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Labor Party reform through Catholic Social Teaching



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.

Of Labour and Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966, By Race MathewsI 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 engagement. Bob Santamaria saw Catholic Action as a resource for organising resistance to Communist union dominance, and consequently as a means of shaping Labor Party policy. He had the support of Mannix. This direct Catholic involvement in politics finally led to the split in the Labor party.


"I value the strength of the cohesive Catholic community in which I grew up. But Matthews demonstrates its weaknesses, particularly the ways in which sectional interests threaten the common good."


As a boy I saw the Split as a sectarian putsch by Evatt and his supporters. From Matthews' perspective, however, the identification of Catholic Action with the Movement destroyed the possibility that the Labor Party would see Catholic Social thinking and the energy of young Catholic reformers as allies in shaping a just society. It left a vacuum that eventually led to the Party passively accepting liberal economic theory.

In this splendid book I was most taken by the practical alternatives to Capitalism: cooperatives and the Distributist movement. I had regarded these as romantic ventures with no future. Matthews acknowledges the historical weaknesses of cooperatives: they begin well by engaging members to meet common needs, grow to a stage where they bring in administrators and marginalise their members, and conclude with demutualisation in which they are stripped by investors. But as a successful cooperative that had continued to involve employees in its management and growth he describes the Basque Mondragon cooperative. It is financially stable and has continued to engage and support its workers.

Matthews' book invited me to reflect on my own journey. I continue to value the strength of the cohesive Catholic community in which I grew up, with its clearly identified heroes, friends and enemies. It provides a dramatic context for living. But Matthews rightly demonstrates its weaknesses, and particularly the ways in which sectional interests can threaten the common good.

Although I would put a higher importance than Matthews does on the defeat of communist influence in the unions at the end of the war, the paralysis of a broader Catholic concern for social justice was a heavy price to pay for it. The de facto identification of the Catholic Church with the Movement had heavy consequences for the Catholic Church, the Labor Party and Australia.

Matthews laments the decline of the YCW and other reflective and active movements in the 1960s, attributing it largely to the effects of the Split. I believe that even without Mannix and Santamaria they would have declined. Their fate reflected growing Catholic affluence and the rise of individualism in culture. This sharpens Matthews' question of how in a society deformed by neoliberal economic settings support for a cooperative economy can be gathered.

The collapse of neo-liberal economic ideology provides the opportunity. Its bitter fruits of gross inequality, the failure of privatisation to provide basic services and the power of vested interests to entrench the effects of global warming are now recognised. But for alternatives to be introduced they must be embraced enthusiastically and advocated for by strong individuals and communities. Where will these now be found?


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Race Matthews, Catholicism, Mannix, Manning, Santamaria



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Existing comments

Race Mathews is the most ardent advocate for Catholic social teaching in Australia today. The people who carried that teaching forward in Australia was the YCW, I believe. Unfortunately that organisation declined over the past decades as no adult movement of the lay apostolate stepped up to continue that mission. That has now changed as The Cardijn Community Australia movement is now developing to fill that roll.

Kevin \vaughan | 05 April 2017  

How heartening it is to read Andrew Hamilton's article on the politics of begging. On my first trip to India my husband and I were confronted by beggars wanting money, most all of them clearly in need of it. We always gave, but were criticised for our policy of giving by other tourists and backpackers. To a man, they advised us never to give money to beggars. It only encouraged them, they said. How easy these cliches slipped from their lips, making them feel self-righteous about keeping their money for themselves. Money, I might add, that would have been equivalent to a few cents at most in their own currency, and made not the slightest difference to their own physical well being. As Andrew Hamilton comments, it is all about respecting the dignity of one's fellow human beings. In the current world of hate politics and self-serving rationalisations, reading a measured, humane response to the ugliness and despair of poverty feeis like balm to the soul. Thank you, Andrew Hamilton.

Julie Kearney | 05 April 2017  

Great summative estimation, Andy; I must read the book. As to your closing question, one has to wonder where the voices of our episcopal leaders are in responding. Once shrill in support of the Movement, they still have primary responsibility for promoting CST, which teaching and prophetic voice they have long since distanced themselves from and assigned to diocesan-based social justice commissions, lacking the one thing that defines the kind of identity that Catholics once had, viz. a capacity to speak with authority and solidarity on the social, economic and political consequences of a neoliberalism that has triumphed in the aftermath of their pusillanimity. Only last week I encountered a blatant example of this withdrawal of responsibility, when the Executive Officer of my local archdiocesan Justice & Peace Commission spouted the excuse that it wasn't for the hierarchy to take a stand on fossil fuel extraction and export but really a matter for single-issue, bottom-up, broad-spectrum direct political action! Any wonder that brand-Catholic is in such dire need of a life support system?

Michael Furtado | 05 April 2017  

You ask, Father Andrew, where strong individuals prepared to change the current culture might be found. One thing I think stands out as the answer to that question, namely, not in any of our current political parties and if prosecuted corruption is any guide certainly not in the current Labour party. The prominent Labour politicians of your youth and mine are no longer to be found. The moral and virtuous politicians in any Party today are very quickly dealt with, lampooned, considered irrelevant, if not insane, and rendered ineffective. Much of Catholic Social Justice was initiated in an age and place where it was essential. Many of the issues that stimulated it are reformed, as you point out by Labour politics. In a different world, perhaps Catholic Social Policy needs to be revisited in this world and perhaps reformed or renewed in some aspects. Perhaps Francis needs to adopt some of Leo XIII's political wisdom and nous. We must not again make the mistake of equating justice with a Marxist, communal form of socialism, the very thing that gave birth to the Movement.

john frawley | 05 April 2017  

“Where will these now be found?” Despite recent abuse exposures that cry out for lay responses regarding “church” governance and culture, it is undeniable I think that we will first need to rediscover that the laity’s primary mission is to the “world”. Not only public advocacy re particular injustices, but also by more structured deliberations on social problems. And also – essentially – the grass-roots advocacy and services of ordinary, everyday, unqualified laity in parishes (which remain one of the largest and probably the most cohesive and potent local community networks in Australia) and elsewhere. Although historian Edmund Campion describes the YCW as the “most significant lay movement in twentieth century Catholicism”, only fragments of the remarkable stories of the YCW and the YCS have been told. This book is a pioneering step towards remedying this. Could the testimony of a noted outsider to the history, and potential, not only of Catholic Social Teaching but also the church sanctioned “See Judge Act” method of formation, be the jolt we need? CCA has been formed to try and implement such methods among adults. We probably don’t lack “enthusiasm”, but certainly need the “strong individuals and communities” invoked in this incisive review. Readers might consider being in touch: http://www.cardijncommunityaustralia.org. For YCW history: https://ycwarchive.wordpress.com

David Moloney | 06 April 2017  

I am interested in the National Catholic rural movement of the 1960s and would like to ask if cardinal Moran was influenced by his uncle cardinal Cullen of Ireland?

Marianne | 05 March 2019  

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