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An activist for the faithful

  • 25 April 2006

One of the leading Catholic opponents of B.A. Santamaria’s political project, Thomas Michael Butler, died suddenly aged 89 in Melbourne on 8 January. As editor of the Catholic Worker monthly newspaper in the 1950s, Butler defied Archbishop Mannix and the weight of Catholic opinion to contest the Church’s entanglement with Santamaria’s anti-communist organisation, the Catholic Social Studies Movement. The interventions of the Catholic Worker, particularly in 1955 and 1959, were the most informed current critiques of the Movement, and rejected it explicitly on the grounds of Catholic social principles, particularly as articulated by the political philosopher Jacques Maritain. These principles were confirmed by the Vatican intervention against the Movement in 1957, and again by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Butler and his colleagues received little thanks from the Church in Melbourne for helping to extricate it from a major political and pastoral disaster, in curious contrast to Santamaria, who continued to receive lavish accolades from church and state. There was no state funeral for Butler; no political figures crowded into the front pews; no bishops from near or far assembled. Needless to say, Butler did not seek recognition. He was a reserved and modest man who placed little store in such ephemeral trappings, though his funeral in Deepdene parish attracted a full church of family and friends. By coincidence, this had also been the earlier parish of Bob Santamaria. Their families went to the same schools. And Butler and Santamaria remained on courteous terms personally. It would do Butler an injustice not to acknowledge his enormous contribution to Catholic intellectual life and social activism in this country. By profession a lawyer, he formed a law partnership from 1951–1968 with Gerard Heffey, and with their Catholic Worker colleagues they developed their views on the proper role of the Church in politics. Over four decades, the Catholic Worker sustained a commentary on social life in Australia, particularly on issues surrounding the labour movement, social justice, the family wage, and international issues, particularly of war and peace. The paper fashioned a Catholic critique of the great ideological debates of the day, about fascism, communism, socialism and capitalism. Butler also had a great love for the law, but he realised the difficulties of ensuring that the law achieved its true aims. He took inspiration from Thomas More, a large portrait of whom graced the Butlers’ lounge room. A smaller painting of More was placed on Butler’s coffin.