Challenging the atmosphere and agenda of secularist Australia

Challenging the atmosphere and agenda of secularist Australia

Karl Schmude

The future direction of Australian Catholicism is likely to reflect a growing awareness of the distinctive values of a native Catholic tradition.

This trend is sharply different from the situation in recent decades, when an infatuation with overseas models - initially North American and then increasingly South American - led to a neglect of Australian conditions and needs.

A form of "religious cringe" prevailed about Australian Catholicism, parallel to - and buttressed by - the well known "cultural cringe" manifested in the past towards all things Australian.

Remnants of this attitude, however, are still visible - as in the reported remarks of Fr Denis Edwards and others in the October 1988 issue of AD2000. Such an outlook, for all its futuristic rhetoric, seems entombed in the 1960s, and subject to the fashionable fantasies of Western secularism. It betrays little awareness of the existence, still less the value, of an Australian Catholic tradition and a spirituality that can cope with a religiously indifferent society.

In recent years, the features of this tradition have begun to be more closely identified, and the impact of CathoIicism on Australian culture more fully assessed.

The historic achievement of the Catholic Church in Australia has been to impart a sense of religious identity to a substantial part of the population in a highly secularist environment.


By contrast with Europe, the Church in Australia retained the allegiance and affection of the great mass of ordinary people; and, by contrast with America, it exerted a general influence on a culture that had privatised religion - and thus blocked any kind of transcendental identity.

In America, it has been possible to assert such an identity - to feel, for example, publicly patriotic and openly religious; but in Australia it has been difficult to feel either.

In America, a Catholic school system was created to prevent Catholics from being protestantised; but in Australia such schools arose to prevent Catholics from being secularised.

In that sense, Australia is a far more 'modern' society than America: it is 'private', bereft of public traditions and historical memories, and closed to any form of transcendental devotion.

Catholics here have had to cope, to a greater extent than elsewhere, with conditions shaped by the 18th century Enlightenment more than the 16th century Reformation, and a society that is, at root, secularist rather than sectarian. They have well-developed - if largely untapped - historical resources for dealing with the experience of modernity.

The abiding problem in Australian life has been a cultural incapacity to face God. The form and flavour of Australian secularism are social, not intellectual, experienced as reality rather than exalted as ideology. There exists here little of that hard, rationalist dissent or denial such as flourished historically in parts of Europe.

The dominant ethos in Australia is determined, not so much by a refusal to believe, as by a reluctance to take interest, its tendency has been to erode rather than crush, to foster drift rather than defiance. The characteristic Australian weakness has been to tame Christ, not to crucify Him; to trivialise His life and mission, not to grant them significance by a public expression of faith - or even by an act of repudiation.

This cultural atmosphere is at the very heart of the Australian Catholic experience. If the Church Universal wishes to prepare its people, at least in the developed countries, for living in a post-Christian culture, it might with advantage consult the Australian Catholic tradition. If it wishes to prepare its priests for coping religiously with a secularist society, it should not be sending them to Catholic institutions in the United States or the Philippines, but to ordinary parishes in suburban Australia.

For the kind of world to which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council strove to adapt the Church is appearing more and more like that with which the Australian Catholic people have contended from the beginning - a world which extends little hospitality to religion, not necessarily in terms of persecution (though that, too, may yet prove inescapable), but in the sense of being closed to the cultural importance of spiritual truths and values, a world which does not offer a social climate conducive to religious faith for most ordinary people.

To such a world the Australian Catholic tradition can speak - with the instinct and authority of long experience.

Australian culture

Being Catholic in Australia has been to know what it is like to stand at the threshold of a life without God. It has been to feel, with peculiar force, the appeal of a private and autonomous way of life; and yet to be conscious also of its profound emptiness and vulnerability. It has been to trace, in the tensions of one's own experience, the secularised passage of Western civilisation - what Manning Clark has called "the pilgrimage of man from the Kingdom of God to the Kingdom of Nothingness".

The Catholic people have suffered the obscurity of God in Australian culture, and been driven to wonder whether it is a sign of His absence, or merely, at this stage, the unavoidable veil of His presence.

From the outset, the secularist character of Australian culture has conditioned the style and pattern of Catholic life. Like Australia itself, Catholicism here has tended to lack sophistication and artistic exuberance. It has not been burdened by complex theories or grandiose ambitions, by an exaggerated ethnic consciousness, or by nostalgic yearnings for a vanished past of Catholic glory (such as has haunted European Catholicism). Until recent times, it has expressed itself in a theology both simple and existential, attuned to fundamental truths and realities, and in a catechesis that dwelt on the concrete issues of spiritual life and death, and steered clear of any unnecessary embellishment or elaborate speculation.

While this tradition has been eroded by a new obedience to the thought patterns and "pieties" of secularist Australia, it is being rediscovered and revitalised in various parts of the Church - especially, perhaps, among young people, and in organisations like Antioch and the Campion Fellowship of Australia.

At the same time, the rebirth of this tradition will not be easy, since the immense fragmentation of present-day society works against the emergence of any common social forms and popular identities that would provide a focus for spiritual revival.

Grace perfects Nature: it does not replace it. And a religion needs culture - a framework of customs and celebrations, stories and disciplines, symbols and metaphors - in order to incarnate the Word of God and spread the life of salvation.

In place of a culture, the Church has developed a bureaucracy. From a way of life that was inherently 'popular', it has gravitated to the impersonal organisations of modern bourgeois culture.

Despite a rhetoric of evangelism and service, bureaucracies are, by their nature, self-serving and remote from ordinary life. They tend to equate the generation of structures and the expenditure of money with the provision of care and the meeting of need.

Yet, while bureaucracies are apt to stifle the spiritual life and undermine the organic bonds of popular religious culture, there exists another feature of contemporary society which can serve as a countervailing force - namely, the media of mass communications.

For all their proneness to sensationalism and inanity, the media are still able to serve a vital role in awakening a spiritual consciousness on a mass scale and in forming - and informing - a religious people.

The American nun, Mother Angelica, who runs a Catholic television network, has shown the power of the electronic media to reach people; and Pope John Paul II is adept at using the media - particularly on his international visits - to bypass official bureaucratic channels and speak directly to minds and hearts the world over. In Australia, it has chiefly been the secular media which have discovered and depicted, in various novels, plays and mini-series, the qualities of Australian Catholicism.

Much more could be done, especially via television, to challenge the atmosphere and agenda of secularist Australia. A modern-day Mary McKillop is needed to establish a television network, which could project an authentic picture of the traditions of faith and devotion that shaped Australian Catholicism - and are available to inspire new generations in the Land of the Southern Cross.

Karl Schmude has been a prolific writer on Catholic experience and identity in modern Australia. His articles have appeared in such Australian publications as 'Quadrant' and 'The Australian', and overseas in the London 'Tablet' and the New-York-based 'America' magazine. A graduate of Sydney University, he has been involved in librarianship since 1966, being currently the University Librarian at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW. Mr Schmude has been President of the Campion Fellowship of Australia since 1987.

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