National Civic Council 50th anniversary celebration, 7 October 1991 - address

National Civic Council 50th anniversary celebration, 7 October 1991 - address

Bishop George Pell

The fiftieth anniversary celebration of the founding of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, now the National Civic Council, was held in Melbourne on October 7, 1991. Almost 1000 members and friends of the NCC attended the reception, which was held at the Great Hall of Melbourne's National Gallery. Prior to the occasional address, which was presented by B.A. Santamaria, three speeches were delivered, by Dr Robert Manne, Senior Lecturer at Latrobe University, Archbishop Eric D'Arcy of Hobart, and Bishop George Pell of Melbourne. Bishop Pell's address is reported.

There is a rough justice in the fact that a member of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development and Peace should pay tribute to the achievements of fifty years this evening; and a certain irony also.

My personal and public tribute is appropriate for a number of reasons. Credit should always be given where credit is due and when a group of men and women have worked for fifty years to give practical expression to Catholic social principles in Australian public life, a long struggle often accompanied by personal suffering and the sacrifice of public office, we should pause to recall how unusual this is in the pragmatic hurly-burly of Australian political life and recall that this movement has no parallel in the English-speaking world.

As a bishop I must also acknowledge with gratitude the contribution of the President of the NCC, Mr Bob Santamaria, who for 16 years, from 1941 to 1956, was the principal author of most of the Bishops' Social justice statements; years before the Second Vatican Council placed social justice firmly on the universal Church's agenda and when no other English-speaking Bishops' groups were regularly teaching on these topics.

As an auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne I cannot but advert to the brilliant alliance between that shrewd old Irish-Australian aristocrat, Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Mr Santamaria; an exotic partnership which changed the face of Australian Catholicism.

Mr Santamaria knows me well enough to realise that I do no regard any lay-man or woman as infallible. (We Catholics regard only the Pope as infallible and then, under very limited and limiting conditions).

But it is beyond dispute that Mr Santamaria is read, listened to and followed by more Australians throughout the length and breadth of our huge continent, just as he is more regularly complimented by vigorous dissent, than any other Catholic leader or spokesman.

However I readily admit too that there is a certain irony in my presence, because since the disastrous split in the Labor Party and its attendant divisions within the Church, since the letters from Rome in 1957 of Cardinals Fumasoni, Biondi and Tardini on the new directions required for the Catholic Social Movement, and occasionally during the more recent activities of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, there have been moments of difference and tension between the Bishops and the NCC There is no complete certainty these will not recur.

I certainly hope that the divisions will never again be as deep as they have been, but an occasional difference between us would be no bad thing, because it would emphasise that the NCC is not an official Catholic organisation, not answerable to the hierarchy, just as it would emphasise that political pluralism, differing prudential applications of the same broad Christian principles, are not inappropriate among Catholics in Australia and throughout the world.

Recently it has been suggested that the key to explaining the 1987 reorganisation of justice, development and peace activities in our Church is a "clericalist vision", that the bishops "can welcome the laity participating as troops, but not as leaders."

Christian inspiration

Certainly there is not a scintilla of evidence that bishops resent the political leadership of Catholics as different as Paul Keating, Nick Greiner or Tim Fischer. I do concede that most, if not all, Australian bishops would believe that when documents are prepared by groups directly sponsored and financed by the bishops, who are correctly seen by the public as responsible to the bishops, then it is appropriate and necessary for the bishops to approve these statements.

This is quite different from wanting to control lay individuals or organisations, who claim no official link with the Church for their work, who finance their own activities, and co-operate with all people of good will in following their Christian inspiration.

It has been consistent Papal policy that bishops and priests have an obligation to speak on the moral issues in public life and an equally important part of Papal policy that lay people should have autonomy in the conduct of civic and political life.

I therefore commend the independent existence of the NCC as an example for all serious Christian lay people, whether they espouse similar or different practical applications of Christian principles.

We should remember tonight that we are celebrating this half century two years after the collapse of the Communist Empire in Eastern Europe and in the same year as the disappearance, we hope permanent, of Communism in Russia and in the Soviet Republics. The NCC can rejoice legitimately in this historic victory, because unlike many Australians, and many socially concerned Christians, the NCC was never tolerant or complacent about the evils of Communism. History has vindicated your judgement, and only the dominoes of Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and China remain to fall.

If Communism was a vital catalyst in the formation of the Movement, we must look to the Christian Democrats of Western Europe for the closest parallels to what you have achieved.

At the end of the Second World War, the Red Army controlled Eastern and Central Europe, as far as Vienna; Greece nearly fell to Communism. Stalin was even hoping that the Communist parties of France and Italy would seize power and invite the Red Army further West.

The British and Americans were slow to realise the danger, but Churchill's Iron Curtain speech, the Marshall Plan and NATO were a response.

However Western Europe would have fallen, or come much closer to collapse, if strong local political forces had not developed and won support. These turned out to be not the secular parties, but the Christian Democrats: Adenauer in Germany, de Gasperi in Italy, Schumann and, to some extent, de Gaulle, in France.

It was the Christian Democrats who

(a) successfully resisted the French and Italian Communist parties,

(b) laid the foundations of European recovery, especially through the West German economic miracle,

(c) provided the basis of European unity, especially through the Franco-German reconciliation brought about under two Catholic politicians, de Gaulle and Adenauer.

In Australia, the Movement

(a) successfully fought the Australian Communists, not single-handed, but as the principal agent,

(b) fleshed out a social program, based largely on Australian Social justice statements, which came to influence both sides of political life,

(c) proved that even in a society where political discourse is overwhelmingly secular, movements inspired by religious principles can play a significant role and exercise continuous influence even when the levers of power are continually denied to their members.

We should not exaggerate all this, nor minimise the costs, but it remains a vital contribution to Australian life and the story is far from finished.

Let me conclude with a few words on the on-going significance of the NCC's religious contribution.

It seems to me that the NCC is one of the few political groups in Australia well placed to understand one vital dimension of the Communist collapse in 1989 and this year.

Many Western commentators see the Marxist collapse as being largely due to economic failure. This was an important factor, but, given the scope of Communist economic inefficiency, which we now realise, the much greater problem is how Communism ever gained so many adherents. It did so, of course, because it was more than economics, and tapped into a spiritual hunger.

Humanist dream

It was part of the humanist dream, formulated in the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement, to divorce life from God, from any foundations in a divinely-ordered natural law, to radically separate religion and the spiritual from the public order. The first violent attempt to implement this occurred in the French Revolution of 1789.

The secular liberalism of the West has not been vindicated by the Communist collapse, although our economies are clearly superior (and clearly in trouble too).

The true significance of 1989 is that the most anti-religious modern experiment to live without religion has failed; Christians had a good deal to do with provoking its collapse. The tantalising possibility is that we are seeing the beginning of the end of a 200 year period, begun with the French Revolution, when people believed that they could take their future into their own hands and refashion themselves into whatever they wanted to be.

Our democratic traditions too need spiritual criteria, not rooted in themselves alone. We need God, because He is our creator, and to help us to be decent. You cannot run even an efficient economy with lazy, lying and selfish people, much less build a just and humane society.

The anti-God forces on us are quite different from these in ex-Communist lands, but they are already producing significant damage. Already among us neo-paganism is not working.

It is here that Christianity is most counter-cultural and its message, its claim to truth, is of vital importance for its own survival and the survival of our society.

If the success of the Western world comes from its agnosticism, from the belief that all approaches to truth are relative to particular situations, from the prejudice that all religious claims to truth are evidence of fanaticism, halfway houses to religious wars, then we cannot produce a coherent account of the world to satisfy the members of our society; and some of them will turn again to the most evil schemes, such as Nazism and Communism, which pander to their deeper and also their baser needs.

We need God, in a different way, but as basically as the ex-Communist world.

No Australian has spoken as regularly and as well on society's need for God, and few Australians have done as much to remind the Christian Churches of their obligations to maintain our unseemly claims to truth, as the NCC President. It is another debt owed by Australian society, even if many are oblivious of it.

The President of the NCC is a great Australian, not least because he loves Australia. We realise this. It is one reason why we listen to him.

The National Civic Council, with its solid achievements, the opposition it provokes, its failings and its capacity to inspire the young and win new recruits, is also as Australian as the wattle and the gum.

I congratulate you all. May God bless you and your work for many years into the future.

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