Catholic Thought and Catholic Action: Scenes from Australian Catholic Life  
By James Franklin. Connor Court, 2023. 310 pages.

The title that I have given this book review is one of Jim Franklin’s phrases. It jumped out at me, because as an 85-year-old sixth-generation Sydneysider, the book captures a sense of the times from the 40s, as I recall them.

I knew many of the characters in the book, or people who knew them. Inevitably, this will colour this brief review. Thus, the photograph on the cover of the book of a Corpus Christi procession at the Manly Seminary reminds me of the years in the late 40s and early 50s when I used to visit a cousin, Kevin Spillane, who was then a seminarian there.

Kevin and I had mutual cousins who played Rugby League against Frank “Bumper” Farrell, a legendary police officer in the Sydney Vice Squad, and international footballer. Farrell and the crimes of the times receive a faithful review here, as well as the associated Masonic and Catholic Police Commissioners and their secular and religious political machinations. “Bumper dun it” graffiti adorned walls around Newtown in the late 1940s after a fierce fight with a St George opponent!

Jim, as a philosopher, has also depicted well the various Australian tribes in that discipline and their mutual hostilities, especially the intellectually pugnacious Sacred Heart priests, Dr Ryan and Dr Rumble, as well as the no less fearsome Dr Austin Woodbury, an inspirational Marist priest who ran the Aquinas Academy for many years. I witnessed many conversions there.

A major inspiration for the Academy was equipping Catholic students with the intellectual foundations for their faith to flourish in secular universities, though “parents were assured that studying philosophy at respectable universities like Melbourne was no danger to their children’s faith”. Max Charlesworth, a philosopher in the liberal tradition of Melbourne Catholicism was a long-serving academic there and was a leader in one of the philosophical tribes!

The point of mentioning this is that Jim does not take sides in the controversies of the past, though he has his own opinions. He presents the issues of the day with his characteristic balance and erudition: I counted 825 references, many of them being stories within stories.

Cameo portraits

Jim deals with the distinctive English and Irish influences on Australian Catholicism, a theme studied earlier by the late Australian historian, Tim Suttor[1]. Jim, who is the editor of the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society (JACHS), has a whimsical style not unlike that of Suttor. This makes his narrative very readable. This short review cannot do justice to a warts and all history which ranges from Father James Dixon and tolerance in the early 19th century to Father Gerald Ridsdale and paedophilia in the late 20th century, but this book will be of interest and challenge to other Christians, and non-believers too. There are ample appropriate illustrations scattered among the 16 chapters. The author displays his philosophical and historical strengths in the balance he provides to apparently conflicting views on debatable issues.

Thus, there had been many occasions when Irish Catholics were involved in anti-government agitation, sometimes due to excessive moral condescension or physical punishment from the “flogging parson” of early colonial times, the Rev’d Samuel Marsden, but sometimes because of short Irish tempers. Effects of Irish influence are also traced through some larger-than-life characters such as the well-known Father Patrick Hartigan, aka John O’Brien, and Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and the less celebrated Irish Jesuit Father Michael Bergin, an Army padre killed at Passchendaele. Hartigan through his verse and Mannix through his encouragement of lay initiative knew how to touch Irish hearts.

Controversies

Mixing Catholics, convicts, Masons and police was a hot pot for a social stew which Governor Macquarie ironically recognised. When he was laying the foundation stone of what became St Mary’s Cathedral, he made a joke about being a mason!

Catholic and other Christian missions to Aboriginal Australia from the 1840s to 1970 are summarised and the efforts of the Benedictines, Jesuits, Pallotines and Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the local peoples are briefly, but cleverly, evaluated: “the history of Aboriginal interaction with missions is quite different from other white-black interactions in Australia”, something not fully appreciated since missionary charity was replaced by government interference to a large extent since the 1970s, and much of the accumulated corporate wisdom of the Christian missionaries lost.

Paedophilia, Magdalen laundries and Italian and Vatican influences are, of course, part of the controversial stories, many of them touched on by Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a long-time friend of Jim, when she launched this book on April Fools’ Day in 2023. Her eloquence convinced us to buy and to read the book.

The author set the scene for his challenging approach at the outset when he writes in his Introduction that:

“the Catholic tradition differs from both Protestant and secular ones in two main respects, one theological and one philosophical. Theologically, it emphasises the sacraments and the visible unified institutional Church centred on the Pope and taking orders from Central Command. It is thus embodied in a more definite way than rival traditions; and, just as we can choose our friends but are stuck with our family, so Catholics must live in the same Church as other Catholics, whatever they may think of their views, actions and devotional practices. Philosophically, Catholic theory differs from both Protestant and most secular theory in its commitment to a natural law ethics – that what is right follows from the inherent nature of things, especially human nature.”

In the words of Lord Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, at a recent dinner at St John’s College at the University of Sydney, echoing Pope Francis[2], “the Catholic Church is less like a police station than a field hospital”, a home for saints and sinners.

Nevertheless, in his Introduction, Jim asserts that “a comparison with the present day shows up too many contemporary Catholics as lazy, soft, uncommitted, ignorant of Catholic ideas and culture, afflicted by modern nervousness and over-concerned with internal church disputes. The lessons are obvious”.

Yet the final paragraph in the book “On hope for the future” is positive. It refers to Theognis of Megara in the 6th century BC. Jim Franklin, now putting on his mathematician’s hat, suggests that “if virtue and piety were declining catastrophically as much in Theognis’s day as in ours, it follows (from the mathematical theory of functions) that they must have recovered substantially somewhere in between. If that was possible once, it is possible again.”


Notes

[1] Suttor, T.L. 1965. Hierarchy and Democracy in Australia 1788-1870: the Formation of Australian Catholicism. Melbourne, VIC: Melbourne University Press; London: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Spadaro, Antonio. 2013. “A Big Heart Open to God: an interview with Pope Francis. Faith. September 30.

Professor A. G. (Tony) Shannon AM is an Adjunct Professor at several Australian university and an Emeritus Professor of the University of Technology, Sydney, where he was Foundation Dean of the Graduate...