B.A. Santamaria and Australian Catholicism: Cardinal Pell's tribute

B.A. Santamaria and Australian Catholicism: Cardinal Pell's tribute

Cardinal George Pell

The following are extracts from Cardinal George Pell's recent address at the launch of B.A. Santamaria, Your Most Obedient Servant: Selected Letters 1938-1996 (available from Freedom Publishing, $49.95).

As a layman B.A. Santamaria was the best known Catholic in Australia from the death of Archbishop Mannix in 1963 until his own death in 1998. His contemporaries were so used to this fact that many were surprised when reminded that there was no lay figure in the English-speaking world in the 20th century with anything like his influence or public position. Catholic Australia was then dominated by the clergy.

When he entered Catholic public life in the 1930s there were no school boards, parish councils and diocesan finance councils for lay people, as these were fruits of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Catholic leadership was entirely clerical, apart from the nuns and brothers.

Santamaria made a major contribution to winning 'state aid' for Catholic schools, i.e., in obtaining federal and state government finance so that Catholic schools could continue.

This was a struggle that lasted for over eighty years and was the major cause of Catholic dissatisfaction with Australian life. The denial of government funding was an injustice and bitterly resented.

The major breakthrough occurred in 1964 with grants for Catholic school science blocks from the Menzies' Government. In 1966 Bob told Senator Vince Gair, 'After all, throughout 1963 I was engaged personally in dealing with them on the education question over several meetings. The 'science block' legislation emerged out of personally thrashing out the different aspects of the problem face to face'.

There is not the slightest reason to doubt any of these claims and Archbishop Mannix was aware of what was promised by Menzies, the breakthrough to the Promised Land, before he died in November 1963.

However, for Santamaria the Catholic schools in the Promised Land proved to be a bitter disappointment. In 1983 he foresaw Catholic schools 'becoming a dutiful appendage of the State', exactly what the bishops of 1872 opposed. For him, government money produced ecclesiastical bureaucracies which took power from the bishops so that the faith of two generations was threatened by the unexpected consequences of Vatican II and the disintegration of the family.

During his lifetime Santamaria never became a revered elder statesman within the Australian Catholic community, a status he almost achieved in Australian public life in his last years. He always remained much too influential, too effective in the fight to reverse the decline in Australian Catholicism to be dismissed from active duty and patronised in this way.

To recognise these difficulties publicly today is now the received wisdom across the spectrum of religion and irreligion, but twenty or thirty years ago it took some courage to point out such problems.

The increase in absolute numbers through migration obscured the percentage declines, most never recognised too clearly what was happening until they realised their children were not worshipping regularly (and sometimes their grandchildren were not even baptised), but there was also a feeling that it was an implied criticism of the Council, disloyalty, to point out the disappointing realities.

The new Catholic bureaucracies often exiled and persecuted orthodox dissenters, who were also liable to the devastating critique that they sounded just like Santamaria.

Today we have some reasonable idea sociologically of where we are, principally through the five studies of the late Brother Marcellin Flynn, FMS, which catalogued the rise of ignorance and confusion and the decline of commitment and practice in the Catholic schools between 1972-1998.

The Redemptorist sociologist Father Michael Mason has done similar work on the wider Catholic community, culminating in his recent revelations on Generation Y.

One of our own Sydney atheists Paddy McGuiness, who is both pro-Catholic and pre-Vatican II, wrote recently that the Catholic Church 'succumbed belatedly to the Reformation in the 1960s'. In fact the rot has run much further and the challenges are much deeper now; i.e., agnosticism, multi-form superstition and pick-a-box morality.

At one stage I feared that the Church in Australia might collapse as radically as the Church did in Holland and French-speaking Canada, mainly because of hostile outside pressures, but also because of our own mistakes. This danger has now been avoided in most parts of Australia, and Santamaria, as much as any other individual, helped achieve this comparative stabilisation.

In 1990 he replied in a devastating riposte to Father Brian Fleming SJ, then personal assistant to Archbishop Little, who had accused him of politicising theology. 'I took', he wrote, 'the extremely risky step of starting AD2000 at the age of 73'. AD2000 is of course a religious magazine, which continues to thrive today. We owe it a lot.

AD2000 tapped into the revival of Catholic life led by Pope John Paul II, becoming part of a world-wide web of orthodoxy, spreading information and ideas, bringing encouragement to those struggling in isolation and so reminding the Roman authorities that there did exist in Australia some local capacity to continue the struggle to improve our situation.

This struggle for the heart of Catholicism has now been taken up by a significant minority of young Catholic activists and by most of the reduced number of young Catholic priests. AD2000's role is still important, but initially it was fundamental and indispensable.

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