Being a Catholic in 1990: Rev James Murray interviews Bob Santamaria

Being a Catholic in 1990: Rev James Murray interviews Bob Santamaria

James S. Murray

James S. Murray, an Anglican priest from Sydney and religion feature writer for 'The Australian' interviewed B.A. Santamaria as one of a series of investigations of the religious beliefs and attitudes of different Australians prominent in public life.

Between the public image and the real person there is often a gulf of misunderstanding. With Bob Santamaria, those who cross it, especially those who have waged words with him any time, find a man of consummate charm, courtesy and warmth, proud of his family and grateful for its stability.

Now in his early seventies, he retains the incisive intelligence which even his antagonists recognise, and his sense of dismay at some contemporary developments, especially in the Catholic Church, is balanced by a devotion to the pursuit of truth.

He has, also, the saving grace of a sense of humour and if a redoubtable opponent, he does not bear grudges. A conversation with him is always an enjoyment and an exploration.

Although he believed that religious beliefs were generally a personal matter he thought that today they were of wider interest. "Agnostics like Hayck and Kristol now seem to accept that religious belief has served as the cement which holds societies together; and that as ours visibly is not holding together, it is worthy of attention for purely pragmatic reasons. I do not look at religion in that way, but it is a view which justifies discussion."

The son of Italian migrant parents, he says they came to Australia at about the turn of the century.

Understanding the Catholic faith was part of his upbringing, but, he admits, "as one comes closer to the moment in which he must face his Maker, it is probably inevitable that he becomes more introspective, looking more deeply into the composites which make up his own character and religious belief. Having fully explored these difficulties, however, I can still say the Apostles Creed and mean every word of it with a greater strength and conviction than at any stage of my life.

"I think the most important thing about myself is that I was born into an Italian family. As is the case with everyone else, the accident of birth meant being born into a particular culture. Although my mother only had one year of formal education and my father only five, their characters were nevertheless formed by their native Italian culture in which they had lived their lives from the beginning. We spoke an Italian dialect in the home. It was inevitable that their background should become mine. Insofar as there is anything of value in my character it comes from that background.

"I think the other important part of that background was that they were of peasant stock. It's natural that I should have a high opinion of the peasant virtues - which emphasise individual independence and the family bond - just as I know the peasant vices. It was into that framework that my Catholicism fitted. So it would be quite normal for me to be sent to a Catholic school, to go to Mass on Sunday, to say my prayers. One's religion fulfilled two functions. It was in one sense a philosophy; in another, part of an ethnic culture."

His parents hailed from the Aeolian Islands, just north of Sicily from which clerics, often in most of the small Italian community in Melbourne before the First World War had come. Bob Santamaria is proud that "they were always strong Catholics, not highly educated, but strong. Education does not improve the quality of faith. It merely raises questions which cannot be disregarded but must, if possible, be solved."


One has the feeling that this matters infinitely to their son. But he admits that "Italian Catholicism and Irish Catholicism are different."

"The Irish place a lot of value on regular observance. Many Italians don't; but are equally Catholic in their attitude.

"The Mass was very important to both of my parents, and remains so for me. My mother would never miss Mass on Sunday. My father had to go to market three days in the week at half-past two in the morning. Sunday Mass was sometimes impossible for him, but this did not mean that he valued it any the less.

"The Irish faith in Australia was founded on the rosary almost as much as the Mass. But I can't say that it was a substantial part of my religious background."

In past conversations, this doyen of the Catholic laity has admitted to sorrow at the loss of the Latin in the Mass, both liturgically and culturally. He has compared it to the similar loss to Anglicans of the sonorities and beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. The Latin of the Creed he sees as an especial loss. It was no mere archaism. It added to the worship element of the Mass a precise definition of the main Catholic doctrines.

"The primitiveness of the attitude of those who destroyed Latin offends me much more today than it did at the beginning. It was, in effect, abolished ... I know that technically and legally it wasn't deliberately destroyed, but effectively it was. And without regard for the views of the people.

"The vernacular was imposed from above and it wasn't done by the Second Vatican Council. It was done against the wishes of the then Pope, John XXIII. It's that I resent as much as anything. Ever since then a group of semi-modernist clerics, often in key positions in the Church's bureaucracy, claim to know best They don't ask anybody - except those carefully pre-selected by themselves - what's to be done in the field of the liturgy, or indeed in any other field. They simply impose it. All the talk about consulting the laity is facade. The various committees are as effectively structured from above as local Soviets in the USSR were in the period before Gorbachev.

"I've felt the loss of the Latin Mass as much for the way it was done as for the loss of the authentic - and doctrinal - value of the language itself."

Cultural loss

He sees it also as a cultural loss and refers to the letter to the Times in June 1971 signed by many of England's leading literary figures who were not Catholics. These said that the Vatican had no more right to destroy the Latin Mass than it would have had to destroy the Sistine Chapel! They were not interested in issues of doctrine. But they held the view that the Latin Mass was one of the historic cultural possessions of European men and women, regardless of their belief or lack of it.

It gives him no joy either that the argument that the vernacular would both make the Mass more accessible to the people and bring them back to religious practice has proved false. And while he does not suggest it is the only, or even the main, cause he says the fact is "that the people have stayed away in droves. They have voted with their feet."

Put to him that he has shown a "tenacity of purpose about the Catholic Faith", he wishes to see the phrase reworded. "I have a certain tenacity of purpose about an entire view of life of which the Catholic Faith is part. But there is more to what you call my 'tenacity' than that. My view of the 'centrality' of the family, of the sanctity of individual life from the moment of conception to that of death, my view of the necessity for the widespread ownership of productive property if the family is to flourish, my view of the indispensability of limiting the power of the state, all of these things are important in my life. Not as important as questions associated with my final destiny - whatever that may be - but they're part of my whole vision of the purpose of existence. If you hold to that essentially peasant view, and disdain the sheer triviality of the yuppie culture, I do not see how you can fail to be tenacious about it."

From his appreciation of the peasant virtues, derives his belief in the virtues of the family. He sees the family as "the first clothing of the individual person; the first welfare unit that really exists. That is why the wage system should embrace not only the remuneration of the individual for his work but needs to be supplemented by family allowances and provisions for saving. In a secular society such as ours, he admits that it sounds almost an exercise in fantasy to remind others of the importance of the small and medium town - so visible in the landscape of European countries - rather than the metropolitan city.

"Not being a complete fool, I am not saying that there is any present hope of building such a society in Australia. My small efforts to encourage migrant land settlement in the fifties were caricatured quite cynically to misrepresent my view as one of 'three acres and a cow'. But I think the absence of those values is the basic cause of the instability of metropolitan life. And I'm sure the consumer society will never be permanent for the reason that it does not provide the social foundation which harmonises with man's biological nature."

Speaking with an intimate joy of his own family, deriving himself from his parents' family of six children, having eight of his own, and now thirty-odd grandchildren, bound with as much affection to his sons and daughters-in-law as to his own children, he urges that "unless you are determined to cultivate what is called the 'extended family', metropolitan life will drag you apart."

What may surprise some is Bob Santamaria's refusal to offer religious panaceas. And his declaration "My nature is somewhat sceptical" might seem at first sight a pose; but this consistent prophet in the original Biblical sense, insists that he is "not, by nature, a religious person."

"I find the difficulties of religious belief very great," he says. "For instance, I don't think it's conceivable that the universe could exist without a Creator. But that answer tells you nothing about His nature. It certainly offers no solution to the problem of human suffering, especially of undeserved human suffering. I find that seeming conflict a very powerful dissuasion. The Book of Job doesn't solve the problem for me. Job doesn't give you any explanation. He simply says, 'Take it because in God's plan, it will be best in the end.' That is simply a declaration, not a solution."

He points out that these are not merely intellectual conjectures for him. "They are very real problems of faith," he insists. "Personal problems of faith which, if you think seriously about it, have to be solved. I am not saying that thinking about them improves the quality of faith. The best faith is that which Louis Pasteur attributed to the 'Breton peasant's wife', the faith which is serene, complete, unquestioning: my own mother's faith. But if you are trained to think about problems, I don't see how you can exclude thinking about the most important. There is something in the view which Plato attributed to Socrates: that 'the unexplained life is not worth living.'

"I got into trouble about this in an interview published a few months ago. I spoke about religious 'doubt'. Perhaps I let myself into it by using the word 'doubt' in a sense different from that which is generally understood. But, Thomas Aquinas himself, following Aristotle, held that that kind of 'doubt' can be valuable in promoting the clarification of faith. It is not a symptom of unbelief but a stimulus to investigation, and to a deeper understanding."

Problem of evil

"At the end of the investigation, you may come to the conclusion with, for instance, the problem of evil, that it is a 'mystery' beyond human solution. At that point, you can either give, or refuse to give, your assent to what is humanly inexplicable. It is not the 'doubt' but the final 'assent' which matters to faith.

"Wasn't the great Augustine himself so overcome with the problem of evil that he became a Manichee before he became a Catholic?

"Stoicism apart, the only thing that makes sense of suffering is that it was also part of the life and experience of Christ, especially in the Crucifixion. He too suffered. I think that what He was trying to tell us was: 'This is the is way life is, and you are meant to triumph over the suffering'. But if Christ's Crucifixion isn't validated by the Resurrection, it's meaningless. Many good men, including atheists and agnostics, have also suffered terrible deaths to testify to their principles. What's the point of believing in an itinerant prophet who generally didn't move out of more than a five mile radius from a little country town in Palestine? Unless you've got something like the is Resurrection, which He predicted and achieved, to prove that he was God."

A Santamaria showing actual perplexity may not always come over in print but when he says that he feels that a considerable proportion of contemporary theologians don't believe in the Resurrection in the sense that the physical remains with which Christ went to the grave were actually raised, that perplexity shows.

"In that case I don't know how they can claim to believe in the truth of Christianity", he adds. "St Paul, for one, said that without the Resurrection, Christianity was nothing."

Of course, to many, Bob Santamaria is a sturdy intellectual. Not to himself, he is quick to add. The philosopher Giovanni Gentile, he points out, once defined intellectualism as "a disease of the intelligence". He certainly holds that Christianity and - in my case - Catholicism has a complete intellectual defensibility. When you know what the doctrines contained in the Creeds are, what they actually mean, what constitute the rational foundations on which they are based, how historically they grew before they were finally defined - although always accepted - they impart a sense of confidence that what you accept by faith is also rationally defensible.

"I can recall that sense of confidence I experienced after three months at Melbourne University to which I went before I was sixteen years of age. For the first three months I was simply overwhelmed by the seeming erudition behind the prevailing agnosticism. But most of the arguments which I heard I felt that I could answer. It was that which gave me a sense of confidence. But it was only because rightly or wrongly I had been trained by the Christian Brothers to answer them intellectually. If I had simply been reduced to saying I had no intellectual answer to the agnostic challenge but that nevertheless, I believed, I wonder whether I would have kept my beliefs."

The imp in Bob Santamaria comes out too, when he says, "Well, in what is rather disparagingly called 'pre-Conciliar' (that is, before the Second Vatican Council), Catholicism, I used to feel the same sense of confidence as I did when barracking for Carlton in a year in which it was on the way to winning the premiership."

These days he admits that, at times, his "sense of identification" as a Catholic is somewhat weakened when some voices in the Church employ language which toadies to the mood of the moment. "If the Catholic Church in wants the whole-hearted support of its believing community, its got to be true to itself, its doctrines, its history and its social teaching. It will gain nothing by espousing trendy causes."

But he cares that other people should become Christians. "I do quite humbly accept that Christianity is the final revelation, and that it is the truth. Well I would like other people to see it in the same way. But, of course, that is their business.

"That doesn't mean that I don't recognise the deep religious values found in Islam, or even Hinduism. But rightly or wrongly, I don't believe that they're ultimately true. Christianity is true. When one of my best friends, the great economist, Colin Clark, was asked why he had become a Catholic convert, he gave a simple answer. 'Because I think it's true.'

"Naturally we must also believe that those who are in good faith, and live according to the rules of the faith in which they believe, will find final justification whatever that may mean. I don't know how the two views - the necessity of accepting the true Faith and the final salvation of those to whom it has never been presented, but who live faithfully according to conscience - can be reconciled. But I hold those two propositions in suspense in my mind at the same time."

There has always been a way out of that dilemma among Catholics who have sometimes denigrated those who do not believe their faith as saved by "invincible ignorance". Santamaria finds the phrase repulsive. "I'm not ready to say that a believing Muslim or a believing Jew is 'invincibly ignorant'. He's not. He is often a profoundly religious man. I respect his beliefs while nonetheless believing in the ultimate truth of Christianity."

Perhaps few Australian believers show as wide a range of thoughtful interest in religious questions as Bob Santamaria or can articulate that interest in such telling, lucid language. Religion, he states, has much more than a personal dimension. It involves a view of justice as the basis of relationships between human beings without which the Christian dispensation is not complete.

"Well, my understanding of right and wrong doesn't only cover areas of personal morality and of doctrinal teaching. I can remember thinking, even as a boy - I suppose it came from being born in Brunswick (in Melbourne) where I lived right through the Depression where 40 percent of the parishioners of St Ambrose's were out of a job - that the existence of social injustice, was a blemish on the world, out of harmony with God's plan."

Role of opposition

Santamaria has espoused some unpopular causes, has been vilified politically, and at the time of the Labor Party Split faced personal threats, though he seems to have taken them philosophically. That he has a philosophy about the role of opposition is well expressed by him when he says, "I have always tried to keep passion against opposition out of my mind; and for two reasons. The enemy is in general in good faith. You yourself must act in good faith. And therefore, if we don't see things in the same way, we must hold fast to what we each believe, and fight for the vindication of our beliefs, without holding it against each other.

"Furthermore, if you are engaged in a very serious struggle, as I was particularly in the 40s and 50s and the 60s, at the time of the Industrial Groups and the DLP, to let your mind be clouded by passion, by feelings of enmity and hostility, merely curbs your own efficiency and harms the efforts you make.

"So to tell you the honest truth, I would feel passionately anything that affected my family. (I used to feel passionate about Carlton. I don't so much in these commercialised days). I do feel strongly about the contemporary weakening of Christianity. I feel deeply about the debilitation of the great force which has held up a standard to the whole of European civilisation. But about persons? Not really.

Yet about one person he would admit to a kind of passion. If books have been an overriding discipline and influence, what he calls the "decisive factor in my life was never a book. It was a person: it was Archbishop Mannix. And what I have tried to do, ever since his death, was to try to perpetuate the values that I think he would have wanted to see perpetuated." Mannix's values stemmed from his conviction as a "believing Catholic". But Bob Santamaria reveals that "Mannix was also of a rather sceptical turn of mind."

"He once said to me that for him - I think I have written this somewhere - faith was a silken thread by which he dangled over a precipice, the thread continually rubbing against the precipice, but it had never broken. And I think I have the same view.

"Mannix also had a very strong sense of the responsibility of the laity, not to be simply altar boys, not fulfilling ecclesial functions in the Church, but fulfilling their responsibilities in the temporal order of politics and trade unions, of business, of medicine, of law. He held that it was against the lay commitment for the laymen to be fulfilling ecclesial functions. Despite the shortage of vocations to the Catholic priesthood today, the danger is that by encouraging lay people to occupy the sanctuary, we both weaken the identity of the priesthood and at the same time empty the secular community of the very people the secular community needs."

Santamaria has never even remotely felt a call to the priesthood. Indeed, destined as he believed, for the law, a phone call from Archbishop Mannix invited him to take on a job "for him in this whole field of lay activity for two years."

The two years have become fifty. "It will soon be time to be placed on the free transfer list to a different club. Whether I will get a guernsey is another question. In the meantime one keeps one's hand to the plough."

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