Mary MacKillop's template for the Independents


Mary MacKillopThe aftermath of the election gave play to the mythical Australian preference for the underdog. The stuffed shirts didn't like it, but people generally enjoyed the Greens' and Independents' day in the sun. It echoed the instinctive sympathy given to the little Aussie battlers, the hometown heroes, who are picked on by distant governments and big corporations.

This sympathy for the local and the simple over the larger, the sophisticated and the more powerful applies also to churches. When local bishops come into conflict with local congregations or clergy, the media commonly represent them as the heavy, remote and dogmatic hand that crushes the brave, shrewd struggler.

The obloquy grows when feisty local congregations fall foul of universal church law. This is seen as a battle between the light-armed David who knows the local terrain, and the heavy-footed Goliath who can cause great destruction but knows nothing much worth knowing.

This natural bias towards the local makes it difficult to argue to the average Catholic audience that the Roman bureaucracy and of a universal code of canon law can benefit local congregations.

Yet one of the surprising conclusions to be drawn from the life of Mary MacKillop is that the authority and legal framework of Roman government defended her sisters against the tyrannies and the chicanery of the local. Rome gave her and her sisters space for living. Her experience might lead us to review our instinct in favour of the local and straightforward.

When MacKillop became the central figure in the new congregation of Josephite Sisters, she was 24. By the time she was 30 she had been excommunicated by one Bishop of Adelaide, and had been investigated and deposed by another.  She had also been forced to withdraw her sisters from two local churches because of the hostility of their bishops.

She had to travel to Rome to seek initial approval for the Rule of her Congregation, and had to apply to Rome again to have the Rule definitively approved in the face of the local churches.

At one level MacKillop can be seen as the brave, honest woman taking on the power and trickery of the Bishops. Bishop Sheil, an erratic man, excommunicated her with total lack of due process. Bishop Reynolds, a weak administrator, untruthfully claimed Roman authority for an investigation into MacKillop's leadership, and broke both Church and State law in binding the sisters to give evidence under oath.

The Quinn brothers, Bishops of Brisbane and Bathurst, bullied, cajoled and dissimulated in order to place the sisters under their own control.

But beneath the disgraceful way in which MacKillop was treated lay a tension between her broad vision of a congregation that could respond to the needs of poor children across Australasia, and the bishops' responsibility to assess and to meet the local needs of their own dioceses. The local bishops wanted control over the sisters to ensure that they would serve the diocesan priorities determined by themselves.

MacKillop was committed to work cooperatively with bishops. She did not want to work in dioceses where her sisters were not wanted. She was content for the bishops to form and control local congregations modelled on her own.

She also agreed that her own sisters could join these new congregations, provided they were first freed from the vows they had made in the Josephites. The issue was whether local bishops could take control of the Josephite sisters against their will and contrary to the Rule which specified the obligations and ideals to which they had committed themselves.

Mary regarded this as intolerable because it violated the conscience of the sisters. They had committed themselves to serve the poor through education, and had pledged obedience to the government centralised within the Congregation.

She gained a fair and informed hearing in Rome. The Roman Congregations received submissions from all parties, worked from a broad knowledge of personalities and conditions in Australia, and were taught by experience about what provisions of religious Rules could work. It put order into the very sketchy initial rule, but approved the central elements that defined it.

The Roman approval provided a redress to the arbitrary authority of the bishops and to the illegal processes they set in train to force the sisters to bend to their will.

This may make us look afresh at the Independents. Paradoxically, they were little battlers who consistently looked to the national interest, disregarding advice to consider only the opinions of their local electorate. And they tried to reform parliamentary procedures to ensure they served the interests of the nation rather than of the major parties.

It shows that battlers, even saints, need good laws and impartial administration.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: independents, oakeshott, katter, wilkie, windsor, mary mackillop, australia's first saint



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Existing comments

I find it very silly and childish in trying to get any comparison between Mary MacKillop and the Greens. The Greens regard themselves very much as the elite of the intellectual wealthy left. Their policies are potentially very harmful for the less fortunate people in our community. I am amazed how desperate Andrew Hamilton has become in promoting his beloved Greens. I am sure he is not worried that their leaders are very strongly opposed to many key believes of most major religions.

Beat Odermatt | 23 September 2010  

Come on Andrew, stick to theology for which you are qualified. I agree with Beat. Don't utter the greens in the same breath as a Saint of the Catholic Church. The Greens in their stand for Abortion on demand, Death by desire and Gay marriage are anathema to Catholic and any Moral teaching.

philip | 23 September 2010  

we can make comparisons about everything in life, just about, however, not about mary.
she was a woman before her time in a male dominated environment and women had their 'place'.

i have read her story and been to her resting place and think of her during troubled times as i do my grandmother because they give me inspiration to maintain my resilience.

if strong women managed to do what they did during their lives then i can do it in my life.

rhonda | 23 September 2010  

It's a shame people like Beat and Philip don't read things before commenting. There are six occurrences of "green" on the page as I write: one where Andrew said some people enjoyed "the Greens' and Independents' day in the sun", and five in the comments. Those two comments have no relevance to this article, which uses two independent examples in paying nice tribute to the value of "battlers, ... good laws and impartial administration".

Phronimos | 23 September 2010  

Your comment that . . .

[Mary MacKillop] gained a fair and informed hearing in Rome. The Roman Congregations received submissions from all parties, worked from a broad knowledge of personalities and conditions in Australia, and were taught by experience about what provisions of religious Rules could work. It put order into the very sketchy initial rule, but approved the central elements that defined it.

The Roman approval provided a redress to the arbitrary authority of the bishops and to the illegal processes they set in train to force the sisters to bend to their will.

What is interesting to me is that I suspect that Mary MacKillop got a better (and fairer) deal from the Roman authorities in her day, than anyone could expect in 2010.

The Roman authorities today seem to be more concerned with maintaining rigid discipline, and authority . . . often at the expense of fairness and justice.

Robert Rennick | 23 September 2010  

Dear me, Andrew! I don't know how you keep going. You drew an interesting comparison between two sets of battlers, Mary & her Josephite, and the Greens & the Independents.

Mary against some Australian bishops; the Greens & Indies against entrenched ruling interests. Mary had a big picture that was not acceptable to the locals episcopal authorities; the Greens a& Indies had big pictures that were not acceptable to the ruling authority (ALP) and the aspiring authority (Libs & Nationals). Mary won because she was fortunate to receive a fair hearing from Rome (Robert Rennick makes a valid point that such impartiality might be missing today - but that's another story).

The Greens & Indies won considerable support because they were fortunate to appeal to quite a number of people who can look beyond the arena of Red (distributive socialism) v Blue (capitalist individualism). As far as I could discern you, Andrew, displayed no particular interest in promoting the Greens (beloved or otherwise).

I thought you were pushing for good laws and impartial administration in both Church and State.

Uncle Pat | 23 September 2010  

Who are those people who enjoyed the Greens and Independents' day in the sun? The only people I can think of; are pro-Abortion, pro-Euthanasia, pro-Gay marriage and gullible people who think that Greens are only concerned about the environment.Surely Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were not guided by Blessed Mary Mackillop. They betrayed their electorates of New England and Lyne. Tony Windsor doesn't care, it is his last term in Parliament, and Rob Oakeshott will seek a safe Labor seat. The battlers are those who will keep defending our Judeo-Christian culture. Would any loyal Catholic rejoice to be govern by the new coalition Labor Greens and false Independents?

Ron Cini | 23 September 2010  

Father Hamilton, I am confused by so many of your articles. Although your writing is always intelligent it seems to be weakened by conflicting ideals. In so many of your articles you flirt with modern ethical fashions that are in direct conflict with those of the Church. My understanding is that as a Jesuit you should be first and foremost a 'Pope's Man'.

But your support of the Greens in other articles and relaxed analysis of other church Moral beliefs are quite frankly confusing in that they actually undermine many of the decisions of the Pope and the Catholic Church.

alex Flannery | 25 September 2010  

In remembering Mary MacKillop I think today's Church would do well to reflect on the great emphasis she gave to educating the poor.

Sadly, most religious or Church-based schools today have very few of Australia's most disadvantaged children attending them.

I believe this would sadden this wonderful lady.

robert van zetten | 27 September 2010  

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