Germaine Greer's Catholic education


For the last three years my 15-year-old goddaughter Louella and I have been sharing novels, music, and having long coast to city phone conversations in which we debate the merits of the post-religious zeitgeist to which she subscribes.

I remember her as a young kid of six or seven: a sepia-eyed cherub with Quattracento ringlets who loved nothing better than spending an hour in a church amidst the ceremonial hush and slightly breathcatching air of spent frankincense. She also liked to pray in earnest back then, and seemed to pull a sanctuary about her like an extra blankey at the mere mention of a thing called a god.

These days when I remind her of this she sounds fond of her younger self, like a poet who knows her juvenilia is both embarrassing and the first evidence of herself as a creature of talent. For her that religious infancy perhaps represents the credulous first steps on her journey to the higher truth of political responsibility and existential freedom.

If only the church could grow up like I have, I hear her say. We could solve half the problems of the world with that one long overdue coming of age.

Implied in all this — and remember that Lelly finds science as genuinely awesome as drums and bass — is that her own intellectual growth has been merely a Darwinian thing, that her tendency towards the beauty of passionate enquiry has evolved to its only plausible conclusion: atheism.

The big problem with this, however, and she'd be the very first to admit it, is that five days a week, and sometimes in her dreams and nightmares, she attends a 137 year old Catholic girls school, in which the razor-tongue of Jesus, and the ardent reportage of his four most widely read offsiders, gets every bit as much of a look-in as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Voltaire, or Don Draper.

She has been angling, or should I say, sardonically demanding, to be freed from what she perceives as the fossilised superstition and ritualised sexism of this salubrious Irish Catholic institution pretty much since the first day she arrived there.

But as her third year at the school wound to a close last year, and just as she'd pressed her point home persistently enough to warrant emergency meetings between her parents and the staff, she agreed to go around again for one last time, mainly because the prospect of waiting a year before moving to the school of her choice — north of the city, green leaning, with Whitlamish roots — for the stressy apotheosis of years 11 and 12, made more evolutionary sense than changing streams for the sake of the rather less important travails of year 10.

After devouring Kate Holden's In My Skin on the couch at her mother's house, or texting delighted imprecations to friends from her father's flat about how she is Paloma, the 13-year-old Parisian narrator from The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, the theological assumptions upon which her school is based can easily seem just that: assumptions.

Not having been raised to respect demure conversational acquiescence or to see the curtsy as in any way fashionably retro, sparks flew from her on day one in the rather all-pervasive college uniform.

With hand perpetually raised, mainly to extol the follies of monotheism, which, as any Twilight-loving 12-year-old of 2008 could have told you are embarrassing, she moved quickly through The Creed, which was not to be found on Rage but rather in real life as a neurotic liturgical hangover from the admittedly cinematic days of the crusades and which she still had to chant in bad faith beside her Muslim best friend every time she was required to attend mass.

A loquacious bullet-list of religious hypocrisies followed until ultimately she felt the need, no, the obligation, to declare in class, with all the pluck of Mary MacKillop, that she was, despite the anachronistic cloud of purity hanging over their heads as students of the Catholic college, a very proud atheist.

She rang me that week to debrief, knowing that I would both sympathise and loathe what she had done, and it was then that I chanced upon what I thought was a master stroke.

After months of telling her that her so-called 'loony nunnery' was giving her a solid point of difference among the future mandarins of her generation, as well as an invaluable immersion in the admittedly stagnating traditions which nevertheless still formed the core of the European model of society in which we lived; and that she may decide one day that cavorting with the urbane herd on the headlong tram of abandon had not set her up after all for anything other than anti-depressants; also that she got all the well meaning atheism and unaffected altruism she needed in her two loving post-slacker homes of a morning, night, and weekend; in short, after almost convincing even myself to find faith in the vaguely Buddhist values of balance, I finally struck on the less soporific inspiration, which I like to think has helped her view her decision to stay on for another year as, in fact, very cool.

Over the course of our many droll phone conversations I'd tried various role models on her: Joan of Arc, MacKillop, and also the apocryphally ordained Celtic Priestess, Sinead O'Connor, who didn't help the cause simply because my goddaughter didn't rate the music (such rigour!).

But recently, and for a completely unrelated purpose, I had been surveying some of the more bombastic performances of our own convent-educated Germaine Greer on YouTube and the lightbulb went on. Here was the trump card par excellence for the struggling godfather of our times, a woman with all the qualities my young spiritual charge admired: intellectual brilliance, an insatiable appetite for social justice, reckless courage, a natural gift for the spotlight, an incurable case of martyr allergy, a sassy style, and, importantly, a reliably contradictory streak of anti-totalitarian self righteousness.

(Continues below)

Greer was the weapon I'd been looking for all along and I hadn't realised it, only because I'd never thought of her as a chip off the old block of a convent education. But now, as I watched her explosive interviewee style time and again on the screen, I realised, with delicious feelings of post-religious irony, that that's exactly what she was.

And, dovetailing a bit further, I found she was also self proclaimed as a 'Catholic Atheist', which of course made perfect sense. For where else did she get that contrarian confidence, that relish for a fight, and that belief in the importance of challenging dodgy and repressive paradigms?

I decided to look no further in fulfilling my traditional duties, i.e. to help equip my goddaughter's boat for the piranha infested seas of spiritual life. Here, I realised, was the example that would keep her away from the clutches of generic liberalism, and I resolved to explain to her the conundrum.

So in the last week of the holidays I got on the phone. Yes, I said, you are destined for the cuttingest of edges, for the feistiest of causes and the most volcanic of love affairs and it is for that very reason that you have made the right decision to stay in the harness of the school you hate.

And no, not as a Dan Brown-ish penitential rite or sacrificial bride-of-christ type of thing but because you can rest assured, as the famous Catholic Atheist taught by your very same Presentation Sisters has proven, that an early induction into the sympathies and miracle-allowing symbolism on which the western world's wisdoms and prejudices are based, will better allow you to scoff with substance and to soar therefore into the stratosphere of your ambitious plans for a socially just future.

She listened as I wound up excitedly on my own case for the defence. Of course it occured to me that perhaps Germaine herself wouldn't appreciate being enlisted so enthusiastically by a male on behalf of an institution that has oppressed women for centuries, but I'm on a roll.

As the silence on the other end of the line begins to feel like traction, I hear myself saying: 'Who knows, one day you may even find yourself on the New York subway, in a spare moment from looking after your kids, thumb-dancing for the right app to give you the grounding you feel you now need in Latin.'

A familiar snort comes back down the line. 'Sure,' she drawls back, 'and when Germaine Greer becomes Pope, I'll buy you a free ticket to Rome.'

Apart from the fact that I'd love one day to spend some time in Rome with Lelly I have to admit that okay, touche, she wins again. We say goodbye laughing, and I promise to email her a pic of her godbrother, my seven-year-old son, with the tadpoles he'd just scooped from the sheeny surfeit of loose water near our house.

As I'm cutting and pasting the pic of my gappy-toothed naturalist later that night I remember the old Jesuit adage that the age of seven is the age of divine reason. But now, inspired by my goddaughter, and by her potential mentor Greer, I find myself manipulating this traditional wisdom to better suit my taste.

By simply watching creatures grow, helping them shimmy into the world, find their legs, and then make the tortuous transitions into the skins they can live comfortably within, we experience every day the divinest reason of all. To be alive that is.

So I write this by way of saying good luck this year Lelly, you know my number and you know you can call anytime, to continue the godfather-goddaughter debates, 2011-style.

Gregory DayGregory Day's novel The Patron Saint Of Eels won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2006. He has published two novels since, Ron McCoy's Sea of Diamonds, and The Grand Hotel . His epic CD of musical settings of W. B.Yeats, The Black Tower, was hailed by the Yeats Society of Ireland as the finest musical interpretations of Yeats ever made.

Topic tags: Gregory Day, germaine greer, goddaughter, catholic education, The Patron Saint Of Eels



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Existing comments

Now that she has exchanged theist faith and follies for atheist faith and follies, why doesn't Louella just change schools?

Sylvester | 23 February 2011  

I am lmao Gregory Day
Think I will explode with laughter

We have been through that experience with a granddaughter who opted to become a Catholic when she was 8 years old and a wonderful priest after discussion with her wildly different protestant family confirmed her.

Her journey was interesting and only yesterday she was reminiscing about her high school experiences.

Two different Catholic high schools
One where spiritual teaching/learning was accorded evenhandedness........ all faiths were researched and discussed The other which professed evenhandedness but always added the rider............Catholicism is really the only way

Intelligent, questioning and well-read she found the second one an affront and rebelled against/challenged the teaching. Unfortunately though this became an issue with some teaching staff quite unable to encompass other ways of seeing the world

Schools often are quite unaware what they have in their desks each day and would do well to move into 2011 as the mental torture can be a catastrophe in a young persons development.......... at that point the humour ends and mental health becomes an issue

Thank you for your hilarious but deeply incisive article..should be compulsory reading for all school principals and their staff.

GAJ | 23 February 2011  

Gosh! isn't there a law that protects such goddaughters from such godfathers, and, if not why not?

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 23 February 2011  

Oh, the joy of lyrical prose! This is a "keeper", an article to immerse one's self in; for those times when you just want words to cleanse the popularist,21st Century drivel from the recesses of your mind.Loved the sentiment too!

Kay Bushnell | 23 February 2011  

She may find conservatism in the 'labour'thinking school.

Many radicals come from catholic schools.Some from "state' schools and other private schools.
As long as the children are encouraged to think , in an informed way, that is OK. they should be able to question.

Bev Smith | 23 February 2011  

If only all school girls had caring friends and relations like this and lived in affluent households with books and talk and cyberspace communication. Alas for the poor desperados in dysfunctional families attending State Schools.

Joey Davis | 23 February 2011  

I hope you have read some of Germaine's own writing about her deep appreciation of the education she received at the Presentation Convent, Gardenvale, and her admiration for some of the remarkable nuns there who influenced her. Great stuff!

John R. Sabine | 23 February 2011  

What a lovely, lovely article! Thank you. My seventeen year old (I'm almost eighteen!) granddaughter lives with me while she completes her education. My condition on the deal is that she attends a Catholic school. She resembles Gregory Day's goddaughter so much. The article reminded me that so many assertive, achieving, social justice activist, Australian women attended "convent schools for girls".

My granddaughter and Gregory Day's goddaughter may not realise it, but they are in exactly the right place and he and I can look forward to the development of women we can be very proud of. They are very likely to make a good contribution to the world and, one day, they might even acknowledge that their drive, nurtured by religiously inspired teachers, comes from the source of all goodness.

Sheelah Egan | 23 February 2011  

Germaine Greer is right when she says that more women in parliament will not change parliament - parliament will change women first, or only accept women who have proven their allegiance to the party machine, but she is naive to think that some revolution by enlightened women is just on the horizon.

We don't have a woman PM in Greer's sense in government now, we have another bloke! The 'real Julia' is the new 'Julia' constructed by the focus group and strategists – a simulacrum.
Anna Bligh got a chance with the floods to do the rare thing of being 'Anna' while being politically savvy. But we would need another flood just prior to a federal election for her to become PM.
If it is about sex – about getting more people with female genitalia in parliament, then statistically we have our first women PM, but if it is to mean anything for women, and indeed if men are to benefit, we need a culture change, not just more women sucked into the masculine machine.

david akenson | 23 February 2011  

Oh, I'm on Lelly's side. I was educated by the Presentations until the Christian Brothers got hold of me. I still have nightmares about Sr. Christopher and the ruler.

Patrick | 23 February 2011  

Two little points: 1, Germaine's account of love in the Female Eunuch is straight Aquinas; she uses 'willing the good of the other' as a test to debunk various popular love-myths. 2, what on earth could you mean by one's intellectual growth being a Darwinian thing, much less a merely Darwinian thing? I suspect it's a nonsense.

john fox | 23 February 2011  

It's great to see a godparent taking his responsibilities seriously.

Peter Millard | 24 February 2011  

Dear John Fox, Great to hear of the Greer/Aquinas convergence. With regards to your other point, the 'merely' (as in: unmysterious) Darwinian implication - it is my goddaughter Louella's not mine - is that the church in its current manifestation is not fit to survive.

gregory day | 24 February 2011  

"Sinless and beautiful Star of the Sea".. words from Ms Greers school song Dr Greer may have attended at a Catholic girls school but she aint no saint! This is particularly so because she vehemently subscribes without any remorse to the pro abortion agenda and mindset that relentlessly so condition eg vunerable young women to such a destructive lethal option to say a so called unwanted pregnancy! Now the good nuns of Star didnot approve of Ms Greers pro abortion position here and rightfully so! What a shame Greer isnt prolife because Ms Greer could have been such an articulate spokeswoman for the innocent voiceless defencless unborn! Sadly that was not the case! But, we add that we are proud of all the other ex Star students that truly uphold and enact the pro life teachings in accord with the school motto Deedsnot Words! So we wish you wouldnt give Ms Greer a platform here well does she deserve one we think not! To blatantly work aginst the Catholic church on such a fundantal issue that abortion is means that Ms Greer should not be touted as a good role model for any impressionable young woman. Simple as that!

Sinless and beautiful | 24 February 2011  

On meeting a fellow poet who admitted to not going to a catholic school, I enquired, "Oh, really? Then what do you write about?" Regardless of the many injuries inflicted on myself (but especially my brothers and sister) by our Catholic education, I am afraid I would not have had it any other way. I believe that my education gave me a metaphysical language, a space for enquiry, a wealth of symbolism, a treasure-trove of anecdote, a passion, a self-discipline, a luxuriousness, an intricacy of thought, a belief in feminine power, a cynicism, an argumentativeness, a brashness, a disdain for jingoisms, a smattering of Latin, a love of music, an ability to sing harmony, a romanticism, a tangled root system, that seems only to be understood at all by others who have had a similar childhood brush with the culture of Catholicism, whether they loathed or loved it. I am not a practicing Catholic any more, but, for me, it is my culture, no less than if I had been brought up in Croatia and subsequently migrated to New Zealand. It's who I am.....When I was young, I longed to be a "Public", have brown legs, a checked uniform, and have a name like Barbara, but now I understand the value of what I received through my schooling with those crazy Irish women!!!! I thank them!

Philomena van Rijswijk | 25 February 2011  


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