The crisis of faith in Australian Catholicism: early influences
Grounds for Hope: Fr Golden and the Newman Society 1950-1966
Edited by Val Noone, et al
(The Golden Project, 2008, 270pp, $49.95. Available from Catholic bookshops)
How did the Catholic Church in Australia in the mid-20th century, secure in its faith and practice, begin to believe that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) allowed Catholics to hope that they could change teachings they found difficult to understand and put into practice?
These teachings were not just on sexual morality; they also included fundamental areas such as the liturgy, the sacraments and the govern- ment of the Church.
A valuable insight into the beginnings of this mentality in the Melbourne Archdiocese and throughout Australia post-World War II can be found in a recent publication, The Golden Years: Grounds for Hope: Father Golden and the Newman Society, 1950- 1966.
The Golden Years publishes the reminiscences of several dozen mem- bers of the University of Melbourne Newman Society (MUNS) of their chaplain, the Jesuit priest, Father Gerry Golden, and their lives as undergraduates and professional and family men and women since.
These remembrances were written down or aired in the context of the meetings of the contributors and other former members in a number of seminars between 2006 and 2008, first at the instigation of Fr Ian Howells SJ and then under the auspice of Professor Greg Dening.
After Dening's death, the mantle fell to Val Noone and others. Certainly, this is a limited sample of all the students who were Newman Society members in the 15 years of Fr Golden's chaplaincy, but many of the contributors were key players in the life of the society at the time.
As the song goes, from little things big things grow, and it was the thinking, studying and speaking of the Catholic undergraduates and graduates of the MUNS in the 1950s and 60s that helped in a significant way to set the ground for what became the progressive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and in the many parts of the wider Catholic Church in Australia that looked to Melbourne as the centre of intellectual Catholicism.
MUNS members such as the poet and literary critic, Vincent Buckley, philosophers William T. (Bill) Ginnane and Tony Coady, anthropologist Jim Bowler, engineer and mathematician Ian Howells, activist Brian Buckley, historian- ethnographer Greg Dening, and the sociologist Rowan Ireland, were all looked up to as cutting-edge thinkers on questions to do with a lay person's role in the Church and in the world.
Crucially for the spread of new ideas, many young seminarians at Corpus Christi Seminary in Werribee, just south-west of Melbourne, who yearned to be enlightened thinkers, looked up to the leading figures of the Newman Society for intellectual inspiration in reforming the Church and building a better world.
In the years before Pope John XXIII announced in 1959 that he was convening Vatican II, the leaders of the Newman Society, aware of new thinking in Europe on the life of the Church and its role in the world, discussed how to incorporate Catholic social teaching into their future lives as professionals and academics to bring about a more just world.
In the beginning, this took place on the assumption that orthodox Catholic teaching had an answer to many social problems, and that in giving a deep witness in their lay lives to Catholic truth they would be able to help bring non-practising Catholics and non-Catholics to a full Christian life in the Church.
However, as the years progressed, a more dissenting attitude to Catholic teaching developed among many MUNS leaders and those who looked up to them..
That this happened is well- known anecdotally. The virtue of Golden Years is that it provides evidence in one volume of the personal interpretation of religion to which this development led.
In Golden Years, contributors look back fondly on this development and thank God that they were formed this way and freed from the alleged ossified teaching of the Church on so many religious and secular matters.
Crisis of faith
Yet in the 1950s they would have been horrified had they suspected that the end of their well- intentioned endeavours would be what the Vatican and Australia's bishops described in 1998 as a 'crisis in faith' among Australian Catholics.
Golden Years provides only a start to study of what led to the 'crisis of faith' in Melbourne and Australia. Among other things, there is much to be discovered about the influence of Fr Charles Mayne SJ on young seminarians at Melbourne's Corpus Christi seminary in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the influence of Fr John F. Kelly in the same period on the formation of priests and young religious in Melbourne, and the role in the 1960s of Fr Michael Costigan as assistant editor of The Advocate in forming the opinions of educated and more thoughtful lay Catholics on what Vatican II meant for the Church.
David Kehoe BA (Hons) was President of the Melbourne University Newman Society in 1973. He is a journalist who has worked in the Catholic press and is a sub-editor with Fairfax Community Newspapers.