Susan Ryan, John Fahey and the Catholic story



Recent weeks have seen the deaths of former NSW Liberal Premier and federal Finance minister, John Fahey, and former Labor federal minister, Senator Susan Ryan.

John Fahey (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty)

They were both exemplary public figures who not only made a major contribution to Australian public life but did so in a way that drew praise from all sides of politics.

Their personal stories illustrate many aspects of the journey Australian Catholicism has taken over the past fifty years. Ryan left the church while Fahey remained at its official core.

Ryan represents the human face of the shrinking church during this period. Relatively few Catholics practice their faith and the remainder form a vast tribe of cultural Catholics increasingly distant from the official church. She represents the lost potential of those, many of them educated women, who have left it all behind.

Yet while the church has been shrinking it has also been building new structures, including in university education through the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the University of Notre Dame Australia. Fahey, as ACU Chancellor, represented this development. These universities are playing an increasing role in Catholic life as illustrated by the presence of many of their staff in the processes of the Plenary Council 2021-22.

They both shared a commitment as republicans to fighting for an Australian Head of State. Fahey was a senior minister in the Howard government at the time of the 1999 republican referendum while Ryan was an influential figure in the new Australian Republican Movement (ARM).


'The lives of Ryan and Fahey may seem worlds away from each other... But Australia is fortunate that such leaders can maintain deep differences while working together in solidarity for shared causes.'


Ryan emerged from the women’s movement and entered the Senate for the ACT at the 1975 elections. A feminist, she was Minister for Education and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women in the Hawke government and the first female Labor minister. Her proudest parliamentary achievement was the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984, which declared illegal all discrimination based on gender, marital status or pregnancy. Later she sponsored the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunities in Employment) Act.

After leaving Parliament in 1988, she remained a public figure in many senior government and non-government roles, most recently serving as federal Age Discrimination Commissioner. She fought for an Australian Bill of Rights and was Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). She was widely admired for paving the way for justice and parliamentary representation for women.

Fahey shared Ryan’s Irish-Catholic background, but not her party politics. He entered the NSW Parliament in 1984 and became state Premier in 1992. During his premiership Sydney won the right to hold the Sydney Olympic Games. Switching to federal politics Fahey served as Finance minister from 1996 to 2001 in the Howard government.  

Fahey’s office was an incubator for republican leadership. Greg Barns, campaign director for the Yes case during the 1999 referendum, was his chief of staff, and another of his staff members, Marise Payne, now Foreign Minister, was Ryan’s predecessor as ARM Deputy Chair under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.  

Fahey too made a major post-parliamentary contribution after retirement in 2001. Two of his causes were his sport, especially rugby league, and his church. He became president of the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) in 2007, a commissioner of the National Catholic Education Commission and Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University in 2014.  

Ryan was educated by the Brigidine Sisters at Maroubra. She credited them with her commitment to gender equality and social justice, learning from the nuns that St Brigid was the equal of St Patrick as patron saint of Ireland. But not long after leaving school she parted ways with her church, unable, like many Catholic women of her generation, to reconcile her personal beliefs with the demonstrably unequal role of women in the church and its opposition to contraception and abortion. She remained a member of the large Irish-Catholic tribe and sought common cause on issues like human rights.  

Fahey was educated by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart at Chevalier College in Bowral. He remained faithful to his church, briefly training to be a priest, and keeping his rosary beads at hand. He was a Liberal moderate committed to sexual equality, while remaining absolutely opposed to abortion and euthanasia. In 2019 he was honoured by Pope Francis with the Knight Grand Cross of St Gregory the Great.

The lives of Ryan and Fahey may seem worlds away from each other. One, an orthodox Catholic, was resolutely opposed to the abortion rights aspect of what the other, a former Catholic, stood for. But Australia is fortunate that such leaders can maintain deep differences while working together in solidarity for shared causes.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, the Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a delegate to the Plenary Council.

Main image: John Fahey (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic, Susan Ryan, John Fahey, auspol



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Existing comments

I wonder if the final judgement will be based on what we did or on what we didn't do.
john frawley | 08 October 2020

What a wonderful article celebrating and commemorating the lives to two eminent Australians who dedicated their lives to public service. The careers of both John Fahey and Susan Ryan attest to the contribution made by Irish-Catholic Australians to the political and social development of Australian life. Both were polar opposites politically and each were political warriors for their sides. Their lives both public and private are symbolic of the contribution of Australian Catholics of what ever ethnicity to the continued growth of Australia as a modern progressive nation.
James Clarke | 08 October 2020

Better than a good article, this is a gallant one trying desperately to straddle and increasingly vast space between two sadly polarised opposites. I dare to saay that an even more critical comparison would have come d
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 08 October 2020

A creative and timely article that is a great conversation starter for those still involved somewhere in the 'official' church. John Warhurst through comparisons of two significant public figures provides meaning for many of us where Catholic worshippers and non now straddle. Moreover John W rises above the growing Catholic divide and pinpoints the greater good of people and their social justice 'works'. Vale John Fahey and Susan Ryan.
Judith Norris | 09 October 2020

John, A wonderful deeply moving story illustrating just how far those of us of Irish ancestry have come in Australian public life since the end of an era which I can recall, of bitter sectarianism in our history
Gavin O'Brien | 09 October 2020

Thank you so much John for this wonderful column. In a time when public debate is so polarised, your reflections on the lives of two Catholics, politically different, but each living in response to a faith and commitment to serve others, is most welcome. Surely this is what Pope Francis is asking for in Fratelli Tutti - a willingness to work together in the service of others, especially those made vulnerable in life. What Fahey and Ryan shared, as a consequence of Catholic faith, was an understanding of that no person exists in isolation, but our shared humanity, our communion, inextricably bind us together. We are a better community as a consequence of their lives of service.
Marcelle Mogg | 09 October 2020

John Frawley: “I wonder if the final judgement will be based on what we did or on what we didn't do.” One is the other, as Peter, before the cock crew, demonstrated. There are four sins which cry out to heaven. They all have to be ”did” and “didn’t” upon.
roy chen yee | 09 October 2020

Roy Chen Yee. I am sure you would agree, Roy, that words are wonderful things and indeed as powerful if not more powerful than the sword. The doing and the not doing are interchangeable sides of the same sword it seems to me! It is possible to do something wrong by not doing something good and to do something good by not doing something wrong ! I sometimes think the former is the worse option and the one that might first be judged.
john frawley | 10 October 2020

You are drawing a very long bow to claim that it was catholicism which underpinned them being decent people and good politicians. No doubt there were many influences, as well as people, and personal experiences which informed their characters and abilities.
Kerry Bergin | 10 October 2020

Two important figures of our time. One wonders if it is significant that it was Susan Ryan, a woman, who left the church, which has little place for strong female figures, apart from 'the sisters', while John Fahey felt able to remain a prominent male figure within the church? For centuries women have been the back bone of the of the church but in this era many women question the male dominated, clerical nature of Catholicism.
Judith Lee | 11 October 2020

Excuse prior mangled post. Curious essay! John Warhurst is better when he takes on the hierarchy. Meantime, one has to wonder why ES didn't run with Michael Kelly SJ's magnificent accolade to Susan Ryan in 'Pearls & Irritations'. Introducing John Fahey (RIP) to the conversation runs the risk of comparing and contrasting his achievements with Ryan's and, inevitably, taking sides in a discourse that emphasises our Catholic inclusiveness. While Fahey was an estimable Catholic leader from the conservative side of politics, there are surely others who have done and - dare I say it - have yet to do much more.
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 12 October 2020

Judith Lee: ” the male dominated….” It may have something to do with:, transgenderism as a permissiveness of principle, whether women should fly planes which shoot missiles or drop bombs (or even design those things), whether the visitors at Mamre were male because Abram was male or whether it was Abram that had to be male to receive them, why Adam was created first in full foreknowledge of the Fall, why a spirit must be consubstantial with a son, whether testosterone, a chemical, also incarnates a principle, whether matter is governed by principle because the spiritual world is principle. Ethic is more than intellect. Ethic determines with the assistance of the empirical that the sexual distribution of lung surgeons is a matter of intellect, not ethic. The distribution of those who may manipulate the invisible to baptise, confirm, consecrate and absolve is ethic because the empirical cannot assess the spiritual. Arguably, ethic, not intellect, determines the sexual distribution of who might enable or deploy the fatal force of a fallen world. If there is a “male” principle, ethic determines its scope in the spiritual world. For the material world, its scope is deduced from ethic, not induced from intellect.
roy chen yee | 12 October 2020

I attended the same Bridigine school in Maroubra as Susan Ryan - four years later. I also studied for four years at the ACU. Susan and John both made wonderful contributions to Australian life. But despite having positive early formative influence, Susan left the Church and indeed represents the norm for so many. Would it were not so!
PeterD | 14 October 2020

PeterD: “….left the Church and indeed represents the norm for so many.” Is the norm exile or abandonment? When they leave the institution, do they stay in private contact with the same God as conceived of by the institution? Or is it usually the case that when they abscond the institution, they also leave God marooned like some elderly in a nursing home? Some people declaim that they will leave the country if X (say, Trump or Abbott or Gillard or whoever) is elected. They never do because they can’t. There’s a certain hypocrisy in leaving just because you can if, in another circumstance of supposed conviction, you won’t because you can’t. And, with the multiplicity of other venues for staying in touch with the same God, albeit with lesser lights of truth, there’s really no excuse for marooning him in a nursing home. Leave in exile if you must, but not to abandon. The culpabilities are possibly different because the starting intents are different, even if the exile turns out to be permanent but the abandonment not.
roy chen yee | 17 October 2020

It is to be noted that Roy Chen Yee's mean-spirited remarks about Senator Susan Ryan have not been emulated by the Catholic Church, which, despite her personal differences with the Church, has magnanimously arranged a burial service for her at St Mary's Cathedral. It highlights PeterD's point that, while many have regrettably found no alternative but to leave the Church, the Church recognises that all are God's creatures who are loved by God, regardless of their disagreements with the Church.
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 19 October 2020


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