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Labor Party reform through Catholic Social Teaching

  • 05 April 2017


It can be disconcerting to hear our family history told by a sympathetic but unaligned outsider. We may recognise the partisanship that coloured some of our past judgments and be led to reconsider them.

I found Race Matthews' new book that treats Catholic engagement in public social issues over the last 150 years fascinating in that respect. I grew up with the perspective of the Catholic tribe, proud of its warriors but critical of the overreach of its authorities.

Matthews' perspective is that of a member of the Labor Party who admires Catholic Social Teaching, especially its commendation of the communal ownership of business enterprises. He sees the possibilities this tradition presents for the reform of Australian society, particularly if adopted by the Labor Party. That leads him to reflect on the crucial international and Australian relationships between the Catholic Church and labour and capital.

His story begins with Cardinal Manning, the 19th century Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, whom I had considered an authoritarian Ultramontane figure, hostile to the more exploratory Cardinal Newman. Matthews dwells on his fearless defence of workers and their right to strike to secure just wages, and sketches his strong influence on the development of Catholic Social Teaching.

This radical vision was carried into Australia by Sydney Cardinal Moran and by the young Bishop Daniel Mannix. They sought to defend the human dignity of workers in the face of the brutal power of capital.

For me Mannix was the Catholic tribal hero who had discomforted the Protestant British in his defence of Irish freedom and had routed tricky Billy Hughes in the Conscription referenda. For Matthews these triumphs are the work of a divisive and prejudiced man whose actions created sectarian bitterness. They also fatally divided the Labor Party, rendering it ineffectual in its development of a social justice policy.

Matthews regards the 1930s as the time of opportunity for Catholic thinking to influence policy. The writing of Belloc and Chesterton in England and the rise of cooperatives in Europe and Canada had inspired many young Australian Catholics to study the Catholic Social patrimony and to form Catholic study groups. This led to the formation of Catholic Action which grew rapidly, due in part to the intellectual leadership and organisational skills of Kevin Kelly and Frank Maher.

The rise of Communism, the Spanish Civil War in which Catholics and Communists were ranged on opposing sides and the world war made for more simplistic forms of