mantle of Catholic orthodoxy and the right to judge everyone else and they did not scruple to use any methods that would accomplish their aims. It was a torrid time in Australian Catholicism.
The scene was confused by religious orders that were also caught up in change and their leaders were not at all sure where it was heading. The Christian Brothers had never trusted bishops. And some of them naively thought that the changes were just a passing phase and that everything would soon return to normal. Soon vocations would pick up and there would be Brothers to staff the schools. As late as the mid-1960s the Brothers were saying that 'lay teachers' were an interim measure until more young people entered the novitiates and took up the slack. Some of the Brothers did not see things this way at all but at this time they were still the outsiders. There was tension in the orders as well as the wider Church.
O'Brien recounts the stages in the battle for state aid, and the battle between those Catholics working to handle change and those intent on resisting it. She shows that some groups and individuals had agendas that were not the ones they claimed to espouse. The Australian Parents' Council for instance had no intention of representing all Catholic parents, or of accepting the changes in the Church called for by Vatican II. Cardinal Knox, by then Archbishop of Melbourne wrote of them, "I do not accord the Parents and Friends Federation … the right to act in doctrinal matters as judges." This did not stop their resistance but it showed where Knox stood.
O'Brien says that much of the struggle against change was personal for Santamaria and I suspect this was so for many of those involved in trying to defeat Martin and Carroll as they worked for a new way of having Catholic schools. Catholic religious education had always until then relied on rote learning of the catechism and on a strong almost tribal adherence to piety and church attendance. In some schools secondary students were taught apologetics, how to argue the case for what they did and believed as Catholics. But few Catholics even teachers were well educated in religion. Most Catholics were largely ignorant of the Bible and especially the new scholarship that was underlying the Council. Many Catholics, and Santamaria for all his intelligence was one, had an emotional need to have things stay exactly as they were. But by 1968 this was not a choice in the Church and by 1972 it was not a choice politically in Australia. Bob Dylan had been right, the times had indeed changed.
CORRECTION: In the Catholica e-Bulletin yesterday the editor suggested that Archbishop James Carroll was only an Auxiliary Bishop. In fact he was made an Auxiliary Archbishop of Sydney in 1965 so the title Archbishop is correct. Bishop James Darcy Freeman, then Bishop of Armidale and a former Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, was promoted over his head to become Archbishop of Sydney on 9th July 1971.
Dr Graham English. Submitted to Catholica on 17th April 2012.
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