The urbane and inclusive vision of Edmund Rice

The Price of Freedom: Edmund Rice Educational Leader, Denis McLaughlin, Melbourne: David Lovell Publishing, 2007, 450 pp, HB, RRP $45.00, ISBN 978-1-86355-120-7

Edmund Rice The institutions of Australian Catholicism reflect its largely Irish origins. The stories, too, that Australian Catholics have told about their relations to Rome, to government, to other churches and to the ideas that underpin modernity, have been shaped by similar stories of Ireland.

But stories are always open to new interpretations. As Irish history is re-interpreted, new light falls on the story of the Australian Catholic Church. So a revisionist history of the origins of the Irish Christian Brothers by the Australian historian, Denis McLaughlin, stimulates questions about the Australian Catholic Church.

Few institutions represent better the character of Australian Catholicism and of its links to an Irish tradition than the Christian Brothers. Memoirs, novels and plays have explored the distinctive quality of their education. They have generally rooted it in the patrimony of the Irish Christian Brothers. They have identified this inheritance as a passionate Irish nationalism based on a tribal loyalty to the Catholic Church. The Church was combative to secular governments and Protestant Churches.

Denis McLaughlin shows that Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian brothers, was of a different temper.

Edmund Rice himself was a canny businessman who became passionately committed to educate the children of destitute families. Neither church nor state then provided education for them; indeed contemporary social philosophies saw no point in doing so. McLaughlin describes the keystones of Rice's educational philosophy as fatherly affection, personal liberation and a deep faith.

Rice was pragmatic. If the schools were to gather the poorest children, they had to provide free education for them. But the schools soon attracted also children of working families. He was open to charging those who could pay in order to subsidise the education of those who could not.

More significantly, Rice was happy to cooperate with the Irish authorities and with representatives of other Churches. He took for granted the Ireland that he knew from his business dealings. In particular, he was happy to work under the National Schools Board that had been introduced after Catholic Emancipation. It inspected schools and produced texts. The Board had Catholic representatives to ensure that its texts were non-denominational but were able to be adapted to the purposes of different churches. Rice saw that putting his schools under the Board would help educate more poor children.

Edmund RiceNot all his schools, however, associated themselves with the Board. The Brothers of Cork in particular were of a harder temper. They undermined Rice and voted him out of office. Michael Riordan, who in 1838 replaced him, was a divisive figure. He was naturally sympathetic to Archbishop Cullen's vision of a strongly nationalistic Ireland based in Catholic faith. Cullen saw other churches and British institutions as opponents. Riordan withdrew all schools from the National Education Board, and insisted that the Brothers charge in none of their schools. After school had finished, they went around the area begging. The result was that some poorer schools had to close.

Much water passed under bridges both in Ireland and Australia before the Christian Brothers arrived here. But the sharp boundaries of Cullen's definition of Irish Catholicism were accepted in both nations. It was a vision for hard times. But it was not the only shape of Catholicism possible. Nor, as Rice shows, was it the only form represented in Ireland. It has now run out into the sand both in Ireland and Australia.

In a time of perplexity about Catholicism and religion generally, the urbane and inclusive vision of Edmund Ignatius Rice is attractive. It is strongly anchored in faith, and commends faith in its focus on the neediest groups in society. It is also confident. It suggests that we read the society in which we find ourselves and act confidently in it. We are free to recognise the good values and motives of those with whom we differ.

In Edmund Rice's vision Catholic identity is taken for granted. The task is to build on it. He does this neither by adversarial definitions of Catholic identity nor by pugilistic relationships with those from whom he differs, but by living out the Gospel.

This strand of Irish Catholicism is also represented in the stories of the Australian church. It deserves more attention than it often receives.



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Existing comments

"In Edmund Rice's vision Catholic identity is taken for granted."
Perhaps so, by Edmund Rice, in his time.
But who can assume what is meant by "Catholic identity" today, especially when many theologians, distancing themselves from the magisterium, tend towards regarding the nature of the Church as a merely open-ended, relativistic construction determined by contemporaneity; and many activists, fervently invoking "liberation theology", present it as merely an immanent political force for social change that works for "a better world".

A further related point: increasingly, when I hear speakers from a range of religious orders addressing their mission today, I sense little of the distinctive charisms of each order; instead, a reductive rhetoric of "social justice", tenuously, if at all, placed within the context of faith, yet quite clearly "adversarial", reflecting the Marxian framework from which it derives.

It's quite possible, of course, that my hearing is defective; or simply that the poet in me has difficulty with slogans. What I do know is that I can get political views on issues from a number of sources, and that I hope, when I listen to priests and religious speak, that they can touch that core of my spirit that cries out for a sense of God and "the Mystery deep down things."
John Kelly | 04 October 2007

Anyone who has had real contact with the Christian Brothers, particularly some years ago. Knows the self sacrificing lives they led to help the youth of the day. Their scheme in WA was a great example of sacrifice against extreme odds to prepare many sent to the country by other organisations. Times were hard in those days not just at the schools but in the homes where these boys came from. All the critism in latter years has been against a background of modern life not the life at that time.
My few years with the brothers left me with a sense of fair play, trying to do the best for people no matter what the personal cost. Edumd Rice's ideals live well beyond the shores of Ireland and permeat the daily lives of many, even if not acknowledged the ripples will go on.

Pat Adamson | 05 October 2007

The jewel of Rice's work I see in his identification of how those with more can help those with less. How relevant to today's society and the miserly nature of our Federal Government in its dealings with the poor of the world. Come back Edmund Rice we need your voice in today's society and boardrooms of the global corporations.
Lindsay Gardner | 09 October 2007

I spent two years as a boarder at Nudgee College, Brisbane, in 1936-1837 and have happy memories of the Christian Brothers. Too bad that physical assault on minors by cane or strap was acceptable to Christians then. Couldn't they have invented a non-violent punishment?
Kevin Smith | 09 October 2007

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