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Church reform and the monarchy

  • 13 September 2022
Australian Catholics, given our largely Irish-Catholic heritage, have had a tense and sometimes dismissive historical relationship with Britain and the British monarchy. Archbishop Daniel Mannix exemplified this relationship. More recently, the Catholic community has provided many of the leaders of the republican movement over the past three decades. 

The exclusion of Catholics from the Royal family, because the monarch was the head of the Church of England and its ‘supreme governor’, has also featured in wider debate about the inappropriateness of the British monarch as Australian Head of State in a modern non-discriminatory society. 

While prominent Catholics featured on both sides of the monarchy-republic divide, including leading members of the monarchist movement such as Tony Abbott and Kerry Jones, they were more obvious as leaders of the Australian Republic Movement, such as Thomas Keneally and Malcolm Turnbull as well as several other later leaders, including myself. 

Republican sympathies were certainly shared by many Catholic bishops. When I was chair of the ARM and active in national church circles, I could sense their support. I only met one overtly monarchist bishop and knew one who even joined the ARM. 

During the Constitutional Convention in 1998, which preceded the 1999 republic referendum, Cardinal George Pell, appointed to the convention by Prime Minister John Howard, moved the important motion that Australia should become a republic. 

'The leadership exercised by Queen Elizabeth came from ‘soft power’, that is her example, her personal qualities, including her wisdom and experience, and her diplomacy. It no longer came from her ‘hard power’ based on absolute hierarchical authority.' 

Such republican sentiments did not ever preclude great personal admiration for Queen Elizabeth for her devotion and service. Now, following her death, attention has particularly turned to her Christian faith. 

Following the lead of Pope Francis and English Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Australian bishops have joined in widespread community admiration. Pope Francis spoke of ‘her steadfast witness of faith in Jesus Christ and her firm hope in her promises’.   

Archbishop Tim Costelloe, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President, emphasised her Christian witness and commented that ‘Queen Elizabeth was never reticent about acknowledging her Christian faith’. According to Melbourne’s Archbishop Peter Comensoli, ‘Her Majesty drew deeply on her faith at all times, and often referred to the reconciliation, service and love which flow from Christian commitment. A model of grace and dignity for us all.’ 

The monarchy, in the form of Queen Elizabeth, is thus co-opted by the bishops as an